A Writer's Self-Worth: How Writers can Overcome Performance-Based Value - Part 2Dec 25, 2021
When I wrote part one of this post, I had no idea that part two would land on Christmas Day. Christmas, where Christians celebrate the birth of the Savior, who came to deliver us from the just punishment of our sins. This is the most important day of the year, and yet, I find it apropos of nothing in this post, except, perhaps, that I, too, come bearing good news of glad tidings. Namely, that if you’re an artist who suffers from recurring cycles of crippling self-doubt, there is a way out. If you’ve ever decried yourself as a failure because of all the projects you wanted to finish but haven’t, or felt you’ve squandered your talents because of all you’ve left undone, behold, I say unto you this day, there is relief to be found. This post is for anyone who’s ever experienced the existential funk of performance-based value and who wants to put a stop to the never-ending spirals of despair and self-loathing -- or at least, it’s for anyone who’d like to find a better way to deal with these seemingly inevitable cycles.
Four Key Principles to Help Us Deal More Effectively with this Debilitating Phenomenon
- First of all, reframe your definition of “success.”
For me, success means achievements. Successful people are those who have achieved something important in their area of expertise as a result of some kind of praiseworthy performance. To reframe the definition doesn’t mean that we lower our standards of excellence or except mediocrity when we should be striving to excel. Given the quality of God’s own workmanship (all of creation, no less), God sets a rather high standard for art, and we should therefore always do our very best work according to the gifts and talents we’ve been given. Notice, however, the underlying assumption at play here. We automatically assume that success is something that takes place amidst a profession. But what if this is not the area that God looks at to gauge our successes or failures? What if He evaluates our worth according to another scale entirely?
- Switch from a career-focused view of success to a health-focused perspective.
These days, the very first thing I do while evaluating my life is look at how healthy I am. I don't mean physically, like whether or not I have frequent colds or a bum knee. I'm talking about my emotional, spiritual, and relationship health. I'm talking about me actually living in my own skin, being my own person, and being my authentic self. And yes, some of these terms sound cheesy or whacko, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Who are you as a person? Who do you want to be? How well are you doing at being that? Be honest with yourself and strive for personal health is the predominant criteria for success.
I am more my authentic self today than I have been at any other point in my life. This means I’m vulnerable with others. I live in consultation and open myself up to feedback because I’m not afraid to hear where I need improvement. Of course, this presupposes that I’m practicing discernment in terms of who I choose to let speak into my life. Not everyone gets this honor. Only safe, wise, and appropriate people get this right. And I get to make choices based on reason and truth rather than guilt, compulsion and lies. If I'm in relationships with people, I try not to revert to the codependent tendencies of my youth (or adolescence, or early adulthood, or most of my adult life). Nor am I engaged in destructive behaviors caused by patterns of trauma reenactment or an attachment to sin. I'm not chasing people's approval or pursuing people that don't like me out of some need to prove that I'm lovable. I don’t exploit others or use them for my own personal gain or gratification. I treat others with integrity and respect, and I’m able to let go of toxic relationships. I’ve stopped trying to fix others and no longer try to control their perceptions of me. I'm able to be gentle with myself because I’m only human, after all. I no longer demand perfection or engage in abusive dialogue with myself through my inner critic.
Do you want to be healthy? Do you want to know that no matter who you encounter, you’re the sort of person who can be truly present, not self-absorbed and entitled, but not a doormat, either? For me, this includes improving my ability to “speak my truth,” to have a voice when it’s necessary to speak up, not because I’m making demands or forcing my views on others, but because it’s the right thing to do. To know who I am and not be thrown or tossed by the whims of other people's opinions. To not feel the need to defend myself or prove myself to anyone else. To not live-in fear of rejection or abandonment. I want the confidence to know in my heart that I did my utmost that day to honor God with the person I am, and that I acted and behaved honorably in the healthiest way possible towards others.
- At the end of each day, examine yourself, and measure your success according to your level of inner peace.
Becoming a healthy person is not something that just happens. You have to work at it. It’s something you have to invest time and energy into each day. You have to be willing to adjust your own behavior as needed. This means you need to evaluate yourself daily with openness and honesty, being willing to admit any failures throughout the day.
Ask yourself: Do I have peace in all things, or is there business left undone? Have I caused harm to anyone? If so, keep short accounts. If you’ve wronged someone, own it. Your goal is to be at peace with yourself, others, and God, which means being in touch with your own emotions and needs, and communicating those things in an open, honest, and direct way. Did you genuinely connect with others in deep emotional intimacy, or did you hide, withdraw or distance yourself from others out of fear, shame, anger, or some other unhealthy reason? However, you’re not obligated to stay in relationship with those who are abusive or toxic or unrepentant of their sin – not because you don’t love them or you’re trying to teach them a lesson, but because it isn’t good for you, and the goal of your life must be healthiness.
At the end of the day, ask yourself if you were as spiritually, emotionally, and relationally healthy as you could be that day. If you can say yes, then your reward is peace that surpasses all understanding, regardless of any other suffering you might be experiencing. Not that you’ll be perfect at any of these things, but you’ll no longer be a slave to perfection. Rather, you’ll track your progress and be able to celebrate any improvements you’ve been able to make, and at the end of the day, you’ll base your successes or failures on whether or not you have a clear conscious before God. Was your behavior honoring to Him? What do you need to do differently tomorrow?
At the end of each day, commit yourself to a process of self-examination, and honestly evaluate where you’ve succeeded and where you have failed. The goal you are aiming for is internal emotional peace. No anxiety. No angst. No unresolved conflict with others insofar as it is in your power to resolve. And not happiness, either, because it’s fleeting, and it’s not the same thing as being healthy. At the end of each day, your goal is a clear conscience before God, which gives you peace, and sometimes it even brings joy.
These three principles will serve you well, but there’s one more worth exploring (and this one’s a doozy), so join me in a few days for the final key principle to help us deal more effectively with the existential funk of performance-based value.
Getting Beyond the Existential Funk of Performance-Based Value (Part 3)
By Zena Dell Lowe
December 25, 2021
We’ve been discussing a phenomenon that seems to plague all artists at one point or another. Namely, the existential funk of performance-based value, whereby we question our worth and accomplishments, fearing the worst. In part 2, I outlined three key principles to help us deal more effectively with this seemingly universal struggle. Today, I give you number four.
- Since we can’t get rid of performance-based value altogether, double check your motives.
Even though we want to evaluate our worth solely according to spiritual, emotional, and relational health, we cannot seem to escape the temptation to look at our artistic accomplishments as proof of our overall value. In my own mind, I try to separate healthy performance-based value habits from unhealthy ones in this way: where am I looking for my approval? Where am I looking for that assurance that I'm okay?
When I’m performing for the approval of other people, I want them to see the good deeds that I'm doing, and I want them to approve of those deeds so they’ll think I’m a good person. I want them to tell me how wonderful I am for doing those things! But when I'm looking to them to tell me that my deeds are worthwhile and righteous, I’m in the wrong kind of performance-based valuation. If I'm looking outside of myself to them for approval, I’ve just entered a work-oriented contract. I'm going to run myself ragged trying to make everyone happy, but I'm going to fail, because I'm never going to be able to work hard enough to please everybody. I’m never going to be enough. Therefore, it's going to destroy me. It’s the consummate people pleaser trap. If you're trying to please people to get their approval, you are doomed.
There is a healthier kind of performance-based criteria, which includes feeling like you are fulfilling the calling that God has given you. Feeling like you are being a good steward of your time, of your resources, of your talents. Feeling like you have done a good job fulfilling those things on a day-to-day basis, and you're not being lazy or you're not being reckless or you're not ignoring tasks or squashing them all together. But the key is that you’re doing all of these things from a place of joy, from the overflow of your heart. It’ll be because it brings YOU joy to do these things. Not so others will think you matter. The Bible says, "Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability as unto the Lord."
Do you have a clear conscience before God that you are being as excellent as you can be as unto the Lord, and not to prove your worth to HIM, either, because you can't earn His love or make Him love you anymore than He already does? If so, you’ll live in freedom from the bondage of work-based salvation. You’ll be free to do what feels right without legalistic fears of failure, or paralyzing thoughts of working yourself to death in order to be approved. So, it's not about anybody else seeing it -- including God. See, when it's about other people seeing it, then it becomes a performance. It becomes hoops that you're jumping through to try to make other people see how great you are because you're insecure and you need their approval. When it becomes about how YOU are approving of the work, which you're doing because you want to because it brings you joy and not because you feel obliged to, then your self-esteem doesn't get crushed if somebody has a negative evaluation of you. This is actually one of the things that you can look at to determine whether or not you have a healthy or an unhealthy performance-based criteria for yourself.
If, when you receive criticism over your performance, it absolutely devastates you and wrecks you, if it triggers shame and makes you cry or wish the whole world would swallow you, then you are looking outwards for that assurance that you're okay. Whereas, if, when you hear negative criticism about your performance, you can hear that criticism and evaluate it, and either agree with it and correct it without it taking a hit on your self-esteem, or hear it and reject it because you know that it's not true, without it taking a hit on your self-esteem, then you are looking to the right place for an evaluation of how well you're doing performance wise.
So, if you find yourself always trying to work to prove your worth to yourself, God, or others, it may be that you need to do some trauma recovery work before you will be able to engage and evaluate work in a healthy way. And I want this for you, because for the record, people are going to criticize your performance. They're just going to, even if you're not bringing them in, or you're not asking for their feedback or doing anything on purpose to try to get them to notice what you're doing. It won't matter that you've not invited people to weigh in. People will comment on how well they think you're doing anyway. I want you to be secure enough in yourself that this won’t even shake you.
It’s hard for creatives to get out of this terrible trap of looking to others for their worth and self-esteem. But these are some techniques I’ve developed in order to manage those things and to evaluate how well I am doing and whether or not I'm okay. Because if I evaluate it on the basis of other people's opinions, then yeah, I'm failing. But if I evaluate it based on what I believe God has called me to do and based on my efforts to fulfill that calling to the best of my ability, then it's okay. I’M okay. And I don't have to spiral into these depths of despair and have an existential crisis every time I start to feel like a failure.
So, I hope this helps you, too, if you likewise struggle with these things. May we all get beyond the existential funk of performance-based value so that we can actually get about the business of fulfilling our calling. In the meantime, allow me to wish you a very happy healthy New Year.
These posts were edited and condensed into 2 pages for The Write Conversation Blog in Dec. 2021 - to read the edited version, click here: https://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/2021/12/a-writers-self-worth-how-writers-can.html
Getting Beyond the Existential Funk of Performance-Based Value (Part 2)
By Zena Dell Lowe
December 25, 2021