We live in a society where your value comes from your performance. At least, that is my perception of the world we exist in. It seems to start young. Children entering kindergarten are expected to have already learned basics of reading and math. They know their shapes and colors. By first grade, where generations and generations ago, those types of fundamentals were taught for the first time, the student now is often expected to be able to read well, know the foundational addition and subtraction tables and perhaps even understand some simple multiplication tables. They have an expanded vocabulary. Those with developmental delays are treated harshly. Those who can’t keep up and who didn’t receive instruction from parents, thus leaving them well behind their peers, are moved to lower performing academic groups or into remedial classes. Only the kids who are considered the cream of the crop are streamlined into the accelerated programs designed for star performers. Performers. Performance. That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t perform, you are relegated to the scrap heap. You are branded. Expectations are lowered and your value plummets. Performance isn’t only about grades, although they are supremely important. It’s also about how easily the child makes friends, gets along with teachers, how outgoing they are, how fun and friendly, how social and team oriented they are. If that child is shy, has not been well socialized in their family, is introverted, or doesn’t receive encouragement and nurturing at home, they are again relegated to the “non-performing” group. Their grades may be quite good, but their personality doesn’t make the cut. So though they could find themselves placed in an accelerated learning program for the honor students, they aren’t popular enough to be considered worthwhile. They will likely never reach their full potential because they will not have access to a plethora of opportunities their more out-going, popular peers will be handed without even trying. Parents reinforce this performance value system, knowingly or unknowingly. The emphasis is not on the effort exhibited or creativity of their child. It’s not on their value as a little person who is wonderfully made. It’s about what they can do, how cute they are, how funny and fun and adorable and capable and smart and coordinated, skillful and skilled they are. It’s about popularity and fitting in and achieving. It’s about looks. It’s especially all about doing, doing, doing…and not at all about being. Certainly, some parents do a better job of building a sense of worth that is not based on performance within their children. Some parents stress character and honesty and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. Some parents demonstrate that the effort made, even when a person fails, is important and meaningful and a good learning experience. They stress that the honor with which we conduct ourselves and who we are inside is just as important as our success and performance in the world. But so many parents let their children know in a million different ways – what they say, how they react, what they reinforce as being important, how they live – that the only value that kid has is based on how successful their performance is in a given area that those adults consider to be critical. There is nothing wrong with performing well. Or excelling. But when our worth is based on how much we contribute, how much we do, how well we do what we do, how high our IQ is, how much money we make, how good of a job we do at work, at home, at church, how beautiful we are, how thin we are, what kind of grades we make, what our title is, how big our house is, what kind of car we drive…then we lose the knowledge that we are valuable, valued or that we matter at all, even if we don’t quite hit the mark every single time. Our ego crashes when we don’t give a flawless performance. Our failures indicate our lack of worth. And when we can’t see that we have any worth beyond our performance, we aren’t able to love and value ourselves. Depression, self-hatred, anger, plus crippling compensating behaviors set in and keep us from truly living. My experience with this is personal and debilitating. I can remember the first time the crazy thought crossed my mind that I might possibly be a person. I was 21 years old and I was in the process of getting my pilot’s license. My instructor and I had just finished some night flights, which is required training, and I was his last student of the day. I liked him. He was cute. He was funny. He was smart. And as I’m putting my log book away in the empty flight office at the school, he asked someone who I had not noticed, someone who was obviously standing behind me, if they wanted to go get a beer or two. I turned around to see who was standing there – and to see who the lucky girl was – only to find there wasn’t anyone else in the office. No one but me. At which point it dawned on me to my total amazement, he was asking me…ME…out for a drink and that he somehow had gotten the mistaken idea that I was a real person. I knew I wasn’t…a real person. A person of worth. But I accepted his invitation. 🙂
I was a good pilot. So I gained some value, trite though it was, because of my good performance. I’ve been a good employee. I’ve worked hard to perform to the very best of my abilities and I’ve put in a lot of long, hard, crazy hours. I’ve given and made things happen. But I’ve never been good enough. Never good enough to be a “real” human being. Never enough to truly have worth. But enough to be allowed to continue to live, to exist in the same sphere as others, to breathe the same air, to weave in and out of the world of the living people who are genuine and who have value. I can’t live there…only visit. Visiting is better than nothing, but it’s far from enough.
As a pilot, I felt like a fraud. A fake. Because I knew I was one mistake away from disaster and I knew I would, at some point, fail. I knew I would be rejected at that point, drummed out of the “acceptable” group and cast aside like the worthless failure that I was. As an employee, I had a little more confidence because of my intellect, but not much more. I worked hard to manage all the details, to stay on top of everything, to get the job done and to do it well. But I knew I wasn’t infallible. And when I made mistakes, I was punished, rejected, disqualified, devalued and degraded. Others could fail and it would be laughed off. But since I am not a “real” person, I am not treated with kindness or mercy. I am throw away. I am made to pay.
Likewise, as a wife, I was a failure pretty much from the get-go. I don’t cook well at all. Never learned. I don’t clean well either. I have phobias about bathrooms and sinks and water. I can’t stand to touch slimy things, wet surfaces, or anything that is gross in some way (well, except for earthworms, which, for some odd reason, I can manage, as long as they are not huge nightcrawlers). Things just freak me out and make me ill…things that others kind of blow off or grit their teeth and get through. I grit my teeth to get through practically everything, so after awhile, my gritter is all out of grit.
Additionally, I’ve never been pretty, or even cute, for that matter. I’m tolerable. Not horrible, but certainly no one who is going to make you take notice. And during a lot of my life, I’ve been fat. Which is an automatic disqualification as an acceptable human being. I’m not really funny, except in a sarcastic sort of way. I’m not Miss Personality either. Nothing much going for me. Sharp edges to my personality and deep contemplating make me less than desirable. Character is good. I’m kind. Loyal. Faithful. Dedicated. But quirky (see above). There are too many holes in my soul. Too many things that are wrong and defective. I can usually do a fair job of hiding in public for short periods, but in private, the closer you get, the more brokenness you see. The more flaws you will find. And the flaws are glaring. Blinding.
I’ve tried to perform. I spent nearly all of my energy for years and years trying to be everything everyone told me I was supposed to be. I took a licking and kept on ticking. Hit with rejection, disgust, disappointment, being judged and found to be wanting, unacceptable by normal society standards, the blows took a toll. But I staggered on. Until I couldn’t. Until I died inside. Until the numbness consumed me, destroyed all my energy and exposed me for the worthless person I really am. No amount of performing could give me worth.
Which is when my ex left me for someone else. And my church imploded, split, fell apart. And my job was lost because I wouldn’t do an illegal act. And they tried to prevent me from getting another because they wanted to hurt me deeply for refusing to comply. And my dog died. And my bills piled up, so I had to live off my credit cards. And I decided my only option was to die. Because, after all, what did it matter. I am of no value.
I did try to end it. I even failed at that.
Because I don’t know what else to do, I continue to get up each morning. I get dressed. I go to work. I do what I can to the best of my ability. But I can’t perform like I used to. I can’t work the long hours…9-1/2 to 10 is about my limit…and though I do that every day, I know it’s not enough to give me value or justify my existance. So I barely try. I give what I can. And beat myself up for not being able to do more. I can’t handle the backstabbing, fast-paced, perform-or-die environment of big business and corporate America. I no longer have hopes of getting ahead. I just want a little scrap, enough to make it. Enough to get by. And I fear even that is asking too much.
I go home after work, tired. I feed my two dogs, take them outside, boot up the computer, check Facebook, look to see if anyone commented on my blog, enter contests (because that’s the only hope I have of ever being able to pay off my credit cards). And I have this eating disorder thing going that takes up the rest of my time. I eat. I throw up. I eat again. I throw up again. Sometimes I go for a 3rd round. This is during the week. Weekends are worse. They’re harder. I have to be careful because if I’m not careful, there won’t be anyone to feed my dogs and take them out. And my blog will end rather abruptly (though that might be merciful!).
If not for them, I wouldn’t care about living. I wouldn’t have to be careful.
I have to perform to a certain level for work, but I no longer feel that I give enough to be of much value. I’m average. I do okay. I’m tired, my brain is drained, my heart is broken and depression sucks me dry. I stumble through. It’s the best I can do.
There are no real people in my life. Rarely anyway. So I no longer have to perform for friends to make sure I give 100% more than I ever receive from them. And there is no spouse, partner, romantic relationship or close relationship of any kind. So performance in that sector is, sadly, a moot point. No one to perform for. No audience. The stage is dark and the seats are empty.
My dogs are all that is left me. And they think I’m awesome…as long as I feed them, take them out, love their bellies, tell them they’re the best little babies in the universe and snuggle up with them on the couch or in bed at night. With my dogs, acceptance is complete. Performance is not required. With them, I’m enough. Just me. Broken, defective, empty, hurt, alone. I’m their world and they adore me in spite of my worthlessness. They give me what I have always wanted from a person. To be wanted. To be loved. To be valued. Without having to do or give or be anything other than what I am. Everything else is a treat.