What is success?

I was back at our weekly meeting last week (we have a weekly meeting for those people in our area who have mental wellness challenges), and various people spoke of their issues.

 

Strangely, my topic of discussion was my anxiety. Now, it’s not that anxiety in and of itself is a strange topic to discuss at a mental wellness group, it’s just that I am one of the more “successful” people in the group, and I am anxious about whether I am “successful” or not.

 

In a past article I spoke about “keeping up with the Joneses” – that urge you experience when you view what your neighbour has or earns which drives you forward to strive for more, ever more… While I spoke of that urge in the context of money, I have found that it applies equally forcefully to other, non-tangible qualities, such as reputation and community standing.

 

How did “keeping up with the Joneses” and community standing collide in my world? Merely by reading the newspaper. I read an exposé on a local, behind-the-scenes political operative, and saw the influence he wielded and the positive reportage given to him. It caused me to wonder: “what have I done with my life”? I mean, why am I NOT the one who is being profiled? Am I EVER going to get anywhere in life? Am I ever going to become….”Successful”?

 

Polly Young-Eisendrath, in her book “The Self-Esteem Trap”, stated that: “The pressure to achieve great things results in high levels of anxiety and depression. Psychologist Jean Twenge, in her book Generation Me, reports that ‘only 1% to 2% of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode during their lifetimes, even though they lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. Today, the lifetime rate of major depression is ten times higher – between 15% and 20%. Some studies put the figure closer to 50%.‘”[1]

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Sure, I HAVE done fantastic things – I have obtained a good education, I hold a stable, full-time job, I give my time to my community, I support my family…but somehow, I still have this urge to “achieve great things”…and that has led to anxiety.

 

Surely, my expectations are “too” high, and as a result, I guarantee that I will not achieve them, and thus view myself as not “successful”. As Richard O’Connor says: “When we set impossible goals for ourselves, we guarantee we’ll never achieve them, a sure route to misery. Perfectionism also means focusing on the details, not the meaning, and never getting the real substance right“.[2]

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This feeling of not being “successful” must then be an outgrowth of my perfectionism. And, in looking inward, I can see that I have, and am, plagued by the punishment of perfectionism. O’Connor further says: “If you have a perfectionistic paradigm, you’ll never be satisfied with your own work. You’ll spend many unnecessary hours giving whatever you do one more coat of polish, not recognizing that sometimes things are best left alone. You won’t believe it when people praise your work, because you will always be focused on the last little deficiencies that only you can see.[3]

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And it is true, I have a difficult time being satisfied with my own work. I strive ever more to help my small area of the community, and I believe that if I am “successful” in this endeavour, then I will be recognized. But, why do I want to be recognized? Isn’t my drive for “perfectionism”, that which causes me to strive to do more and more (rather than sit on the couch and read a book like my significant other is presently doing, rather contentedly I might frustratingly add), a good thing? Perhaps not. Brené Brown states: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.[4] Ahhhhhh….now THIS I can agree with.

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So, for me, if I strive very hard (try to be “perfect”) I can avoid the shame that I believe attached to me as a child. I am, and have been, working hard to avoid the views people held of me when I was a child. I was a different person back then (aren’t we all?), and, in my goal of re-inventing or re-branding myself, I am trying to do everything “perfectly” to become that new person. In doing so, I will cleanse myself of the shame that I felt about who I was as a child.

 

But, am I causing myself new pain, and new anxiety in attempting to do the impossible: trying to be perfect? In a word, yes.

 

So, what should I do about that?….read on.

 

You can buy the books by clicking on the FOOTNOTE, or…..check them out from your library….they’re free!!

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Young-Eisendrath, Polly, “The Self-Esteem Trap”, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), p. 114.

[2] O’Connor, Richard, “Happy at last – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy” (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008)”, p. 141.

[3] O’Connor, Richard, “Rewire: Change your brain”, (New York, NY: Plume, 2014), p. 26.

[4] Brown, Brené, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 56.

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