When Self-Worth Becomes Contingent on Achievement. How to Feel like Enough when Faced with Failure.
We were raised to embody the American Dream.
We were raised to embody the American Dream.
My mom came to America with 300 dollars to her name and built herself to financial prosperity and my dad self-taught himself English and worked hard to help his family out of the basement that was his first Colorado residence. They came to America for safety, independence and the hope that their children could live life on their terms. “You can do whatever you want” they said. “If you keep working hard.”
America was defined as the land of opportunity-if we worked hard and kept striving. They, like traditional education systems, defined success by outcomes and a fixed mindset. My dad, the nuclear chemist, approached excellence (and life) as a systematic equation where x needs to be solved for, and only when x is perfectly obtained and thoroughly solved for- did you succeed. He measured success through tangible outcomes of the highest representation- the A+, the honor roll list, that blue ribbon from the swim meet, number of cookies sold, numbers of scout badges earned, caliber of school attended and knowing all the answers to all potential questions and solving for them.
This upbringing instilled in me a hard work ethic, an intrinsic desire to succeed, a desire for self-created freedom, and a drive to always, always strive for more. This mind set is beautiful because it allows me to constantly set goals, be a perpetual student, and to continue striving for physical, mental, emotional and material gains. Always.
This developed mindset and my parents role modeling of it caused me to never give up. It caused me to develop grit.
While I love this part of me and have no desire to change it-with self awareness-I see that it is only half of the necessary equation. Without compassion, celebration and mindfulness- this mindset has the potential to make me feel not good enough- because what I accomplish is never enough. The tricky thing is that once you achieve that A+, that degree, that blue ribbon-it’s never enough because the next higher goal is around the corner. This constant striving without stopping to recognize it causes me to miss opportunities for self compassion, to not celebrate the milestones before the end product, and to be my harshest critic.
You broke the glass ceiling but it took you so long, and you didn’t create and break the new one yet? Shame on you.
As a result, I developed a strong internal critic that placed my worth solely on solving for x. Perpetual pressure became status quo and my worth was defined by productivity and outcome measures-not on the number of times I got up when I fell. This mindset did not allow me to develop the belief that failure is in fact healthy and necessary to build up tolerance, compassion, strength and problem solving ability. It did not allow me to place credit on the process of the goal achievement-of not giving up and choosing to keep striving.
While I will always strive for better, and strive for more- for me and my life-I have also learned that I need to celebrate the times I try and keep trying-and highlight what I learn about myself in the process. If I don’t-the world and myself can feel overwhelming, unforgiving and too much. I can perpetually feel as if I’m not enough- and the belief of being not good enough leads to unhappiness, isolation and a dangerous territory of negative thinking and low self-esteem. The very things that our harshest critics breeds on to become bigger, stronger, and overpowering-and us to feel small, fatigued and depressed.
In order to combat this, I try to celebrate my perseverance, my determination, and the times I fail and get back up. I try to highlight and recognize the things that I did that did help me succeed. I celebrate the milestones of the process, and use that pride to fuel my drive. I set goals that are authentic to my life, and opposed to what I believe others would want me to achieve, and I approach failure with compassion-and excitement at the challenge ahead, rather than harsh criticism. Mindfulness of the process is hugely impactful for this because it allows me to slow down and pay attention to the moments I can celebrate. It allows me to highlight the moments where I learned something and really ingest it. As a result, I can feel grateful and proud of myself in the present process-and to feel like I am enough.
While in the past, I believed that having compassion towards myself would lessen the steam I had for my goals, it actually pushes me harder in them. Believing that I am worthy and good enough ‘as is’ allows me to be happy and content. This fuels me to keep going with a stronger heart and sense of self. Mindfulness with compassion allows me to change the tune of my harsh critic to one of celebration, compassion and kindness. By speaking to the softest part of me, I can feel cheer-leaded, proud and strong.
You wanted to quit and you kept going because the goal was important to you. You brushed away your tears, found your strength, and decided to try again. Beautiful perseverance, determination and heart.
Let us find the teaching points in every journey and every failure. Compassionately notice and identify how far we have come and the hardships endured. Celebrate the times when we are brave enough to try and brave enough to keep going when we are face down in the dirt. It is in those moments that we realize what we are made of, and it makes us stronger to tackle whatever is ahead of us.
With the words of my parents in my head and the fuel of compassion in my heart-I hope to tell my future children, “I believe in you. You can have the freedom to live the life you want-if you work hard, learn from your challenges, be compassionate with yourself, and be mindful and celebrate your successes. And never, ever give up. You are enough”.