The Perception Trap

When Winning Becomes a Need

“Doo you lub mena?”

Chloe’s eyes hovered in the middle of her round face like pool floaties. Her question lingered as I tried to decode the 2-year-old dialect.

“What? What did you say?” I replied.

“Doo you… Love. Mee. Now?” she patiently pronounced and awaited a response. Do you love me now?

“Of course I do! I always love you,” I cheered. My voice spiked two octaves. Instantly I connected the dots between my recent request that she clean up her mess and Chloe’s prompt completion of the task. In her mind, doing right meant being loved. Chloe had just earned my acceptance.

When did love become a wage? I quickly scooped up my inquisitive daughter while wondering what I had said or done for her to think my love was ever conditional.

As I awkwardly diffused this #DadFail the sitcom of my mind produced endless episodes of fictional daddy/daughter trauma. Do you love me now… that I got straight As? Do you love me now… that I made varsity swim team? Now that I’m successful? Now that I’m pretty? Now that I’m like you?

I realized I was ill-equipped to lead by example. Like Chloe, now a first-grader, I too have moments where self beliefs collide with broken concepts of how to be worthy.

I am a perceptionist.

Winning as a Weapon

A perceptionist chases the perception of perfection. We please and perform for acceptance.

To perceptionists, winning mutates from a healthy want to an unhealthy need. Achievement of any kind becomes a pre-requisite for self confidence.

I win therefore I am,” is our unspoken manifesto. The things we do and own are focused outward, and satisfaction always seems to be one win away. We use success as a protest to our haters, a shield to our selves and a weapon against the world. Busyness is a self-inflicted bootcamp of good opportunities done in excess. Our resumes are works of contemporary art.

We aren’t simply winners. We’re really, really sore losers.

I love researcher Brené Brown’s take on perfectionism and people-pleasing. She asserts, “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Healthy striving is self-focused (How can I improve)? Perfectionism is other-focused (What will they think)?”

“Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports),” Brown explains. “Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.”

Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.

Brené Brown

This duct-taped identity is high on volatility and low on self value. It only works when things are working. When things go wrong – like maybe a pandemic or a recession or a social reckoning or just a missed expectation – this house built on sand is incapable of providing little more than firewood.

Perceptionists are the arsonists of their own joy. But since this trap is predictable perhaps it’s also avoidable?

A Better, Happier Hustle

Perceptionists are preoccupied with earning acceptance through performance. What we do, and what people think about what we do, anchors who we are. My doing defines my being.

There is no back button. I can’t undo being a perceptionists. But I can do less of the things that feed my need to win and have more compassion for who I already am. There’s one word that perfectly captures this idea of being whole, held together and enough. It’s contentment.

The word originates from Latin and describes a debt that is now obsolete because the payment has been satisfied. Nothing more is necessary. No work. No hustle. No award. No performance.

Contentment is wholeness. Contentment rejoices as needs are met even when wants remain unanswered. The antidote to perceptionist thinking is not found in doing more but realizing you are worthy as you are. Desires – fulfilled or deferred – don’t determine my value.

Contentment differs from satisfaction. Contentment says “I need no more” while satisfaction says “I want no more.” Contentment is within my control. Satisfaction is conditional.

I spent years (decades?) chasing satisfaction but it cost me contentment. So I took on more “sweat debt” – the debt of duty, obligation and expectation. The grind of hustle, toil and busyness as currency. Now I know the truth. When I work from a place of true contentment, I acknowledge my own worth first. It means I work hard to do better, not be better.

I am enough as-is.

Now I know the truth. When I work from a place of true contentment, I acknowledge my own worth first. It means I work hard to do better, not be better.

Reflections and Resources

Here’s a quick collection of ideas and authors who have shaped my journey, organized by learning style. Click each name for the accompanying book.

For the aspiring billionaire who thinks this is “too mushy”: “Don’t let fears of what others think of you stand in your way. You must be willing to do things in the unique ways you think are best – and to open-mindedly reflect on the feedback that comes inevitably as a result of being that way.” Ray Dalio

For the inspiration junkie who loves a good story: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” Anna Quindlen

For the pragmatist that craves a workbook: “We don’t talk about what keeps us eating until we’re sick, busy beyond human scale, desperate to numb and take the edge off, and full of so much anxiety and self doubt that we can’t act on what we know is best for us. We don’t talk about the hustle for worthiness that’s become such a part of our lives that we don’t even realize we’re dancing.” Brené Brown

For the bible reader who prefers a scripture-based stance: “We are already what we seek and where we long to arrive – specifically, in God. Once we realize this, the nature of the journey reveals itself to be more one of awakening than accomplishment, more one of spiritual awareness than spiritual achievement.” David G. Benner

For the radical change-maker seeking real stories and honest people: “You don’t have a problem, you have a life. Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right. You must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.” Glennon Doyle

Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

One thought on “The Perception Trap

  1. Truly enlightening and insightful!! The ideas of “Winning As A Weapon” and “I Win Therefore I Am” are important for us to understand and unpack. We need to understand all sides of winning, and how the ideology associated with “Winning At All Costs” in the end can be very costly in our lives if we don’t approach winning with the right mindset and actions.

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