To do: Get a raise at work. Achieve a 4.0 GPA in my master’s program. Get married, have kids, and buy a house. Own a successful business.
These are some of the things that I began to equate with success. These were the new items I needed to check off on my to-do list. Not exactly like going to the grocery store to pick up some produce, is it?
This was a dangerous place to be—let me tell you why.
My self-worth became conditional. If I felt like I was achieving success on the business end, and if I felt like my relationship was heading in the direction of a house, marriage, and kids, then I was feeling good about myself. If I felt that I was achieving high grades in school, then I was feeling good about myself.
I began to enter into a dicey “if, then” equation that compared my own self-worth to these external measurements. You can see why this is a problem, right? Because these things are not always going to go well.
Things can’t always be moving forward, successfully, all the time. Believing they would was an incredibly high expectation I had for myself and I was setting myself up to fail. And so I fell short—again and again. There was a lull in business. A wave hit my relationship. I hit a financial speed bump. People weren’t following my plan; they were getting in the way of my “success.” Basically, life happened. And my self-esteem, now dependent upon these things, took deep dives as well.
My self-esteem was inexorably attached to the tides of life. And to be completely honest, it wasn’t just my self-esteem that was attached to the tides, but it was also my happiness, which was probably the most dangerous part.
I had always thought of myself as a confident and grounded individual. I would tell myself, when things weren’t going as I had planned, that I “was fine,” and attributed my lack of success to something else. On the outside, I presumably took things well and in stride. I may have even appeared to have it all together.
But I wasn’t fooling myself. All this Buddhism mumbo-jumbo about “non-attachment” sounded great on paper, but it wasn’t happening in my life. In my life, I had better achieve the things that I wanted. I had better get these things done in my time. Other people would definitely benefit from practicing non-attachment in their lives, but I wouldn’t need to.
And so, I had to face a human truth about myself, one that many people before me faced, and that many people after me will face: I am attached.
I am attached to results. I am attached to what people think of me. I am attached to grades, to numbers, to salaries—to all of it.
I’m not the first to notice that society urges us to define success by external measures. Maybe it’s not even society’s fault. Maybe it’s been ingrained in me from the start. I don’t really care so much about where it comes from, all I care about is that it causes way more suffering than I’d like to admit to you. Suffering from feeling like feeling I will never match up to those “other successful people,” that elusive group of people that never faces challenges or speed bumps.
But this isn’t about them and it’s not about society and it’s not about any specific situation. This is about me. And the only solution to this toxic mindset is a solution found within me.
The solution is an inside job-–it always is, isn’t it? The solution is facing the fears that are driving this behavior. The solution is asking ourselves some of these questions: So what? So what if I don’t succeed? So what if I don’t look like everyone else? So what if my life is on a different path? So f*cking what?
And what I am slowly but surely learning is the solution involves understanding on a deep, soulful, and human-level, that it really isn’t about what I do or don’t do. I mean, sure those things might matter to me on a surface level, but they are tiny specks of who I am.
Picture a painting of the ocean. The picture, when viewed up close, is made up of thousands of tiny specks of paint. It is made up of all different colors of paint: white, Cobalt blue, gray, Seafoam green. Some parts translucent, others opaque. This is the substance of my being. The painting is beautiful, when viewed as a whole. These things that I do are tiny specks of my being. Often times, the specks don’t make sense on their own; they only make sense in the context of my entire being. And, yes, the things that I do, over time, begin to make up who I am, but on their own, they don’t define who I am.
We are not defined solely by what we do or what we don’t do.
We are made up of the millions of choices that we have made over a lifetime. We are made up of the millions of choices that others have made over a lifetime. We are made up of water and stardust. We are beautiful, unique, sometimes strange, and ever-changing chemical beings.
Author: Ali Mariani
Editor: Catherine Monkman