I called an old friend recently to offer congratulations on her success. She had attained the biggest promotion of her career. Instead of thanking me she sighed and said, “yeah…I’ve reached the top…there’s nowhere else to go.” Apparently the view from the top really is lonely.
She thinks she’s disappointed. I think she’s angry. She did everything right. She didn’t step on anyone to climb the company ladder. On the contrary, she carried people on her back. She sacrificed, worked way too hard, and yet her father still doesn’t boast about his girl. He’s a self centered jerk and she’s an insecure perfectionist (not that there’s any other type).
Relentlessly pursuing the next rung up the ladder provides a lot of room for denial. We who feel empty, insufficient, or insecure excel in striving and trudging. Like a carrot on a stick we chase the next award, accolade, or rung. We tell the continuous lie, “I’ll be happy when…Things will be better when…It’ll all be worth it when…” Twenty five becomes thirty five and then forty five and “when” is nowhere in sight.
Anheuser-Busch had an ad campaign years ago telling us that we should “know when to say when.” Apparently they didn’t want the responsibility/liability of what can happen when one ingests too much of their products. Dysfunctional families should come with a similar disclaimer – “We have no idea what we’re doing – don’t swallow too much of our crap!”
Children unknowingly internalize their self worth based on how they are treated and what they are told about themselves. Many of us were mislead. Many of us were lied to. A lot of us were sold short. As adults we are insecure because we lack the assuredness of Feeling and Believing that we are lovable, acceptable, and worthy of the things we kill ourselves to earn: approval, recognition, and appreciation – not simply for what we do but moreover for who we are.
I’d like to convince the Surgeon General to distribute a message to preteens across America:
– Warning! Internalizing unhealthy expectations of perfection will screw you up as an adult! – Warning! Before you buy into the mindset of those who raised you, consider whether what they believe ever resulted in happiness! – Warning! Just as you’d get a second opinion from a doctor, consider getting outside input on your worth as a human being before you walk around believing that somehow you’re not good enough!
And most of all:
– Warning! As an adult, you’re very likely to surround yourself with the kind of people you grew up with because these are the types of unhealthy folks you are most familiar and comfortable interacting with. This may result in one sided friendships, ridiculous work environments, and partnering/marrying people who are waaaay too much like the parent(s) who didn’t make you feel loved!
Prominently displayed in my office is a picture of Freud with the caption, “Before you go diagnosing yourself with depression or low self esteem, first consider that you may in fact simply be surrounded by assholes.” I point this out to the folks who tell me that what they believe about themselves must be true because everyone in their family sees it that way and they can’t all be wrong!
Actually, yes they can. Welcome! You are now a member in good standing of the (dis)organization of amazing individuals who share the distinction of being the one sane person in their family. There are millions of us. We are black sheep and scapegoats. We are the crazy one, the screwed up one, the one everyone rolls their eyes over because we are not sufficiently like them.
I’d like to start local chapters because we really need each other. We need people to assure us that we’re okay. We need to redefine ourselves and redefine what success is because living by other people’s standards, beliefs, and values only makes us melancholy at best and miserable at worst.
To my dear friend who got the promotion and to all who believe that they have not accomplished enough, lived up to what was expected of them or otherwise see themselves as failures, I offer a quote that is wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s a great definition of success, which I think should be my next tattoo:
“Success: To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the respect of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.”