As someone traveling the world while making a living writing on the Internet, I often feel like I’m living in a dream world.
And other times, I find myself feeling like I’m not rich enough, famous enough, successful enough.
I mean, I don’t have that much to show off about, not much to brag about at cocktail parties…or tailgate parties. No fancy car, no big house, no a bank statement that can barely be contained by the edges of the page.
Nothing except the fact I get to do something I love every day from anywhere with an Internet connection. Something that lets me express myself openly, utilizes my skills and interests, and — hopefully — helps people.
This should not be disappointing. This should not be stressful. But sometimes it is.
When there is a disconnect between who we want to be and who we feel we’re supposed to be, we experience suffering: Anxiety, worry, feelings of inadequacy, and uncertainty. Shame, guilt, frustration and “feeling stuck”.
Are You Successful Enough (To Be Happy)?
Society places certain expectations on each one of us. The media and advertising sells images of what success and happiness are supposed to look like, images designed to make us open our wallets as often as possible.
These expectations are different for each of us depending on our age, ethnicity, gender, and other demographic information but have the same underlying themes: We’re supposed to look young (it’s okay to be old, but only if you don’t look it), slender & sexy (without trying too hard), have a high paying job, a good looking (“perfect”) family, a big house and nice car, time for interesting hobbies, be well-read on any subject, and so on.
The message boils down to this: We are not successful enough to deserve happiness.
As a result, we will often pour time and effort into attaining the unattainable. But the emotional toll it takes is far more costly than the time, energy, and money we may spend.
For we can never be happy when we’re trying to meet these external benchmarks of “success”. And the harder we try, the more we suffer.
Case in point, I was always successful in both academics and athletics during school. I constantly heard how smart or great I was.
While this is undoubtedly better than hearing that you’re stupid and a loser, it had a toxic effect: I came to believe I always had to be perfect, to win, to succeed and that I could never show signs of weakness…of mortality.
So when I developed tendonitis while studying jazz guitar (an unexpected career move for someone perfectly suited to science) at the University of Manitoba, my pride would not let me stop playing.
I have it written in my practice log: The last day I practiced before my body literally gave out I practiced for 13.5 hours. (This was not abnormal by the way)
I had struggled with tendonitis for about 3 years to this point (September 2009). And my urgent need to “not fail” made me think that 13.5 hours of direct aggravation of my injury was a reasonable idea.
In July of 2012, when I turned 24, I still could not drive, use a knife and fork, or pretty much do anything requiring fine motor control or gripping. (One year later, I’m finally about 80%-90% better on good days)
But I’m Not Obsessive!
Clearly, this is an insane, obsessive behavior that no rational person would ever do right? I wish. We all do things like this – perform some action that is totally counterproductive to our well being, just often in more subtle, more insidious ways.
Like trying 17 different diets instead of working on your self image & values – which will dictate any necessary lifestyle changes.
Or a middle-class cubicle jockey working overtime to make extra money instead of spending time with his/her children – because it’s home reno season!
The problem with keeping up with the Jones’s isn’t just that they’re going broke, it’s that they also hate their empty, frustrating, stressful, unfulfilling lives.
So how can we stop the madness and live true to ourselves? To escape consumerist propaganda & well-meaning but harmful parents/teachers/authority figures?
Especially when there’s nothing wrong with having a big house, a high salary, or a bodacious six pack. How do you know where the real bullshit ends and you begin? How do you tell if one of these expectations is helping or harming you.
I’ve found that writing the answers to these questions posed by Brené Brown in I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t) helps clarify things nicely:
How do I want to be perceived: (ex// successful, clever, a good father, perfect life – has it all together)
How do I NOT want to be perceived: (ex// a failure, weak , boring, stupid/ignorant, an unfit parent)
Knowing how you want others to perceive you is just as important as how you perceive yourself. When we judge ourselves as not living up to these ideals we create, we suffer for it. But now that you have awareness you can ask yourself:
Is this a reasonable expectation? (example: Make $150,000/year…maybe unnecessary?)
Can I be/do this all the time? (80 hour weeks, like many lawyers and accountants I know)
Do these expectations conflict with one another😕 (look young AND natural AND model-thin AND not worry about food…)
Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be? (…and what actually matters to you?)
If someone perceives me as having/being the items in the “not” list, what will happen? (If someone thinks I’m a failure…then what?)
This is not something you can do once and change your life with, but it WILL give you some critical awareness that will empower you to choose actions that better align with your values – instead of other people’s plans for you.
And that’s the most important thing:
If you go through life without self-awareness, you are doomed to lead the life other people planned for you.
And if you go through life with self-awareness, you’ll become the author of your life, free to pursue your passion and express yourself as you please. And that’s a great recipe for happiness.