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  • Ann Yeong

What Role Are You Playing?

Updated: Nov 18, 2020



I vaguely remember the first time I brought home a report card on which my form teacher had written the word "responsible" in the comment section. I was still very young, and had needed my mother to explain what it meant to me. She had been proud of me, and I remember thinking, "I must always be responsible."


Somewhere along the way, I had begun playing to a script I didn't even realise I was following, all because I found that being responsible often won me the approval I yearned.

As I grew older, responsibility became a key trait that people associated with me. I was trustworthy because I was responsible. My schoolmates' parents approved of me because I was responsible. My aunts and uncles entrusted their young children to me because I was responsible. I got voted into leadership positions because I was responsible. Somewhere along the way, I had begun playing to a script I didn't even realise I was following, all because I found that being responsible often won me the approval I yearned.


Soon, 'responsible' morphed to mean never letting others down. I don't even remember how the transition occurred. But for me responsibility meant being trusted, and trust was a fragile thing, one that is easily lost if others became disappointed in me. So I did my best to always live up to expectations and to fulfil whatever responsibilities were given me.


Because to fall - to fail - would be to be unworthy. Unworthy of affirmation, unworthy of being liked, unworthy of being wanted.

But what I did not anticipate or understand was the sheer anxiety that permeated my inner being at the thought of letting someone down. Especially if it was someone whose good opinion meant a lot to me. I became so adept at reading people's needs that I often delivered something to them that surpassed their expectations. And when this was praised, I would step even higher on the pedestal than I had built for myself, willing myself to never fall. Because to fall - to fail - would be to be unworthy. Unworthy of affirmation, unworthy of being liked, unworthy of being loved.


I never knew who I was and who I wasn't because I had no access to an identity apart from what I thought others wanted or needed me to be.

It was only much later in my life, when I had begun the process of healing, that I learned that the feeling of worthlessness whenever I failed had a name: Toxic Shame. While healthy shame makes us feel bad about a wrong we have done, toxic shame makes us feel bad about our very being. What living with toxic shame meant for me was that I never knew who I was and who I wasn't because I had no access to an identity apart from what I thought others wanted or needed me to be.


When I achieved results, I would get an inflated sense of self, thinking to myself that I am as good as people thought I could be. But when I fell short, even in the smallest ways, I would feel so ashamed that I wished the ground could swallow me up or that I could just drop everything and run far, far away!


Perhaps I had imagined the incredibly high standards that I thought others had of me. But each time I was praised for doing something right just made me feel that I cannot afford to make a false step.

Guilt was a constant companion. I would feel guilty when I felt that I did not do as well as I could have done. Guilty when I know I didn't put in my best. Guilty when someone else put in a better piece of work than I did. Guilty because I had failed to maintain my image of being the person who excelled at everything. Much of this might have just been in my own head. Perhaps I had imagined the incredibly high standards that I thought others had of me. But each time I was praised for doing something right, it just made me feel even more convinced that I cannot afford to make a false step.


Logically, I knew what I needed to do was let others know that I was unable to manage the workload that I had been given. But my idolatry of responsibility and my deep fear of disappointing others prevented me from making that self-disclosure.

I had very poor boundaries. Part of the fear of disappointing others meant that I was very much a people pleaser. I still remember the season at work when I began noticing signs of burnout in me. Logically, I knew what I needed to do was let others know that I was unable to manage the workload that I had been given. But my idolatry of responsibility and my deep fear of disappointing others prevented me from making that self-disclosure. I kept on going. Until I developed a chronic gastric reflux that literally ate away at me from the inside for 8 years.


I gave up trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be. I gave up trying to a good job at everything. I gave up trying to help every person in need.

Mercifully - for I recognise it as mercy on hindsight - I reached a point where no matter how hard I tried to keep things going, I fell flat. I could not seem to please anybody! On the contrary, the signs pointed to many people becoming disillusioned and unhappy with me. It led me to such a low point that one glorious day, I was able to give up.


I gave up trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be. I gave up trying to do a great job at everything. I gave up trying to help every person in need. I decided to start paying attention to what my hurting body and my broken heart were trying to tell me about how I had been living.


That may have been a very small thing in the larger scheme of things, but it meant so much. It meant so much TO ME. I was finally starting to be able to show up as MYSELF...

Another turning point came when I listened to my boss express disappointment in some work he had expected me to do differently, and - even though I was trembling inside - I said simply, "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not very good at doing this kind of work. It's just not in me." And you know what? That may have been a very small thing in the larger scheme of things, but it meant so much. It meant so much TO ME. I was finally starting to be able to show up as MYSELF, regardless of praise or criticism.


I'm not saying I don't have any difficulty in this area now. I still struggle, some days I struggle a lot. But I have come a long way in knowing who I am, and who I am not. I am no longer willing to bend backwards in order to be some other person's expectation of me.


I have learned that I am not called upon to solve the world's problems, but simply to be faithful to the parts that I am called to tend to. I've realised that however insignificant my little contribution may seem to myself, what matters is that I gave joyfully of my TRUE self. And no praise can inflate nor criticism diminish the simple truth that I am simply ME - no more, and certainly no less.

This blog entry is the counterpart to the Podcast Episode "Listening to Your Life Speak" which will drop on Wednesday 28 October 2020. Listen to it here.

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