When Personal Identity and Performance Become the Same Thing
The best among us work to live and not the other way around.
Those who become fixated on work and performance in order to get ahead often begin seeing the outcomes they achieve as a direct reflection of who they are. When how they feel about themselves becomes entirely dependent on the results they achieve, they set themselves up for disaster. Taken to such extremes, performance-based identity is ripe with dysfunction.
In a society obsessed with performance, it is relatively easy to conflate personal identity and performance. Everyone gains self-worth from achieving good outcomes.
But some leaders go so far as to convince themselves that others won’t love, accept, or respect them without high performance. They come to believe others will discard them if they don’t “sing for their supper.”
The results they achieve shape their moods, emotions, and self-confidence. With superior performance comes elation and a feeling of omnipotence.
But when performance tanks, the good feelings exit, as well. In place of joy and a sense of self-worth, leaders experience a feeling of hopelessness and anguish. When they don’t deliver, self-worth plummets.
When personal identity and performance become the same thing, leaders are susceptible to a steep tumble down the hill of despair. And they project those feelings onto others. Over time, the unhealthy yo-yo of great-to-horrible takes a toll on those around them, especially on colleagues and family members.
Judging self-worth entirely by the outcomes achieved at work or sport is highly destructive over the long term. In order to avoid the collapse of esteem, leaders who marry identity and performance become fixated on work, performance, and career, often ignoring everything and everyone else in their lives.
They soon begin to only talk about work, eschewing interest in any other topic. When engaging new relationships, the question of “What do you do?” becomes the only relevant information from which to connect. The imbalance takes over everything in their lives.
Leaders who define themselves entirely by the level of performance they achieve are easy to spot. They are their own harshest critics. In fact, they are relentlessly self-critical. Because performance matters so much to them, however, they cannot take this criticism from others. They become agitated anytime someone evaluates their performance negatively. They eschew feedback, preferring to let results offer them all the critique they need.
Preventing this potential travesty requires introspection and self-awareness. If any of the descriptions above sounds like someone you know, consider asking them to take charge of how they see themselves relative to performance. Recognizing that they may be yoking identity and performance too tightly begins with accepting the fact that others will care and respect them for who they are, not for what they achieve.
Telling them is always a great first step. Ask others to do the same. They might be surprised to learn that not only does everyone’s affection and respect have little or nothing to do with their performance, but that you and others suffer watching them behave as if it did.
Speaking for myself, when I became caught in that unfulfilling cycle of chasing titles and accolades, I became more and more empty. Which led to more and more self destructive behaviors including alcoholism, and the like. After getting sober that is when I learned that my self worth and identity are not tied to "what I do". Thank you for the great post and reminder.