Last weekend I was at a writing conference in Portland. I chose to go, in large part, because Emily Freeman was the headliner, and her book Grace For the Good Girl meant the world to me when I read it, after an impulse check-out at the library. It’s been part of my road to freedom from perfectionism and never quite feeling good enough.
Emily talked, one morning, about success. “If you define success by something you can’t control, you will always feel like a failure.” Like that day many years ago when I read her first book, a lightbulb went off in my head and I started making notes.
She was talking about success in writing and publishing, of course. But as she continued to talk about reasonable goals, and success that is within our grasp, I started to think about how I define success. Without really knowing it, I’ve been defining success by whether or not I’m married or in a relationship.
As soon as I admitted it in my own mind, my heart began to break.
As I’ve found and left jobs in the right time, doing my best in them, innovating, saving money, I have felt like a failure.
As I’ve pursued my love of writing, seeking and obtaining publication, compensation, and consistency, I have felt like a failure.
As I’ve moved out on my own, learning how to take care of all the little pieces of a life, from the car, to the house, to the cooking, I have felt like a failure.
As I’ve done the hard work of therapy, learning about myself and pursuing health in mind, body, and spirit, I have felt like a failure.
As I’ve poured myself into friendships, church, and other wonderful people, I have felt like a failure.
No matter what, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone knew. There were days that I wanted to scream, the anxiety bubbling up so much that I almost couldn’t breathe. When I saw couples walking down the street together, I would feel sick. When exes got married, I struggled against anger. Why were they successful, and I wasn’t?
Of course, all the while I continued to build a wonderful life, successful by many people’s standards, including mine, if I’m honest. Emily’s words exposed an undergirding assumption I’ve carried for too long, a lie that has become far too heavy.
It’s one thing to be lonely, and to wish for a partner. I desire that sort of relationship, and I have no shame about that. Spouses, and friends, and children, jobs, and rest, and creativity are gifts. It makes sense that we desire them. It makes sense that we want good things. What doesn’t make sense is when I tell myself that I’m not successful unless I have them. Not only does it keep me anxious and desperate, but broken-hearted, too, every single day that goes by.
Since letting go of this lie, I’ve noticed that the knot in my stomach which seemed so much a part of me is gone. When I hear those voices making their way into my consciousness, I’m recognizing and contradicting them. I’m letting myself sit with the loneliness, and the doubt that my desire will come to pass. I’m praying anyway.
Instead of defining success by something I can’t control, I’m learning to find things that I can control, and do them. I’m making myself food, hoping to try a new recipe each week, and putting one word in front of another as I write my book. I am finding success in these endeavors.
I used to ask myself the hard question, the one I knew I needed to face. What if I never get married? I was on the way home from the conference when I realized that my honest answer has been: I will have failed. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.
Maybe marriage and relationship aren’t your definition of success. Maybe it’s parenthood, or your dream job. Maybe it’s freedom, working for yourself, or not working at all. Maybe it’s about money, a book contract, or your name in lights. Let yourselves off the hook, friends. Redefine success for yourself.
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