To be successful, as defined by society, causes us to focus on wealth and power, not on one’s ability and goals. When I can say that I’ve done my best, and am comfortable with that, then I’m successful and at peace.
“If I try to fail and succeed, which have I done?” – anonymous
I use the above quote with my college students when I’m lecturing on the topic of being successful, challenging them to look at life from a different perspective. In challenging our perspectives, and even our definitions, I am not merely playing semantics as I firmly believe that words actually do hold meaning. If you aren’t sure about the validity of that statement, think of the last time someone’s words either caused you joy or caused you pain. Words do have the power to affect our emotions, therefore, by challenging ourselves to look at our own definitions from a new perspective can change how we feel.
How I define being successful, or how successful is defined for me, influences how I feel about myself. Many of us have culturally learned that success is defined by tangible goods and/or wealth. We hear expressions such as “If I have more things than someone else, I am successful”; or, “if I have a title or initials after my name, I am successful.” These cultural statements aside, I hope that people who have worked hard to accomplish what they feel is a level of success takes pride in themselves. Yet, the question remains, does someone else’s level of success negate, or take away from, my perceived level of success? In other words, is one’s success defined by another’s accomplishments?
For example, a person who works hard and deservedly obtains the position of CEO is perceived as reaching success in life. While another person who works hard, and is known to be the best plumber in town, although an employee of the company, not owner or partner, would we agree that that person also has attained success? What about the trash collector who strives to be the best trash collector there is; have they achieved success? If we agree that the people in these examples have attained success, would we also recognize that each of them is as successful?
So why is it that many of us, although accomplished in what we do, continue to feel less successful than the person holding a higher position or making more money? I believe that one answer is due to our drive to challenge ourselves to strive for excellence. These motives and qualities are positive, yet at the same time, they also perpetuate a self-told narrative that others are better than I. Does this mean we shouldn’t strive for betterment? Of course, we should strive to better ourselves, but not at the expense of sacrificing our core beliefs or inner peace.
A quote attributed to the Catholic priest Fr. Joseph Martin (co-founder of Father Martin’s Ashley, now named Ashley Addiction Treatment) states, “the good is the enemy of the best.“ Striving to grow, mature, and gain wisdom leads us to feelings of accomplishment and possibly even success. But that depends on our definition of success; ah I have just taken us back to the beginning of this article, yet not any closer to an answer than when you started reading.
Is there a definitive definition of success? Can we objectively apply one description to everyone, or are we left with a personal understanding of the concept of success? Personally, I believe it’s the latter. If the definition is subjective, then how I define success for my life is based partly on my perspective about my life and the idea of success.
Therefore, I suggest that each of us change our perspective on success from one based on societal objectivity with its comparison to others, to a view wherein we strive to obtain success as defined by our values, thereby leading us toward inner peace, happiness, and self-worth.
Making this perspective shift requires us to look within ourselves to examine our motives for wanting to better ourselves and attain success. As mentioned above, the desire toward betterment is a positive goal, yet it depends on my motivation. We need to ask ourselves, “Why do I desire to be better?” Why do I strive for success, and how will I know success when I achieve it?” If my motivation toward betterment and success is based solely on the belief of “beating everyone else,” then I may be willing to compromise my core being and values to achieve that height of success, or else I may view myself as a failure. In this scenario, one’s success comes at a price. The idea of seeking betterment is not the issue; the motivation guiding you is what, in the end, causes one to gain everything, yet continue to feel empty and restless.
How can I change my motivation and perspective about success so that I may attain the best I can be and feel inner peace?
- Meditate: Take time each day, even just 10 or 20 minutes to meditate. Either find a quiet location or take a walk; whichever helps you best to focus. Now, focus on your breathing, not trying to control your breaths, just noticing them. Be aware of the air entering and the air leaving. Be mindful of what you are feeling. Don’t judge the feeling, just notice it. Practice this daily, and over time, you’ll notice that not only is the act of meditating becoming more natural, but you are feeling more at peace.
- Examine: Take time to reflect on what success means to you. Don’t judge your definition, simply define it. How does the definition make you feel? Does your definition match your beliefs and values? If not, ask yourself what you will need to change to create a match? Keep in mind that sacrificing who you are for temporal gain will not, in the long term, bring you inner peace.
- Confer: Take time to meet with family or close friends whom you trust to discuss your thoughts and feelings from numbers 1 and 2 above. Listen, without judgment, to their opinion. The next time you meditate, reflect on the feedback and your feelings concerning what you heard.
- Act: A saying I often repeat is “there are no problems, only solutions.” I don’t know who first said it, but its meaning motivates me to reframe my thinking and change my perspective from “problem-oriented” to “solution-oriented.” Creating a deep belief that solutions are possible, we will reach for success while maintaining a sense of inner peace.
To be successful, according to society’s standards means doing whatever it takes to get to the top! But if your beliefs and values are not focused on hurting other people for your own gain, you will either never find success, or you’ll find success at the price of hurting yourself. To avoid society’s view of success, change your perspective, and redefine success based on what’s important to you and your beliefs and values. Striving to be better is a great challenge, but feeling successful with who you are today will bring you peace.
Unfortunately, many people struggle with chronic pain management, as do I. Over time I’ve gained insights into what techniques work for me and which don’t work. Much of the content of my life coaching message comes from my personal pain management struggles. One thing I have learned with certainty, there are ways to manage pain and discover pain relief daily.
Pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is unavoidable. As I write this, about seven years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an overall body pain due to overstimulated nerves. It took a while to find that diagnosis and a couple of years more to find the right combination of medications. I’ve reflected much on pain and how best to live with chronic pain, gaining insights into chronic pain management, yet the learning continues.
We try our best to avoid pain, almost at all costs. Personally and as a society, we make every effort imaginable to avoid, end, or numb, all pain. Yet, the more we try, I feel the more we end up still in pain and not feeling at peace or happy. According to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication, enough for every adult in the United States to have a bottle of pills.” This reality is one of the reasons we have the current opioid crisis as narcotic pain medicines are addictive, even when taken as prescribed. Yet there’s a better way to deal with the pain rather than medicating our way out of it.
In my experience, I ask what I feel is the central question “Why do we feel pain?” Maybe if we understood the “why” we would better understand how best to cope with pain.
According to Barbara Finlay “The basic function of pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma.” In other words, pain is necessary as it alerts us to a problem we need to address. For example, continuing to walk on a broken leg causes more damage to the leg. The pain of the fractured leg forces us to stop and adequately deal with the break. The same is true when we are feeling emotional pain, all too common for us who live with chronic pain. Our emotional pain warns us that we need to take care of ourself by pausing to deal with the cause of the pain. If we choose to ignore the root cause of our emotional pain, as with our physical pain, we will live thinking and feeling in unhealthy ways, never feeling better or at peace.
So why is it that we spend copious amounts of energy and money to avoid pain? If pain is necessary for our physical and emotional well being, why do we fight so hard to get rid of it? Don’t misinterpret what I am saying, for I am not saying pain itself is to be desired! Instead, I am saying that pain is a part of our life, and so learning to cope with pain instead of numbing or avoiding pain will lead us to physical and emotional health and peace.
In an article titled “How To Stop Using Hunger To Numb Your Emotions,” a podcast guest of mine, Brandilyn Tebo writes: “I fundamentally believed that I was not allowed to have what I really wanted until I proved that I was’ worthy’ enough. So I would rather numb my desires than feel them because not feeling anything was easier than wanting the fulfillment that I couldn’t have.”
Brandilyn’s description of numbing her pain hits close to home. Daily chronic pain takes a toll on us emotionally as we physically struggle with everyday tasks, while at the same time wondering why we’re different, why me, why this? The feelings and thoughts we have are meant to be felt so that we can find meaning out of our suffering.
Suffering without meaning is a waste, but suffering, when we allow it to teach us leads us more deeply into ourselves. We begin to understand that we too have a place in the world; we also have a purpose. Finding our purpose gives us a reason to keep going!
Our (my) desire to not feel tricks us into believing that life is somehow more comfortable. But in not feeling we aren’t coping with the deeper issue, we’re simply ignoring the pain. As we numb the pain, we take away our power to cope with our pain, and healing doesn’t take place. Not unlike a broken leg numbing the pain does not heal the leg nor deal with the cause or issue of our suffering.
Learning how best to cope with pain is not easy, but is doable and essential if we wish to feel peace, happiness, and freedom. Those times when my pain is so intense that I literally can’t get out of bed or get to work are not just physically painful. Realizing that I can’t do what I used to do because of some stupid illness turns the frustration to anger, an anger I turn on myself until it morphs into a depressive pitty party. This is a dark place many of us know all too well.
Yet, when we find purpose and meaning in our life, those times of intense pain and darkness can be pushed aside, replaced by the desire to regain my power so I can fulfill my purpose. I know, trust me, that this is easier said than done, as it demands an inner strength to replace the darkness with the light of a life lived on my terms, not the illness’ terms.
Here a few strategies I have learned which help me cope with my pain:
- Acknowledge the pain. Avoid the temptation to numb the pain. Instead, recognize that the pain is telling you something. Reflect on the cause of the pain and look at ways you can change your thoughts and emotions about the pain.
- Realize that you are not alone. Understand that what you are experiencing is also experienced by many others. There is no pain that only one person in this entire world suffers from. Seek out others who daily struggle with coping from a similar illness. Console and aid each other. When we help others, we feel better about ourselves. Seek out support groups, online sites, chat rooms, etc.
- Embrace your true self. Acknowledge to yourself that you aren’t perfect and that there are aspects of yourself in need of improvement. Yet, at the same time, there are aspects of yourself which are good and healthy. No one is perfect; we all have our flaws. Embrace that which you wish to numb, then do the work needed to make changes in your life. “I thought that if I allowed the rejected parts of myself to be expressed, that I would lose myself. What I discovered was that only through facing and eventually embracing these parts of myself did I truly find myself.” (Brandilyn Tebo)
There is so much more I could say about pain and my experiences, but for the goal of this article, I’d like to end with a quote from the author and priest Henri Nouwen: “Consolation is a beautiful word. It means “to be” (con-) “with the lonely one.” To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.”