Who I Am is Not What I Am: The Curse of Performance-Based Identity

Most of us harbor a self-critic in the Amygdala of our brain. It operates on a continuum ranging from selective and reserved to vocal and harsh. While a modicum of self-criticism is necessary and probably desirable, too many of us take it to the extreme.

The genesis often occurs in childhood when we get the message we’re not good enough. No matter what we do, it’s not enough. We’re not enough. Sometimes that message is overt, like a punch in the face. Maybe you struck out in a Little League game and your coach angrily chastised you in front of your teammates. Maybe a parent told you — point blank — you’re a worthless piece of crap and will never amount to anything. And, those examples are just for starters. Many of us have been peppered with a litany of demeaning messages.

Or, maybe we picked up on subtle inferences that distorted our self-concept. A sigh, facial expression, passive-aggressive comment, or emotional distance; like we’re not worth the time of day. Apathy and disconnection feel a whole lot like rejection.

It’s also possible we inherited our self-critic from a parent or grandparent. Or, maybe this cognitive distortion wasn’t developed in childhood at all. Maybe it came later in our adolescence or adult life; triggered by a teacher, classmates, date, boss, romantic partner, business associate, or some other bully.

The point is it doesn’t really matter when and by whom the seed was planted because it’s already there. The seed has rooted, and like those pesky dandelions that dot our lawns, it’s damn hard to get rid of.

We expect a lot from ourselves. Too much. And, when we don’t deliver, our self-worth plummets. For many of us, the value we assign ourselves is based solely on our latest performance. What have you done for me lately? We don’t recognize or accept our strengths and the collective competencies within us. We don’t understand or acknowledge that we are not the sum of our professional identity. We believe it’s impossible to falter or fail and still be loved, accepted, and respected simply for who we are. So, sadly, our lives become all about performance.

Developmental scientist and sports psychologist Dr. Benjamin Houltberg calls this phenomenon “performance-based identity,” which is defined by contingent self-worth, high perfectionism, and irrational fear of failure.[1] We crave love, attention, affirmation, worthiness, and respect but believe the only way these needs can be met is when we perform beyond expectation. Essentially, we’ve been conditioned to “sing for our supper.” Not surprisingly, this skewed cognitive process can easily become addictive and devolve into relational dysfunction, anxiety, and depression.

When we fail to live up to the lofty standards we’ve set for ourselves, we feel like the discarded chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a new pair of sneakers. We tell ourselves whoever planted that seed of doubt in our brain was right all along. I am useless. I can’t do anything right.

So, to avoid these feelings of inadequacy, fear, and loneliness, we work like hell to compete against both ourselves and others to perform at the very highest level. In fact, according to pioneering psychologist, Alfred Adler, our inherent inferiority feelings are exactly what lead us to strive for mastery and perfection. Those feelings are the impetus that drives us to achieve.

There’s another theory Adler didn’t address. My therapist refers to it as the “FU” phenomenon. In this scenario, we are a victim and we want revenge. We pledge to ourselves that we’ll show every single person who ever doubted or criticized us how wrong they were. We’ll make them eat their words. I’ll show you! We use our accumulated wounds as fuel to motivate our self-mandated performance compulsion. “Fuck you” becomes the mantra of our internalized voice.

I worked in sports for forty years so I’ve seen firsthand how this phenomenon manifests itself in the lives of athletes and coaches. An overwhelming preponderance of the men and women I knew and worked with were hounded by their self-critic and driven by their performance-based identity. Think about Michael Jordan’s manic and singular focus on performance and success. Yes, that single-mindedness has given him fame and fortune most of us can’t comprehend, but his life was not and is not Shangri-La. Believe me, success has come at a cost.

Tennis prodigy Andre Agassi clearly remembers the moment his self-critic hijacked his brain. It was when he lost his first match. He was 7 years old. “After hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I have internalized my father; his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage; until his voice does not just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it by myself.”[2]

That’s exactly what happens. We become our harshest critic, partly as self-protection from the stinging barbs of others. Nobody can be harder on me than I am on myself. And, when I do succeed, not only do I have to equal my previous effort, I have to do better. The bar is set higher with each succeeding conquest. I scored 20 touchdowns this year. Next year it has to be 30. I sold a million dollars last year so if I can’t double it this year I might as well just quit. You can see how those expectations are untenable. But, we ignore the pragmatic truth because it doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve scripted.

And besides, it’s counterproductive to compare ourselves to others or our previous performances. More than a hundred years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt wrote: “comparison is the thief of joy.” [3] He was right then and he’s right now.

But, we’re all about comparison. We want to be the best, better than the rest, period. Because to the victors go the spoils. Our brains have been trained to release dopamine and other “happy” chemicals when we perform well and achieve. That’s our reward. We want to be recognized and celebrated, especially after being convinced we’re not worth the air we breathe. We need to be affirmed and validated. That’s how we measure our worth as a human being.

The most prolific swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, acquired unprecedented acclaim during his twenty-year Olympic career. But, because his self-identity was tied up exclusively in his profession, he struggled to see his true self. “I was a train wreck,” Phelps admitted. “I was just like a time bomb waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self- worth. There were times when I didn’t want to be here. It was just not good. I was lost. Where do I go from here? What do I do now?” [4]

Phelps fashioned a storybook career, swimming in 5 Olympic Games between 2000 to 2016, and winning 23 gold medals. But, his accomplishments didn’t make the stark reality of closure any easier. He was only 31 years old when he retired. He was the best in the world at his craft. That was his identity.

Michael Phelps did, however, get to experience a complete career with a cherry on top. Too often, high-performing careers end prematurely. It could be an injury, a scandal, philosophical differences, a change in management, or time simply runs out. For the man or woman whose identity is determined solely by that job or career, the sense of loss can be debilitating. They weren’t ready. But, many of us are never ready to give up our life’s work for fear that in doing so we will lose our identity.

When a serious hip injury forced 32-year old tennis star Andy Murray to face his athletic mortality, his biggest worry became his identity. Who was he without tennis? “It’s just tennis,” Murray mimicked, repeating words he’s heard time and again. “It’s just a sport. It is for you but it isn’t for me. It’s a lot more than that for me. It’s a very young age to lose something you’ve done and you’ve had your whole life, and I worry about that.” [5]

So, when Murray’s tennis career does eventually end he’ll be forced to mourn the loss of what was the only life he knew. It will be a normative transition, as it was for Phelps. Time’s up. Their careers have simply run their course. That doesn’t mean it’s easy just because it follows a normal lifecycle. Murray will still have to separate his identity as a person from his identity as an athlete and discover (likely through trial and error) a new way forward.

But, the self-critic doesn’t just prey on athletes. It assaults actors, artists, musicians, chefs, teachers, medical professionals, therapists, business executives, entrepreneurs… I could go on but you get the message. We’re all susceptible, especially if we grew up, or otherwise came to believe, we’re not enough.

Hell, I’ve been a card-carrying member of this club since I was fifteen years old. Despite my best efforts to stop equating my identity with my performance, I sometimes still struggle. I had made significant progress since my 40-year love affair with my first career ended in what psychologist Dr. Nancy Schlossberg would call a non-normative transition (unpredicted, unanticipated, and involuntary). [6] Although the healing process has been grueling, I eventually made peace with my loss and discovered my “calling.” For me, that meant enrolling in graduate school to become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. This is where all the winding roads I’ve traveled have led me.

And, it didn’t take long for my compulsion with performance to pick up where it had left off in my previous career. I told myself I had to get straight A’s. I’d become angry at myself when I didn’t understand something. I was convinced that when I sat down in the therapist’s chair across from my first peer-client I should instinctively know exactly how to “do” therapy. After all, I’m older than my classmates. I have an incredible depth and breadth of professional and personal experience. I am a long-term therapeutic client who used this art to successfully transform my life. Ergo, I should kick ass and take names in this new pursuit — even though those self-expectations were and are nonsensical. It’s pure, unadulterated bullshit, and I know it. I had no experience counseling anyone. I’m starting from scratch just like my classmates. So, chill the fuck out dude!

It was that damned self-critic — the voice of shame, or imposter phenomenon if you will — that was trying to defeat me before I even started. But, the truth is this: my value as a person is not the sum of my accomplishments. How well I perform has no bearing on my gifts and attributes as a human being, or my capacity to be loved and appreciated. What really matters, what really determines who I am, is my all-in presence, the quality of my relationships, the level of my empathy, and the heart I bring to my day-to-day life.

Thankfully, it is possible to reframe the axis of our self-identity and focus on our strengths rather than our performance. We can muzzle our self-critic. We can get to know our true selves and develop a loving relationship with the person we are. The first step is to make a list of all that is good about us — character traits, strengths, gifts, accomplishments — absent any buts, shoulds, or other caveats. And then, let’s use that list as an outline to write a heartfelt letter of appreciation to ourselves. Yes, we’ll undoubtedly feel self-conscious, but the impact this letter can have on our lives going forward will be profound.

I’m going to keep my letter close by so I have it when I need it. I’ll read it over and over again until I believe it wholeheartedly. It will become my manifesto. That’s who I am. And, it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with what I do.

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[1] Benjamin J. Houltberg, Kenneth T. Wang, Wei Qi & Christina S. Nelson (2018) Self-Narrative Profiles of Elite Athletes and Comparisons on Psychological Well-Being, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 89:3, 354-360,DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2018.1481919

[2] Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography, 2009, AKA Publishing, LLC.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt (1898) Letter to William Sturgis Bigelow

[4] The Evolution of Michael Phelps video feature (2016) ESPN

[5] Andy Murray: Resurfacing documentary film (2019) Passion Pictures

[6] Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg (2011) www.TransitionsThroughLife.com

I cultivate and correlate human stories.

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