Does life have to be a performance?

As babies and children who grow up in a culture that embraces power and control over others, we learn that in order to maintain the love and acceptance of our parents and other adults who care for us, we must often push down our own feelings and needs. We learn to perform for others so that we can get some of our needs met.

A series of events related to a child in my life’s choice to study budo, a Japanese martial art, had me thinking a lot about what it means to perform when we choose to as opposed to when we feel compelled.

The child is passionate about learning budo and loves to go to class twice a week. When they do not feel up to going for any reason, they may decide to skip a class, but this is a rare occurrence.

The dojo held a demonstration at a local company and they really wanted to participate. The child typically does not like to be “on stage.” They prefer to sing when no one else is around. They say if they ever join a band, they will be the drummer so they can stay behind the drums.

Right after the demonstration, they were so exhausted they needed to lie down in the car and rest on the drive home. Again, this is not typical. Usually after budo class the child is energized and ready to go. The next morning they said, “I’m so glad that the budo demonstration is over, now I can just be myself.”

The demo and reaction to it opened the door to me thinking a lot about the stress and adrenaline rush that comes with performance. I also began to reflect on my experiences as a child in school and studying piano, as well as our society’s expectations about the need to “perform” in order to be successful.

As Rob and I talked about this child’s experience, I realized that because they do not go to school, they have not experienced the requirement (and subsequent stress) of having to perform on a day to day basis. Their days have a rhythm and flow that do not usually require the child to be “on” or to behave in ways that are not consistent with how they are feeling at a particular moment.

As a child, I was acutely aware of the need to perform in order to please and win the favor and love of the adults around me. I knew what to do to avoid punishment and how to win praise.

For the most part, how I felt at a particular moment had little to do with how I needed to behave in order to fit into the expectations that were set before me by my parents and teachers, by society as a whole.

School life is also performance. Children go to school whether they feel like it or not. They perform tasks set before them by teachers whether or not they are interested or care. They must conform to particular standards of behavior whether or not they believe in them. They must answer when they are called upon. They are given particular times to eat and go to the bathroom.

When we become adults and work for a company or institution, we have performance evaluations. Our external behavior is constantly judged by those around us. Our bosses set performance expectations. There are written and unwritten rules about how we act and our “success” is judged by our ability to work within those rules.

When I worked in universities, I needed to be “on” while at work whether or not I felt like it. I was successful in my roles because I could discern what the spoken and unspoken rules were of an institution and work within those, or push the boundaries as long as I did not go too far.

My performance came at a high cost. Day in and day out I lived with a high level of stress, but it was not until I left that career and forged my own path, was I able to see this.

While I was working in institutions I felt only the big spikes of high stress situations. Once I stopped, it took a few years to come down and de-stress. It took almost 3 years before I did not feel anger and anxiety on Sunday night just prior to the work week starting.

Our society’s performance norms come at a high price for almost everyone involved. We may bend to outer authority, even when it violates our inner authority. We may lose touch with our authentic selves because we have bought into the cultural norm of fitting in to be successful and accepted.

We are, in essence, a society that is conditional. Acceptance by the dominant culture is conditioned upon acceptance and adherence to the rules established by that culture. We participate in our own disempowerment as individuals by believing and perpetuating the idea that we must perform according to society’s rules in order to be successful.

As parents, we pass on the teachings of this dominant paradigm when we require our children to perform. When children exercise the fundamental right to be who they are (that is, to NOT perform when directed to and when they do not want to) they are punished. We label them are difficult or rebellious.

We even have the diagnoses of “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines ODD “…as an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster’s day to day functioning.”

I would say that ODD is a child’s reasonable response to having their life controlled by adults who require children to perform without regard to their underlying feelings, needs and wants. Children (and adults) who question rules and authority are a threat to the status quo. They also are agents of change who can bring light to the unquestioned cultural norms that require us to give up who are.

I still live under the shadow of performance requirements. Despite my desire to create new parenting (and living) paradigms, I fall back into the dominant ways in which I was socialized and which I then accepted and perpetuated. The children in life, because of their strong wills and resistance to being controlled, remind me of how far I need to go and they keep me honest in my journey.

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