When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone who has a sense of peace about their life? Of course, everyone always has some problems, but despite these, do you feel that your life is going well? Do you have confidence about what might happen next? Or does your image reflected in the mirror show a face full of worry about the future—a face filled with insecurity and fear of failure?

The feelings that spring from our core identity (our sense of who we are as a person and what we are worth) tell us if we are either safe and secure or threatened and scared. Every day is filled with a variety of successes and failures, but in general, a person’s identity is very important. Why? Because this sense of personal well-being (which leads to confidence, or fear, or something in between) influences almost all of our decisions in life. 

Let’s be honest: in the United States, we live in a culture that gives monetary value to some forms of art, but often offers little or no pay for many artists’ works. So if artists are not paid well, even though they may have spent 10+ years of hard work learning their craft, it can radically diminish their sense of self-worth. And if people have a sense that their work is not worth much, they can easily believe that their lives are not worth much either. Sadly, I have personally seen this happen too many times with artists. 

I know a singer-actor named Steve who worked in Broadway musicals. He told me that he went to 99 auditions before landing his first paying job. I wasn’t surprised; that is the norm. For many people, this repetitive rejection would lead to an identity of failure. Thankfully, my friend Steve had a very secure core identity and thrived in the midst of that very insecure world.

Did Steve have things going on in his life that he did not like? Sure. How did he obtain and retain his sense of personal value and self-worth? How was his life different from others?

Getting Off the Performance Treadmill: The Pyramid

Imagine that your life—your sense of value, of self-worth, of identity—is like an upside-down pyramid. I know that it would be impossible for that tiny point at the bottom of the structure to support the weight of a huge Egyptian pyramid. But if it could, the pyramid’s most defining characteristic would be instability. If the slightest wind blew against it, it would take enormous energy just to keep the pyramid balanced and prevent it from falling over.

The upside-down pyramid is a picture of the way the world trains us to believe that life works. It tells us that who we are as a person—our value, our identity, our personhood—is determined by our performance. If our performance is good, the world says that we are good. But the opposite is also true. If our performance is not good, the world says that we are not good. 

I’ll put it bluntly—this is a bad system. Speaking for myself, my performance has never been 100% good, and I hate feeling that I am less-than-good on the days when my performance is not perfect. But artists live in a world that expects perfection daily and judges harshly—at a personal level—if we make even a small mistake. As a matter of fact, more attention is paid to one mistake than hundreds of flawless performances. 

A STORY

When I worked at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, I was in the stage-right wings during a ballet performance when I saw that one of the dancers had tears streaming down her face. Apparently, she had gotten some dirt under her contact lens causing her eye to be irritated. She bravely continued to dance well, and I doubt that anyone in the audience was aware of her pain. But immediately after the performance, the choreographer—who was quite famous—rushed up to the young dancer and screamed, “You ruined my ballet!” It seemed to me that what the choreographer said was terribly unfair, but because of the powerful position this person occupied, everyone waited until the choreographer left the stage to try to console the poor dancer. Sadly, this is often the way the world works.

Do you know people who are concerned—even anxious—about their performance? (I’m not talking about biological anxiety disorders that are outside of someone’s control, by the way.) Or do you know people who are often looking over their shoulder to see what others think of them? At an even more extreme level, do you know people whose attention is focused on always receiving applause or being the center of attention? If you’re an artist, I’m sure you’ve seen people whose identity and sense of value are totally connected to their performance. To be honest, although I’m much better now, there were times in my music-theatre career when my own pyramid was totally upside down.

How do you know if your pyramid is upside-down? It’s pretty simple: look at your emotional reaction to what’s going on in your life. Years ago, when I was completely focused on believing that my performance proved that I was okay, these were the words that described my reaction to almost anything that happened: fear of failure, anxiety, insecurity, stress, striving. The words that most described my focus were perfectionism and control.

Actually, some of these words describe our natural and normal reaction to danger. It is healthy to be afraid if we know that a serious accident is about to happen. Our bodies pump adrenaline and we move quickly to avoid the accident. It is crucial to understand that it’s unhealthy when fear stays with us for days or months or years. If fear is not dealt with and eliminated, it becomes part of our identity and deeply colors how we view ourselves and the world around us. Fear of failure or anxiety or insecurity become deeply embedded in us, and we tiptoe through life, expecting bad things to happen at any moment. 

Take a moment to stop and ask yourself some honest questions. Do you feel a lot of fear of failure in your life? Do you often feel anxious and worried about what others think of you? Have you experienced negative critiques or reviews or even memories of your own mistakes that do not seem to go away? Are you scared about what your future might hold?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our sense of self-worth, our identity, was as stable as an Egyptian pyramid that was right-side up? Even if a tornado came by—and everyone has tornados come into their lives at one time or another—this pyramid would not fall over.

The stable pyramid is God’s good plan for our lives. And the best thing about this plan is that our performance flows out of the top of our lives—the top of our pyramid. In other words, my performance becomes a reaction to my identity (which includes my skills) instead of the other way around. Let’s not kid ourselves: good performance is important. It’s much better to get an A than an F. It’s better to have a good gig than to have a bad gig or no gig at all. But performance as the overflow of my identity is crucially important. I do not want a bad performance to tell me that I’m a bad person. Performance needs to be separate from my successes and failures.

When I say that the stable pyramid allows the performance of our lives to be the overflow — the giving away — of our lives, I do not mean that artists should not receive pay for their hard work. It is tragic that artists are often paid little or nothing for their work, and since monetary value is the way our contemporary world expresses success, it can continue the very wrong and negative cycle of the world believing that arts and artists are of little value. Artists and their work have great value, and the “giving away/overflow” of our performance is really an expression of our ability to let go of what we as artists have created or performed.  A healthy artist works hard to create communication that is powerful and full of truth and beauty, and can then LET GO of that work, hoping that it will benefit the lives of all who experience that work.

When I talk about the two pyramids, people often suggest words to describe how it would feel to have a life (a pyramid) that is stable. They long to approach each day with confidence and security and peace and even joy, such a radical difference from the feelings associated with the upside-down pyramid. Then when the bad moments come, there will be an appropriate and honest way to deal with the negative emotions that we feel. 

Almost everyone has at least some upside-down (unstable) pyramid stuff going on in their lives. Please remember that this is how the world trains us, and there should be no embarrassment about having been trained to believe that our performance determines our identity. But the great news is that if fear of failure or shame has become part of our identity, it can be removed, even though this might sound impossibly hard. 

How do we move from the unstable to the stable pyramid? A personal, spiritual answer.

Getting from the left pyramid to the right pyramid has been a lifelong exercise for me. I had wonderful parents who showed me unconditional love in many ways. But they were certainly not perfect. Although they were well-meaning, they taught me that I should always be in control, and not need to rely on anyone else.

In my career as an orchestral conductor, I was constantly walking the fine line of applying control. Of course, I had to be in control—that is an enormous part of the conductor’s job description. A conductor must make decisions and exert leadership that shape the performance. But my musical training happened during an era when some very famous conductors showed control by being ruthless, all-powerful dictators. The results of their behavior were often relationally devastating to all who interacted with these leaders.

Fortunately, over the years, I was also exposed to very successful musicians who showed that they could live life based on the stable pyramid described above. They personally demonstrated a healthy life that allowed others around them to experience the same. They viewed their activities—their music, their relationships, their performance—as an ultimately separate extension of who they were as a person, instead of what defined them. 

Although I don’t conduct orchestras any more, the need for me to remember to move to the stable pyramid still arises daily. But one of the big things I have to do to move from left to right is letting go of pretending to be in control of success through trusting God. I still work very hard, and certainly want my work to succeed, but I have stopped judging myself on the basis of whether or not my work is perfect in the world’s eyes. No matter how hard I work, the performances or activities I lead are sometimes not good. Occasionally this is my fault and at other times it is not. When that happens, I have to admit the truth to myself and others that the results of whatever control I had over the event were not what I hoped for. At some point or other, this happens to everyone.

My willingness to admit that truth allows me to begin the process of learning from whatever mistakes occurred, and to continue to understand that my identity (my pyramid) is stable. To be honest, these occasions really hurt. But my identity becomes healthier each time I’m able to separate my value as a person from the success of my work. We learn the most about our identity through being honest and vulnerable about our failures. For me, this has led to a remarkable freedom that comes from dreaming big and working hard, but also letting go of success. Each day I must choose to be in control of what I can control—working hard and dreaming big—but let go of what I can’t control—which is success as defined by the world.

So is there an alternative to insecurity and fear?

Again, the answer is yes! We can move from the unstable pyramid to the stable one by being honest about our failures and letting go of control.

***

Being honest about our failures isn’t easy, though, and to really deal with our failures in a healthy way we need to do more than that. Keep reading here!

Do you see your life as an unstable pyramid but don’t know how to give up control? Are you wondering if it’s really safe to give up control? For a spiritual answer to this question, you can read How Do I Move from Fear to Stability?

Photo credits: Anderson Rian on Unsplash; Spencer Davis on Unsplash; Christina Calderon; Sahand Hoseini on Unsplash; Christina Calderon; Christina Calderon; Jason Hogan on Unsplash

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