Madonna – we all know her: A wildly successful musician. When I was younger, I remember reading a quote, originally from a 1991 Vanity Fair piece on her life, and it’s stuck with me ever since:
“And all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I’m always struggling with that fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. And I find a way to get myself out of that. Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me.”
Madonna feels inadequate from a combination of fearing judgment of other people and the judgment of herself. That relentless fear of mediocrity drives her to perform, but she describes it as a horrible fear, not a helpful friend. At times she calls herself a “special human”, above other humans, comparing herself to others with their abilities and achievements. But in the next moment, judgment shifts against her.
Although most of us may never attain her level of success, we believe if we did we wouldn’t call ourselves mediocre. Looking at the biographies and interviews of other famous people and even clients of mine in their later stages of life, I see similar stories. When we think we do enough and reach that goal to please others or ourselves, it still feels like it’s never enough. So much of our time is spent exhausting efforts to people please, compare ourselves to others, and insidious self-criticism.
I contrast Madonna’s perspective with another famous human, possibly the most well read author in the world, though he didn’t know he would be so popular while he was alive. His focus felt significantly different. In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 (NIV) Paul states:
“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
It’s as if Paul says, “I don’t care about what you think of me, and I don’t even care about what I think of me, I only care about what God thinks of me.” The only stage Paul seems to care about is one where he stands and performs in front of God who is the only one in the audience and the only one writing reviews.
Paul doesn’t look to other people to give him his sense of worth and identity. This contrasts with traditional cultures that say your identity and worth are primarily defined by your family and community. In traditional cultures, we’re defined by their constraints on us and subject to their fickle or short-sighted views. We get a relatively clear and stable identity, but seemingly at the cost of individual creative expression and flexibility.
Paul also doesn’t look to himself to give him worth and identity. This contrasts with modern cultures that elevate the individual as the ultimate arbiter of truth and bestower of worth and identity. In modern cultures we’re defined by our own constraints. But even if we feel for a time that there are no constraints, then we can still be constrained by a paralysis of possibilities – too many choices on how to define ourselves. Also, if we choose poorly and we are the main choosers, then we mainly have ourselves to blame and we take more of that pressured responsibility. Often we, like Madonna, create our own standards but we still cannot live up to them. And still more problems come because if we are the ones defining ourselves, then we can re-define ourselves just as easily. This can be shaky grounds for identity formation and mental and emotional stability.
So many experiences I see in my clients like anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma lead to a journey of discovering how to get and keep our sense of self and self-worth. You could get it from others or from yourself, subject to judgment. Paul is freed from people pleasing, comparison, self-criticism, and the horrible fear of mediocrity because he loves and serves a gracious God and only cares what he thinks. His God gives him a secure identity over time as a forever beloved child of God, promises creative flourishing and flexibility by leading of the Holy Spirit, gives clear guidance on which of many paths he could take, and gives boundless grace for failure.
How? Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us means the judgment has already been made – there is nothing Paul can do to make God love him less or more which calms the people pleasing. The verdict of his life is in before he lives any more of it – Paul is totally forgiven of past, present, and future failures which quiets the self-criticism. He did nothing to deserve such love. It is all the work of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, so he has no right to feel better or worse than others, which nullifies the comparison game. When he strives to do good, it’s out of gratitude for a secured identity and worth as opposed to anxious uncertainty, waiting for the shifting opinions of self or other. Paul’s way is a way of peace, hope, and joy. How exactly to deeply understand and apply all of this while addressing the challenges along the way requires a longer exploration. I leave you with some food for thought on ways to manage people pleasing, self-criticism, and comparison.