Defining your success.
Certain milestones like New Year’s, birthdays or a work promotion can serve as a good excuse for a party with family and friends.
Happy or sad (…because a bereavement can shake you too…), and whether a special life event results in a party or a pause, for some, it may trigger anxiety or panic if comparison creeps in against external expectations on who or what you ‘should be’ or what you ‘should have’ by X age, milestone or stage in life.
One way to avoid falling down this rabbit hole is to block out the external noise that starts with “you should by now…” You risk triggering a cascade of doubts or feeling sad or angry with ‘God’ or ‘Life’ that it has been ‘unfair’ or ‘unlucky’.
There is no one template for living your life. The best plans can derail through no fault of your own; some stop-overs last a lifetime.
The ‘should be’ statements are usually limiting mindsets that can undermine your confidence and hijack the moment. Instead of acknowledging or celebrating you may avoid, suppress or quickly move on to the ‘next thing’ to potentially restart this cycle.
A wise person once told me: never compare someone else’s outside story to your inside story.
Nothing good comes from that whether you assess yourself coming up long or short because it is a flawed methodology.
If you find yourself in the above experience then be assured you’re not alone.
I will be honest that in the last few years of my life I have had to confront these ‘should be’ voices that have crept up at the birthdays and holidays, seeking to limit my celebrations, define my success and box in my experiences according to certain standards set by my ancestors and social expectations.
Given my mixed cultural upbringing as an Arab-American child of immigrants I had even more conflicting messages to reconcile because the ‘should be’ factors hit me from two different cultural paradigms be it from Disney movies, other media or family dinners.
People have long suffered from unhealthy mindsets like ‘keeping up with the Jones’ or ‘the grass is always greener on the neighbor’s lawn’ and ‘happiness is around the corner with the next thing I achieve or own’.
It may be that the advent of social media, digital imaging touch ups and the increased pace of life has sharpened the edges of such experiences so the comparative cuts run deeper and the relentless expectations run higher.
“Are you just performing at life or are you really living it?”
- Pippa Grange 2019
As I got older, I kept hearing voices amplified: that I ‘should be’ successful academically, professionally, financially BUT don’t intimidate the men so you could get married, have minimum two kids (preferably boy and girl), be a master homemaker / cook AND accumulate certain material possessions like a property [or two] all the while dressing the part and maintaining a fit figure without stretch marks or brow lines. Easy right?
So what happened as I approached my late 30s and took stock that I didn’t tick off all of these boxes?
I struggled with anxiety, loss of confidence and indecisiveness. I lost interest in my achievements even though I was kicking awesome goals and receiving external accolades. I made decisions that didn’t honor my vision …and they backfired. I almost went into substantial financial debt to fund a graduate program at an elite university not only because I was genuinely interested in what the degree had to offer, but also — after digging deeper in the reason why — I realized I thought it may validate my success according to external standards.
But after some time, and with the help of supportive friends and family, I realized that I was punishing myself and I alone had the power to stop it.
People often inherit expectations as children and usually subconsciously so from parents, preachers, teachers, media and peers. While some of these expectations may be useful, others may not be. If you have not done the work of filtering out what serves you at different stages of you life then sooner or later the external definitions of success or judgements on failures can rob you of your own story. This is not to say one should renounce all the advice or values bestowed by your parents, spiritual or school teachers. However, tuning out the external noise and checking in with yourself can make the difference between coasting in life or taking ownership for defining your version of success.
“Success isn’t about how your life looks to others, it’s about how it feels to you.”
– Michelle Obama 2012
It can be life affirming and even life changing to use special occasions and milestones to look back and look ahead. Below are some tools and techniques that have helped me to appreciate my journey, take decisions with confidence, and move ahead with clarity and conviction.
1- Give thanks. Always. Gratitude changes everything.
2- Welcome the opportunity to reflect. Periodic reviews on your lifestyle, choices and current status is a valuable way to tune in to make sure you’re living a life according to your values and aspirations which may change from time to time depending on your age, stage and experiences. The aim is to avoid chasing someone else’s life definition and not to punish yourself.
3- Use prompts so you don’t sell yourself short. We have tendency to focus on what didn’t happen or what we didn’t achieve to the detriment of appreciating all that is present and all the good that transpired. It can be useful to look through diaries, photos and social media posts. This will help trigger memories of what you set out to achieve and did, and also the ways you rose to the unexpected challenges, showed resilience, turned up for yourself and others and embraced life.
Word of caution with social media: remember they are curated clips and a snapshot not the whole story. It can trigger insecurities so if you’re feeling vulnerable it is kinder to yourself to take a break and re-engage when you can relate in a balanced way.
4- It’s not all on you. Acknowledge what you do not / did not have control over. It may also help to reframe the narrative since change of plans and challenges could present opportunities and so-called failures could bring you much learning, growth and resilience.
5- Write it out or talk it out. Our thoughts can get circular and issues can seem bigger in our heads. Writing in a journal or verbalizing with a supportive friend or counselor may give you clarity and comfort that the issues are not as daunting or that you are selling yourself short. Also by honest sharing with others you come to learn that everyone struggles with something.
This may also help you uncover what isn’t sitting right with you and what your aspirations are. Remember to challenge yourself on the ‘why?’ to align with what makes you ‘you’ and not whatever you may think fits into external expectations or what may look good on social media.
6- Decide what — if anything — needs to shift. It may just be your mindset towards X issue (i.e. work, family, social media, fitness, body image). It may be that certain relationships need to be better managed if they trigger judgment or unhealthy pressure. You may want to implement bigger changes or do complete life swerve!
In any case commit to whatever you decide by supportive habits or seek help to achieve your goals, your way.
Don’t forget to enjoy the journey!