Have you ever heard of the Limited Image Performance Syndrome? Probably not, because it was I who invented the phrase many years ago. It boils down to the convenient acronym: LIPS. I have written about it in more than one book, and I have lectured on it at many business conferences.

Put simply, it means that we all have an internal image of the level at which we can perform various enterprises. We have a strong motivation to live up to our standard, and, by the same token, not to exceed it.

I first observed it when I had the responsibility of directing training for one of the largest and most skilled sales forces in the country. It was divided into about 50 local branches, which gave me an opportunity to study how each branch manager set about motivating his team. Rewards of various kinds were important, but they were not the key. The difference in performance was much more directly linked to whether the manager had inculcated a sense of pride and high self-image among his sales people.

Self-image is formed in different ways. A recent study has shown that there is a genetic element, and that this inherited attitude is a good predictor of future performance – at least as good as intelligence scores. A second factor enters in the first few years of a child’s life. At this stage the child is discovering what sort of person he or she is. If the child experiences consistent love and caring over this time of crucial plastic formation, a good self-image is likely to become hard-wired. Recent work suggests that peer group experience at school is also very important.

These factors are innate but we are also aware that the level of our self-image can wax and wane. A good experience gives us confidence, which we then express in confident behaviour; conversely, a failure or a setback can cause our confidence to leak away. If you were watching Wimbledon tennis this year you may have noticed how confidence levels frequently changed, and how these were reflected in dexterity of performance.

But we are equally uncomfortable when we exceed the level of our self-image. A recent study, carried out by Northwestern University, provides evidence that, if we are particularly virtuous in one area of our lives, we may compensate by behaving badly in another, or at least refraining from the good we would otherwise do. Thus, it suggests, we regain the comfort of our own LIPS level.

So a fraudulent investment manager may undertake great and good public works and thereby restore his appropriate moral level. His vice and virtue cancel out. But, more relevantly, it indicates how those of high religious standing, even members of the priesthood, can indulge in evil practices. They do not do so in spite of their high calling but because of it. They are restoring their LIPS level.

There is much to think about here. We immediately face an apparent contradiction. We are taught to be humble, that we are miserable sinners, that any good we may achieve must be attributed to the grace of God. Our LIPS level should be rock-bottom. Then we remember that Christ declared himself to be humble and that he received everything from his Father. Yet he spoke as one with authority and emphasised that no one could approach the Father except through him. The claim: “I and the Father are one” does not suggest a low LIPS level to me.

I would approach this first by remembering that we are called to be perfect. Thus there is no upper limit for, no matter what we do, we will fall short. Next, we have to remember that we are always worthwhile because, however unsatisfactory and sinful we may be, God loves us and continues to search us out. So that is the basis for high self-esteem.

Then I look at the paradox of grace. Every movement we make towards God is wholly achieved through grace, yet our choices are truly ours and we truly become holy people. Grace is not a whitewash; it works not from outside us but from within us. Solve that, if you can, or – like me – just accept it. Thus whatever spiritual progress we make should be a source of self-esteem. In this way we are able to achieve a high self-esteem, while remaining humble in our acknowledgement that it comes from God. And there in no upper limit.

How would such theological reflection express itself in practice? I maintain that the traditional daily examination of conscience (which does not appear to have been updated since the Middle Ages) is fundamentally flawed. Rightly, we search out our faults, are contrite, and resolve to do better. But we can omit reflection on the good things we have done, the small advances in virtue we have made.

This reflection is important because, although we must thank God for the grace we needed, we have actually become holier thereby. Our all important LIPS can rise to a higher level, inspiring us to live up to our higher standards. John Paul II taught that virtuous behaviour leads in turn to greater virtue, but surely this is more difficult if we do not reflect on such progress as we have made.

But care is needed. All examination of conscience must take place under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we hope that our insights may be realistic and sincere. In testing them our ultimate criterion must be St Paul’s teaching that even the most extreme of good works are nothing unless they are sourced in love.

*    *    *

Formal Confession on a regular basis is much rarer than it used to be. Why has this happened? Of course if the practice returned, our poor priests would have to spend their lives in the confessional. But none of this relieves the need for examination of conscience.

How do you react to my suggestion that we should look at the good as well as the bad things? Are you able to reconcile humility with a high self image?

General absolution is only offered nowadays for exceptional reasons. Good idea or bad idea?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to LIPS

  1. Iona says:

    As regards the paradox of grace, I suppose grace is available to us but we may opt not to accept it, or to accept it only in restricted ways.

  2. Vincent says:

    Iona, the only problem with your theory is that our ability to accept grace, also requires grace. I think I’m right in saying that any move towards God cannot be through unaided human choice.

    I am interested in Quentin’s question about frequency of Confession. Is it because people dislike the ‘old style’ list of sins Confession, but have less trust in priests to give good spiritual advice? Is it because of the contraceptive issue? Is it because some people’s temperaments make it particularly hard to talk about embarrassing things?

    Spent a bit of time last night trying to think of how I had improved in virtue during the day. Not a lot, I fear.

  3. Iona says:

    Vincent, – but a move away from God presumably can be (must be?) a matter of unaided human choice. We can choose to resist grace.

    As regards Confession, I wonder if its current unpopularity is simply down to present cultural pressures for self-promotion which run completely counter to the qualities needed for a “good confession”.

  4. Andrew Lack says:

    I find Quentin’s column on LIPS especially interesting and want to pass a thought extending from this. Please forgive me, Quentin, if you have already expressed this in one of your books, which I do not know, and probably should read!

    It seems to me that the pursuit of happiness has similar boundaries. Nearly all parents express the fact that they want their children to be happy, and often this is the first and main desire. But we seem, in part, to create our own unhappinesses, as if we cannot take too much of it. I read about a poll some time ago that compared several aspects of life, including perception of happiness, in the 1950s and the 2000s. The striking thing was that though materially we are enormously better off now than then (I think it was factor of about three in real terms), the ‘happiness’ rating had gone down by more than 30%. Perhaps the serious awfulness of the war made everyone compensate in the 1950s to find such high happiness ratings. The 1950s these days are usually derided as ‘tawdry’, ‘grey’ or some such adjective. The war was a much more distant memory by 1970, say, or perhaps earlier, so did we need to create our own unhappiness?

    In this context it became clear that there were two things strongly correlated with happiness: 1/ marriage and 2/ regular religious observance, both most unfashionable in much of society at present. But at least Catholics are urged along the right lines! Add to that the confessional that probably keeps many Catholics away from psychotherapy and counselling, now a huge industry (I have seen it written that there are fewer practising Catholics than would be expected that go in for these things).

    I may be barking up a wrong or at least quite different tree here…

  5. Below is a comment from Anthony Williams (5 August), reproduced from another page.

    * * *

    I can offer two explanations for the LIPS phenomenon, both of which involve the absence of the all-important virtue of prudence, the “key to the virtues”, which gives wisdom about ourselves:
    1) concerns the very common misconception that as someone grows in holiness and gets nearer to God, temptations diminish.
    The opposite is true, as C.S.Lewis describes brilliantly in one of his books (sorry, no ref.). Someone who has begun to grow in holiness but is unaware of this can easily become discouraged and “throw in the towel”, so to speak.

    2) concerns the fact that the very genuine delight and joy sometimes experienced as a result of growth in the virtues is easily “turned aside” to other, and more accessible, objects of delight. Whether the objects in question are morally neutral or morally harmful, the end result is the same: the person is drawn away from the true and only real source of the delight. In extreme cases the delight can even be misinterpreted as a “licence to practise” immorality. St. Paul in one of his letters urges his listeners not to “use their happiness as an opportunity for immorality”, or words to that effect (sorry, again, no ref.).

    Anthony Williams

  6. I approach the question of happiness with some caution. The first problem is agreeing on a definition of happiness. Is this an active sense of joy? Or simply the absence of an active sense of unhappiness? Are we referring to sustained contentment or the temporary happiness that come from a new achievement, good news about someone we love, or simply a new possession? Are there some whose natural temperament is optimistic and sunny, and others who are pessimistic and find that life is against them?

    But even with an agreed definition it is very difficult to measure average change over time because self-report questionnaires are necessarily subjective. One can of course make inferences. For example there tend to be higher levels of depression during financial crises, and people with close, stable families tend to be happier than those in broken families. But then we scarcely need to remark on this because it could hardly be otherwise.

    Anthony Williams is surely right to draw our attention to our ability to trap ourselves in our own sense of virtue. It may that his C S Lewis remark comes from the Screwtape Letters. It would be typical of the Devil’s ju-jitsu to use our virtues to trap us into spiritual pride.

    Not that I’d ever get caught, I am far too humble for that!

  7. Iona says:

    Mr. Micawber had a very concise and simple definition of happiness.

  8. Daisy says:

    Certainly concise but not necessarily simple. To the insolvent, solvency may be accounted happiness. But the habitually solvent are not always happy.

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