Written By: Kay Dodge and Brent Grothe
“The basic personal need of each person is to regard himself as a worthwhile human being.” - Lawrence J. Crabb Jr.
What makes our lives worthwhile? Surely this question must have an answer, for to consider the alternative is a terrifying thought. Is it not one of our deepest, darkest fears that there is no meaning, that we have no significance, that the whispers telling us we are worthless are right? And so we spend our lives trying to prove those voices wrong, trying to find some way to justify our existence and consider ourselves worthwhile because, “the feeling of significance is crucial to man’s emotional, spiritual, and social stability and is the driving element within the human spirit.” Our lives are all quests for significance, quests that unfortunately often lead us down paths where we latch on to any answer at all to keep the fear at bay. We never take the time to examine our chosen answers, to see if they are really correct, and before we know it they take over our lives, leaving us helpless.
There are certain false answers, certain lies, that we tend to universally use to fill that question of our worth. These lies can be split into four main categories, each of which we call a ‘Big Lie’, and over the next few months we will be devoting a blog to explaining and debunking each one of them, starting today with the first Big Lie. Some people identify with only one of the big lies, while others find that multiple of the Big Lies are running their lives. The number of lies you struggle with doesn’t make you any better or worse of a person; the reason why we want to identify our lies is so that we can begin to see them for the falsehoods that they are, and begin to be set free by the truth. Doing so not only makes us happier, fulfilled individuals, but better people--and better leaders. As one high school student put it, “...if you don’t know what the truth is, you will always be deceived by the lie.”
Big Lie #1: I must meet certain standards to feel good about myself.
The first Big Lie tells us that our worth as a person comes from what we do, our achievements, our success. We are what we do, and the only way we will ever find joy and fulfillment is through our accomplishments. Because who we are is based off of our success, any mistakes we make, any failures throw our sense of self-worth off balance, and we immediately interpret such failure as proof of our worthlessness.
Such failures that can tear our lives apart are often perceived from others as minor setbacks, but because our identity has become so ingrained in what we do, anything less than perfection is unacceptable: placing third instead of first at State, getting an A- instead of an A on the test, being accepted into our second-choice college but not our first. Our need to achieve strangles us, preventing us from enjoying any accomplishment at all unless it is the very best--and all too often, the ‘best’ is defined through comparison to other people. “I’m a big lie number one type of person,” writes another fifteen year old who goes on to say, “Fear of failure has been affecting me and my life a lot. I want everything to look perfect, feel perfect, and be perfect. Being perfect defines my happiness. I often think that I need to do something perfectly or not at all. I hate to fail and feel embarrassed if I fail. It’s hard to forgive myself if I fail. Too often I find myself thinking how someone else did something better than I did. I compare myself to other people. And I want to get rid of this. I’m working on it, but it won’t change in just one night, unfortunately.”
We that struggle with Big Lie #1 are constantly comparing ourselves to others. If we deem ourselves better than someone else, we, “develop an inflated view of ourselves that leads to pride,” but the self-confidence we try to portray is only a “facade to hide our fear of failure and insecurity.” We are haughty over anyone we have greater success than, and we hate anyone who has greater success than ourselves.This great comparison-game of our lives prevents us from ever taking part in the joy of seeing someone you love succeed--any award our best friend wins is an award that we didn’t win, something which we resent them. Our accomplishments make us special, and we find worth in that specialness. It may seem egotistical, but the reality is we are constantly battling a little voice inside us that tell us we are not, and will never be, good enough. Failure is always only a few steps away, and we run ourselves ragged trying to escape it.
We believe that we can do everything on our own without ever needing anyone else--in fact, because we find our personal worth in our actions, a helping hand invalidates our accomplishments as our own, and so we find in nearly impossible to ask for help or to work with others in general. Thanks to the tight grip our lie has upon us, we are exhausted all the time from running around trying to do the work of ten people.
A clarification before we continue: There is nothing at all wrong with working hard and doing a job well. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best possible outcome. The problem happens when self-worth is placed upon the ability to get the job done well and achieve the best possible outcome. That is what Big Lie #1 is.
Living by Big Lie #1 often turns us down one of two paths: compulsiveness or withdrawal. Compulsiveness is the incessant need for perfection, driven by our belief that not only is perfection possible, but we are worthless until we reach it. Our fear of failure drives us to do whatever we can to succeed. This side of Big Lie #1 is where we see the StuCo President so involved she’s never home for dinner with her family, the so-called genius of the class who has turned to Adderall to help him stay up all night studying for the SATs, the drum major who refuses to take any feedback that isn’t a compliment. We are often controlling, angry ( at ourselves for our failures and at those around us for theirs), and exhausted. There is little joy to be found in anything we do, for we don’t do it for our own pleasure, but for the recognition and achievement we have to gain by doing it. Because we are human we will never actually achieve the perfection we strive for, but because we never achieve it we have no proof that it won’t give us the fulfillment and satisfaction we crave more than anything.
The other path we may go down is one of withdrawal. Our fear of failure becomes so overpowering that instead of working to keep ahead of failure, we decide that the best way to avoid failure is to never try in the first place. Low motivation, despair (I’ll never be good enough, so what is the point in trying), and risk avoidance are all sure signs we have fallen down the second method of coping with Big Lie #1. A freshman boy put it well, “It got to the point where if I didn’t think I’d be successful I wouldn’t even try. I believed that I wasn’t good enough so I had to be successful to be loved. Even right now I’m battling this.”
“If we cannot tolerate failure, how many of life’s opportunities will we allow us to pass us by without our taking the challenge?” - Robert McGee
The battle with Big Lie #1 is a struggle that many of us live with unknowingly. Sure, we have the vague feeling that something isn’t working, we slip into depression here and there, we have a twinge of guilt now and then that we are using people to make ourselves feel and look better - but for the most part we just continue tap dancing like mad hoping that somebody will see us as worthy. “Our desire for acceptance pressures us to perform to gain praise from others. We strive for success, driving our minds and bodies harder and further, hoping that because of our sweat and sacrifice others will appreciate us more.” However, “despite our efforts, we will never find lasting, fulfilling peace if we must continually prove ourselves to others. Our desire to be loved and accepted is a symptom of a deeper need—the need that frequently governs our behavior and is the primary source of our emotional pain. Often unrecognized, this is our need for self-worth.” Again, a freshman high schooler nails it, “I put pressure on myself to be the best, and to always need to succeed in order to feel this sort of identity and validation in myself. I have become addicted to always needing to succeed and it gets to the point where I will do anything to avoid failing, even if it means bringing other people down or avoiding things in order to not fail. This doesn’t allow me to be as vulnerable, and I feel like I miss out on many opportunities, experiences, and amazing people because of this.”
When Big Lie #1 rules us, we are not the only ones that suffer -- we hurt those around us, too. There is no room for loving or serving others, for we are so caught up in doing everything right, in our own personal rule-book and how well we play the game, that we have no energy left to focus on anyone else. We often hold those around us to the same unreasonable standards to which we hold ourselves, suffocating them under our rules. Those who we perceive to be better than us are hated, those in the way of our success are plowed over. We may love our friends and family, but we will also manipulate them so that they contribute to our own achievement.
Clearly, when we are living under Big Lie #1, we cannot be servant leaders, we cannot sacrifice for others and love them as they deserve, and as we wish to. So, what do we do? How do we escape the clutches of Big Lie #1? First we need awareness that we are living a lie in the first place. The more sensitive we become to the fear of failure, the more we will understand our own behavior as well as that of others. And once we begin to understand why we act the way we act we can then replace our lie with truth.
The Truth: My actions do not define my worth . The truth is that what I do does not determine who I am. Love defines me.
If we base our worth on our abilities then our behavior reflects the insecurity, fear, and anger that come from such instability. We must begin to believe the truth that what we do doesn’t determine who we are but rather who we are determines what we do. And not just believe it in a logical, intellectual way-- we must believe the truth in our hearts. Only then will we will begin to slowly but joyfully learn to live our lives from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. The voracious yardstick of measuring up to standards that will gain us worldly success and approval will no longer hold power over us, and so we can begin doing things for the pure joy of doing them. No longer will we be trapped in our fear of failure, instead we can vulnerably lean into uncertainty with curiosity and excitement. We will begin to reject popular, damaging cultural expectations that focus on self in favor of counter-cultural actions of self-sacrificial giving. We will begin to believe that our best shot is our best shot, that the highest standard we can live by is love for others.
So now comes the real question: how do we escape out from under Big Lie #1 and start living in the joy of the truth? The good news is, we have already taken the first step by gaining the awareness and knowledge that we are controlled by this lie. Armed with this knowledge, we can begin to notice what situations “flare up” the lie, and then ask yourself why. A couple of good questions to always have on hand are: 1. Why is this situation making me feel the way that I am, and 2. How would I react in this situation if I lived and wholeheartedly believed in the truth? The key is that the more we act in light of the truth (the more we act like we believe it), the more we will begin to actually, truly believe. Transitioning from the “slavery and compulsion of a have-to mentality to the freedom and strength of a want-to motivation is a process. Bondage to such thinking is often deeply rooted in our personalities, patterns of behavior, and ways of relating to other people. These patterns of thinking, feeling, and responding, learned over time, flow as naturally as the course of rainwater in a dry desert riverbed.” Change requires time -- a long time, and we can’t do it alone. We need the wisdom of like-minded, wholehearted others by our side, people who are willing to gently and humbly confront us in our lie as we learn to be likewise gentle and humble. We need faith, faith that we don’t need to justify our lives with social and material success in order to be significant, faith that love wins in the end, and faith that there is something much bigger than ourselves, our fears and anxieties, much bigger than any lie, something beautiful, vulnerable, and so, so true.
About the Author:
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.
Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.