The (New) Performance Trap
There are usually two sides to any story.
The universe we inhabit is a dialectical one—in which there are multiple truths operant at once. It can be difficult to handle this kind of reality. We tend to like our truth one-dimensional, fundamental, and clear cut. Good guys versus bad guys. Right instead of wrong. Black and white. Turns out, that’s rarely (if ever) the case. It’s more like this: a person can be genuinely caring, AND a god-forsaken asshole. Or this, the Left’s emphasis on the downtrodden is as necessary as the Right’s on hierarchies and boundaries. Or this, aggression and empathy are both important. On and on. At times they seem contradictory, but usually, with a little bit of reasonable discourse, we can move from an either/or position to a both/and one. This is so important, not only because it might get us invited to more social events, but also because if we can think about things from a well rounded perspective then actually we are able to make better decisions.
Which of course brings me to marriages.
Over the years in my work I interacted with countless committed relationships—mostly in crisis, headed towards a crash, hemorrhaging but desperate to stop the bleeding. The words that get thrown around in those moments are fucking hard to hear, if you have any degree of compassion. There are a lot of “You fucked HER!!! Her, of all people!!!” or “You kissed him!?!?!” or “You LIED to me—you lying liar who lies!!!” But underneath those accusations, there was often another theme that would emerge: “you’re not who I was expecting you would be. I believed you to be ONE thing, which I approved of, and turns out you’re something Else entirely.”
In family based psychology there are certain stages of development that any couple will probably go through. There’s the first initial encounter, impressing the other person, establish the boundaries of who you are I and who I am (or CONNECTION), then world building in which you begin to actively imagine what it would be like to merge your lives (CREATION), and then there is another period of time that rapidly approaches, often called COLLUSION by experts. In this case what we mean is a sort of unspoken agreement between the two of you. You’re now actively involved in making sure that the person you originally connected as, and created your lives around, hasn’t changed, appears constant, and seems agreeable to the other person.
If you have a bad spending habit, but imagined that the other person sees you as responsible, you might reasonably hide that habit. You’d of course be pretending, but you’re doing so in the service of the relationship so to speak. You’re now trying to protect this thing that you’ve created. And your partner is doing the same thing—even on your behalf. For instance, if you’re a lazy guy who really doesn’t want to work, your spouse might do you the service of ignoring those behaviors. She might work harder at her job, take an extra shift, and even praise you for the least amount of effort. Or if you have an anger problem and explode like boiling tea on everyone who pushes your buttons, your wife or husband may make excuses for you, or just outright avoid even noticing it. Maybe an easier example is when people go through quite a bit of change and they desperately want to keep step with each other. One or the other person morphs their likes and dislikes to fit the situation. What’s happening here? Your both sort of conspiring to ignore reality—because its a threat to this new identity the two of you are co-creating. It could spell the end of things as they exist currently.
The problem with collusion is pretty obvious. In the end you have people who are mutually agreeing to protect something that actually no longer exists, or maybe never did.
It happens all the time in fact.
And not just in relationships. One of the most common places we find pressure to collude is around something as basic as the question of HOW WE ARE DOING.
You should probably recognize this as a top tier convo maker for a lot of us. We use it all the time, with friends, loved ones, and even strangers. “How’re you doing” is a measuring rod of social discourse. Conversationally, this question not only helps generate a time filler but We also gauge our own tone by their response. How a person is performing (adequate, poorly, successfully, etc) helps us determine our own way of being. By directly asking a person this, we know to be concerned, excited, encouraging or even angry. We are collaborating on how we show up in life by asking this basic question. Which is why there’s actually so much riding on It, believe it or not. Part of the reason why, when asked this question, we lie, is because we don’t want to tolerate the experience of the other person’s response.
PERSON A: How are you doing?
PERSON B: I feel like total shit. I hate my life.
PERSON A (noticeably impacted and showing sadness): I’m so sorry to hear that. That really sucks!
Because as empathetic people, we respond. Now here is what social psychologists find fascinating—Person B now is responsively impacted, and become even MORE aware of their own depressing emotions. It’s called mirroring. When someone accurately reflects our emotions to us, we experience ourselves are real people, and the gravity of such reality now weighs more heavily upon us. Which is why we lie.
Consider how often you’ve been person B. What’s the frequency that you tell the truth, with any level of accuracy? If you’re like a vast percentage of people—most of us—there’s a lot of “reality doctoring”; we give a vague, ambiguous answer. Why? According to many psychologists—not to throw THEM off the track—but to throw ourselves off… If we were honest, we’d both have to experience a shifted, more complicated, and potentially more intimate reality. So we choose to collude instead—we simplify things: “I’m OK.” or even, “I’m doing GOOD.”
HEROES AND OTHER FRAUDS
No man is the villain in his own story. Instead we are the heroes. We’re programmed to think this way. In some ways its a wiring thing. The mental pain of identifying as a constant source of failure, disappointment, and negativity pushes us to recalculate. We re-evaluate the facts and find some way to view them differently. Us, and our tribe—our in-group—are always THE GOOD GUYS; we fall on the right side of history. But beyond perspective, we genuinely want to be the heroes of our stories, don’t we? A man wants to be the conqueror, the achiever, the rescuer. In some ways its a flourish of natural selection. By engineering the males, traditionally stronger and more athletic in averages, to be protective, productive, and principled, the species is preserved and expanded.
But males also fall into a trap. The Performance Trap.
Because in our effort to BE the hero, we are highly motivated to only let others SEE the heroic.
How does that work? In many ways its the collusion principle. If an other BELIEVES this to be true for me—then I will feel it more, and perceive myself to be more that way. It’s not exactly the fake-it-till-you-make-it principle, but its close. Maybe better said: Fake it and it will feel like you’ve Made it.
Interestingly we see this trope show up in high literature. It begins in the classical age—Achilles, who isn’t as debonair and dashing, as he is cold, ruthless and flawed. Odysseus—who’s victory at war, is followed by failure to save his own homelife. Shakespeare gives us probably the highpoint of literature in the figures of Hamlet and Macbeth—both men who are destined for greatness, and are incredible in their own right, but ultimately cast long shadows. Why do authors, then and now, introduce such story lines? Because they are acknowledging something we don’t often like to: heroes are frauds, and life is complicated.
Now, I realize this is an exaggeration. Heroes aren’t actually FRAUDS. They’re very real. Human—all too human. And that makes their heroism all the more grand, doesn’t it? When they do the heavy lifting, it seems all the more divine, especially contrasted with their weak points. But, going back to an earlier point, we aren’t terribly dialectical. Our heroes need to be brilliantly shiny, with a clean track record—going back to high school. Just look at current politics and beyond. Blemishes aren’t allowed. We’re willing to drum up 30 years worth of potential wrong doing in order to prove a man is impure. Because we have a mistaken notion of heroism, and purity, clean and unclean. We believe that our leaders and great people are flawed if they have weakness—not greater because of them.
History is filled with men pretending to be heroes, masking potential weakness. Gold up front, and shadows hidden from view. Not only that, but people want it to be so. We are encouraged to put our best foot forward, to wear our awards, and to note our successes. However, people will shun us for our shortcomings—real or perceived. This is a kind of behavioral reinforcement in which we are encouraged to conceal our truest sense of self—and we ALL collude, as if to say we don’t have trouble spots, or darker depths.
THE NEW PERFORMANCE TRAP
But this isn’t really about pretending, and its not about lying, or being a fraud. It’s about the isolation that comes from trying to be golden. I’ve been there. When I was a practicing therapist, a professor, I felt like my life LOOKED exactly as it should. I was respected, well-liked, and sensed I was on the way UP. But you know what the truth of it was? I was living with deep brokenness—untouched, undealth with wounds that were festering and becoming infected. And I KNEW it. But as long as others believed I was good enough, justified enough, pretty enough, cool enough, happy enough—I could believe, for just a moment, that this was the truth. I was depending on the collusion. However, I can tell you I’ve never felt so alone as I did walking around with a split reality. No one knew what was really going on. I was hiding it. Like a partner in a marriage struggling with some unknown issue, trying to smile and be loving, when all the while they’re somehow dying inside.
And I see men do this all the time. In today’s MANOSPHERE culture, the impetus is performance and achievement. Do. Conquer. Control Master. You name it. We are told that in order to be manly we must become the best version of ourself. And, I agree. Push, stretch, and reach to your highest and best. However, the problem comes when youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. When despite our best efforts we fail. When we lose. When its not enough. When all the kings horses and all the kings men can’t, in fact, put it back together. What then? Admit weakness? No—of course not. Because the reality is that there is such a high premium placed on success in the New Peak Performance Culture of the manosphere, that to make such an admission would mean you were less than a man. We are trapped by our very desire to do better
Because until you can show your weakness, step into it fully, you will never recognize your gift.
Candidly, I’ve told this concern to numerous men, thought leaders among them. Often men highly involved in being “Professional Men” (or Pro' Bro’s) are dismissive. “I show my weakness” they might say, “It makes me stronger.” But the move here is so quickly to strength that one wonders if they ever really took the time to sit with the shadow, to learn the lessons that failure and loss have to teach.
As an old story goes, a young minister’s father died and he was given the task of saying the funeral rites. As he preached a glorious grave side message he crescendoed with the quotation from the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” And here he stopped with tears streaming down his face, and repeated the phrase, “yea though I WALK through the valley….because if I don’t keep walking, I will have reason to fear evil! God only helps those who keep one foot in front of the other.” At which point his weeping mother moaned loudly, “God help us all!”
Ha! He was busy trying to move forward while the grave hadn’t even been filled in. No, men who tell you that their strength is only fueled by their weakness, are often simply masking that they too are the victims of the performance trap. They’re still pretending.
It’s lonely because no one understands that you really are exhausted—you can’t say it. It’s lonely because no one appreciates how hard you work to relate to others, precisely because you’re lonely—because you can’t say it. It’s lonely because folks don’t really see that you work day in and day out, because you feel profoundly inadequate—you could never tell them that truth. Your effort to be faithful is out of a fear of loss you can’t discuss. Your attempt to plan and move on to the next and biggest is motivated by terror of pain, but no one will hear that truth. Your desire to control the environment and make a splashy entrance, is simply masking a deeply insecure child—but most people will never meet that person. On and on…. your performance is fueled by realities that you can not possibly let any one else in on. That’s why its isolated and isolating.
A (non)DUMMY’S GUIDE
However this isn’t only about openness. Men genuinely need ways to become the heroes they imagine themselves to be. If men find themselves in a performance trap, then to simply identify a trap but do nothing to help them out of it is beyond cruel. As one man I respect notes: “men want out of their pit. They just don’t know how.” While I don’t love dummies guides, I do believe that some degree of intentionality to discovering your own inner reality and truth is necessary if only to break free of the Performance Trap and cease colluding. So what can a man actually do?
1) Learn to Dissapoint People by Saying No— imagine standing across from another man, holding his gaze unflinchingly—not because you’re an asshole, and not because you want to dominate him, but because you are HERE and NOW. You’re communicating To that man that you are who you are, in the present, and that you see him too. Your ability to be this present is a direct result of developing your inner sense of Being. How do you do that? First, begin by practicing the lost art of saying “NO.” First do this to yourself. Say no to some things in your life that you can see yourself shedding. The snooze button. The extra donut. The snacks. The next beer. But begin to expand from yourself to others. Say no to safe people, those who will still love and connect with you. By practicing here first, you’ll develop the muscle, and then be able to have the strength to state the hard NO when it counts. Practice spending time saying YES only to those things and people who you know inspire you, who truly know your reality, and experience the REAL DEAL from you.
2) Develop your Inner Being—one of the reasons why I don’t take or post many CANDID “me in the Wild” shots on social media is because I believe that when you’re posting a selfie while meditating, you’re probably not actually meditating. It’s crucial to curate places and times where you can simply BE, without scrutiny. This could be a hike by yourself and without technology—no snap chat, Facebook or Instagram allowed. It might be choosing to invest in an alarm clock instead of using your phone so you’re not tempted to look at it first thing. Daydream. Let your mind wander. Shut off your external influencers and listen to you own sense of self. Your Inner Being is often so buried under conditioning, other people’s choices, circumstances, and the karma of your own decisions that it is difficult to actually hear it. Practical ways are necessary. In Za-Zen it is the practicing of merely Sitting. In many forms of contemplative Christianity it is a sort of quieted Walking. In Hinduism it is through Breath-work, and breathing. What ever the path, each of these require a kind of silencing the self-to allow for close encounters of the soul.
3) Speak Your Truth—as you see it now, without apologizing for being you or hedging your bets. This doesn’t mean being unwilling to dialog, in fact by taking a position, you’re creating space to do just that. The truth can of course be painful: “I don’t feel in love with you anymore.” Or “I’ve been spending our money on this shit...” or “I think I have a problem...” or even, “this is actually the movie I want to see.” Each of these represents YOU stepping away from performance mind set and into authenticity mindset. One of my dear friends and mentors is clear on this, “it’s about honesty OVER performance.” This too can be difficult—especially if you’re Mr. Nice-Guy. In part its easy to swing the opposite way and become a Dick. That’s ok, it’s par for the course. At first it will seem like you are in fact becoming an asshole. It’s a necessary stage of growth, and hopefully you move past it. it’s also going to be unfamiliar to others who are used to you biting your tongue. They’ll notice you’ve got your balls back, and won’t always appreciate it. Keep going, reassure them of your intentions, and reinforce those who you’re committed to. But keep being honest.
4) Learn to Listen to Your Emotions—no this isn’t the path of the Sith, Dark Side. It’s actually one of the most fundamental aspects of being human. Our emotions wire us to communicate to self, others and motivate us to actions. Every emotion , from anger and sadness to joy and jealousy are valuable and are trying to feed us data about experience of the world in real time. In truth our limbic, and emotive, centers have been around far longer than our cortex, and rational brain. While we like to imagine that our reasonable mind is in the drivers seat, it rarely is. Mostly it follows around and justifies its emotional impulses. Think of an elephant and his rider. Studies of these symbiotic relationships have demonstrated that while the rider/trainer thinks he’s the one navigating, its actually the elephant who, by virtue of being far greater in size, dictates the direction. It takes some aggressive training to get away from this. By listening to our emotions, learning to identify them, and then beginning to navigate the signals they’re giving, you increase your own inner power. I utilize an emotion model several times a week, where I take an event where I felt a particular emotion, and I unwind it. This is left over from my days counseling chronically suicidal and self-harming clients. My promise to them, which is also true for me (and by default for YOU), is that as we break down our emotions in to their various components of prompting events, awarenesses, interpretations, vulnerabilities, etc… that we can actually almost slow down time and have control over our decisions.
5) Find actual community of men to practice authentic connection with—this doesn’t have to be a perfect tribe, or the ideal tribe. It doesn’t even have to be more than a few of you, but it should be a place where you’re doing more than just pretending. In true community you are able to practice being yourself without the performance. These men should know you. They may not fully accept you, they may give you harsh feedback, but that’s part of the practice for them too. By creating an “unsafe space” you are actually diving head first into profound belonging. I will say one small word of warning having been a part of and Led numerous men’s groups: it’s possible to simply get good at doing “group” or “tribe” and for it to not translate into life. The goal of true community is to generalize or globalize your skill of living with integrity and authenticity in every area. Sometimes a group mindset will localize, where a man will use these skills—but only in the group, only with a select few. This man isn’t really taking risks, isn’t actually being himself. He’s still playing it safe. What is necessary is a Tribe of men who are willing to share life, who you spend time with—not just an hour a week with, who you relate to in real ways, not merely contrived ways. By increasing our lived experience with each other with intentionality, men can steer clear of simply creating another performance motif.
I am concerned for the manosphere because in the midst of all the desire to improve and grow stronger there is the ring of relational stages of development. We’ve moved past connection and creation, and are squarely in collusion—trying to present realities that exist only in our mind, in order to keep the status quo.
However—if men truly began to be open about their lives. If they can find another man, or group of men, and entrust their souls to them—there may be hope. That’s the great thing about collusion—it doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship. If the couple, or in this case the men’s world, can simply move to the hard place of truth telling, then come what may, there is hope. A new and more intimate connection can be formed. A better reality is possible. But only if we’re actually looking at reality.