How do you define success?

My therapist asked me this question last week (also blogged about by Onion Girl here). I figure the stars must be aligned, so here are my thoughts on “success”.

My natural tendency is to define it in much the same way my mother would – money, job title, nice car, nice house, money, qualifications … did I mention money? All my life this is what success has meant to me. All my life I’ve pursued those things. Done what’s expected in the pursuit of all that is money Holy.

But somehow, things seem to have shifted. Success is no longer about those things to me. Sure, some of them are nice to have, and I’d rather have things like money and a car that works than not have them. But now, success is evolving. Now it’s more about people and relationships and helping others. And love. And pursuing things that make me happy.

I started crying when talking about this in therapy. 

The Wonder Therapist said: “You don’t look very happy about this?”

Me: “I am. I’m just sad it’s taken me this long. I’m nearly 40 and I’ve been doing what’s expected of me all my life. Finally I’m seeing what I want and what is important to me. And that none of the things I thought mattered really do. I’m happy, but I’m also sad.”

So, anyway, I’m curious – how do you define success?


17 thoughts on “How do you define success?

  1. I used to define success as how much I didn’t have to suffer (meaning I had enough money to do what I wanted, buy what I wanted, live in a great house AND pay all my bills effortlessly.)

    Then I lost everything – the house, family, marriage, money (for the most part), security, sanity. I traded it all off for finding out how to heal from DID. Losing everything was more of an eye opener than dealing with DID.

    Now, success is being comfortable, loving that I can still have fun while living within my means by using money I produce, and relationships (tho I will never have my family back – they are still very important to me). I want to be happy and I’ve found it doesn’t mean I have to have money.

    Great post for making me think – thanks.

  2. I read something thought-provoking the other day — that people don’t actually want money; they want whatever money represents to them, and *that* is what they should pursue, as money often isn’t necessarily the way to achieve that desire. Sometimes it really is the means to the end, but at least half the time, it’s not.

    I define success as having enough internal stability and emotional resources to be able to focus attention on someone other than myself, *without* putting myself at risk for depletion, and without inappropriately compromising my self-care. By this definition, I have success in tiny moments here and there, but I would like to have it in a large enough measure that I would be able, for example, to do certain types of volunteer work without being triggered or destabilized.

  3. Are you familiar with concepts such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? It’s amazing how our self-worth and definition of success can get caught in the lower end of the different hierarchies as described by the theorists. We get so caught up in the need for safety – as this is what those needs are about, that we lose sight of the higher order needs – self-actualisation etc.

    It’s great that you’re now seeing beyond those basic needs…

    Take care,

  4. It’s really interesting to read your thoughts on this, Kerro, and other’s comments. I haven’t really worked this one out yet because I don’t see myself as successful. So interesting to see how personal and particular it is for each individual.

  5. Hi Kerro. What has made me unhappy is not being able to do the things that were expected of me. It would have given me enormous happiness to do the things I was brought up believing I would do. Like having a high flying career and making plenty of money and buying a nice house. To have those achievements would have been wonderful. So I think it’s brilliant that you have been able to do those things. They are important things.

    What has stopped me being able to have the life I would have had is my problems connecting with other people, my lack of trust in other people. It has totally crippled me.

    You are so lucky. You are now in a position to have both; material success and happy relationships with other people.

    As to how I personally define success, yes I would say it centres on being able to work at a job you enjoy that makes you plenty of money.

    I do not think the word success is appropriate in the context of personal relationships. Success is about doing better than others who are less successful. Getting the job when someone else doesn’t get it, getting the right grades to go to uni etc. It is competitive. Personal relationships are in an entirely different sphere altogether.

    Bearfriend xx

  6. I’m very lucky in that I have everything I could ever want, and my husband makes a very good living so that I don’t have to support my family. However, these aren’t the things that make one successful, or happy. I want to be able to connect with people, and to be able to show my true self. If I ever can do that I will consider myself a success.

  7. @ Ivory – isn’t it interesting? It seems a number of us are discovering that “success” and “happiness” don’t have to mean money – though of course none of us would wish for poverty. I like your definition, being comfortable, being happy, healing… all excellent things. 🙂

    @ David – good to see you! I’ve missed you. You’re onto something there – for me, money is becoming more a means for survival and for doing some of the things I enjoy (like travel), but a lot of what I now associate with success doesn’t need money at all. I too aspire to doing volunteer work that doesn’t trigger me or destabilise me. I like that you have success in tiny moments – a great foundation on which to build!

    @ Mind Parts – no need to apologise. Success is about contentment for me too. What that means to each of us may be different, but the feeling of being “content” is the same. 🙂

    @ Castorgirl – funny, my therapist and I have talked about Maslow a few times. You’re right – so much of our lives have been limited to “safety”, with glimpses of the higher order needs, like friendship or achievement (however that is defined). I took a promotion at work a couple of years ago – I thought it would bring “self actualisation” but it didn’t. In a theoretical sense that could be because you can’t have self-actualisation without having the other bits of the triangle in between… funny triangle with a base of safety, a gap, and then self actualisation.

    @ Cat – Nice to see you here 🙂 I don’t think you need to see yourself as successful in order to have your own definition of success. If you did, then I would be the biggest failure by my own definition. I like that this is different for all of us, though.

    @ Bearfriend – It’s interesting how success is different for each of us. I would say I am not successful, nor am I lucky. I don’t have the quality relationships I would like to have. I do have some level of material success, though that has not been through luck but through sheer bloody minded hard work for the last 20-odd years. I was a study-aholic and a workaholic. That got me through for a long time, but in the end, it did me in and forced me to face things I had been hiding from for a very, very long time.

    I also don’t see success as competitive. Sure, some of the material elements that used to define success for me are largely competitive games, but success at those things doesn’t need to be. I can be successful at getting a qualification, for example, without having to tread on anyone and without someone else missing out.

    Success for me now is about how I define the “self actualisation” peak of Maslow’s triangle. Those things can come without competition.

    @ Harriet – I agree. I also want to connect with other people, to learn to trust, to touch others and be open enough that they can touch me (spiritually), and be able to show my true self. That is success to me, too.

  8. Although most people would use the definition of success to be “the gaining of fame or prosperity” there is also another definition. “The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.” So I would pick the second definition when applying that word to my own life and how I see success for myself.

    My desires, plans and attempts to achieve my goals are to focus on healing and helping others to heal. So I believe that I reach my goals every day and am successful in my heart’s desire.


  9. hmmmmm,
    I am vacillating wildly between material, easily recognized by society, material stuff and intangible, hard to convey stuff.

    I just realized everything I think of as successful is outward and other-centered and has little to do with what I want.

    *trudging away with befuddlement to go sort this out*

  10. Success. I do not define success in terms of material objects, money etc. Maybe it is just cynical me having read too many economic studies about the correlation between happiness and wealth; which only holds below subsitance level (your Maslow pyramide). But, more importantly – all my life people have talked about how successful I am, how I got good grades, later good job, blablalbal. So, being “stamped” successful, and knowing that you feel terrible, makes one conclude success in that sense is definetely not what “they” believe. Or that you yourself is stupid. Which is not such a successful/constructive conclusion, they tell me ;).

    I guess success for me in the “survival mode periods” has to “get away with it” – now I see it as success if I manage to sort out my head without totally f***ing up my job and loosing it. So, success is ability to maintain priorities and balance them without life-and-death consequences. Not that loosing the job would be, it might actually be good. But, I guess success in essense is about balance for me. In most senses of the word.

    Is success the opposite of failure? non-success? In terms of consequence?
    I have just recently been “offered” the opportunity to redo a group therapy introductory course, which in my hears means I failed it (how on earth is that possible!?) – and I never fail anything in my life.. Yes it is experiential in the core, but it is ment as easy steppingstone to real group therapy with content. And I am nearly absolutely sure this therapist never had anyone do this pre-group twice. Anyway.. did I fail the group? Is it a success to have the strength to be ‘stronger’ and do it again? is it submissive to do it again? etc.

    Failure: to write too long comments
    Limited success: to realize I should shut up now =)

  11. Oh I forgot a very important point, what success de facto has been throughout my life (I think)

    Success = be independent

    Now I am not saying it is a good strategy and ‘successful’ in the true sense, but a working standard.

  12. @ Phoenix – thanks so much for joining in my general befuddlement. It’s very confusing when you’ve defined “success” a certain materialistic way all your life, and then wake up finding yourself viewing it quite differently.

    @ Rainbow Sox – thanks for dropping by. I think you’re right that at different times success means different things. And yes, independence can be an important part of that. In my new healing state, I don’t think lack of success has to mean failure… perhaps just that you are more successful at some things than others? It doesn’t have to be black or white.

  13. Success for me today means staying connected to my body, feeling my feelings and being authentic about who I am, being content with where I am in my life. It is nice to have money but it really doesn’t buy happiness.

    The reason that you feel sad is because much of healing in therapy and recovery means allowing yourself to get in touch with your grief. Each new success in recovery means letting go of some old belief about yourself and your childhood. With letting go there is grieving to do. It is ok to feel grief. It is a major part of healing. Sometimes healing means letting go of the fairy tales that you invented as a child of what you wish your life was like rather than the reality of what it really was like. You would be surprised at the ways that you hold on to those fairy tales when you become an adult. Letting go involves grieving before you start to feel better.

  14. Hi Kerro. I was not saying that you had achieved success in your work due to luck. I’m sure you have worked very hard and that you deserve your success. I was meaning that you are lucky to have been able to put in the hard work to get to where you are. For example my childhood history + life events combined to trigger incapacitating mental illness while I was in my late 20s (I was known as a workaholic myself before that). This is bad luck. (Although I thought for many years that it was my own fault.)

    I cannot agree with you about qualifications. For example, A levels (in the UK) are graded based on the percentage of candidates that they will allow in each grade. And fundamentally this is how all qualifications work. The people setting the exams decide what can be expected at that level and then make sure that only a certain percentage will get the top grade. Because if everyone got the top grade it would be useless for distinguishing between candidates. All universities operate like this. It is competitive. And whether you get to make use of ANY qualification is based on how many other people got grades higher than yours.

    I understand why you wouldn’t want to think you have trodden on others or caused them to miss out. I don’t think success at an exams implies that you have trodden on others. But that you have been able to work harder and/ or possibly understand the material to a higher level due to a greater natural aptitude.

    Re Maslow: self actualisation is non-competitive. However, the esteem component that comes before that is competitive eg status, achievements, respect from others due to those achievements etc.

    Bearfriend xx

  15. @ Patricia – Great definition of success! You’re right that healing means letting go of old beliefs about yourself and the childhood fairy tales. You’ve hit the nail on the head for me, because I often find myself saying that I don’t feel like “me” anymore. I am still me, of course, just a different me. One that is letting go of all the stuff I carried around and all the stuff that was hurting me, even if I didn’t see it. Thank you.

    @ Bearfriend – I’m sorry your health and life events conspired to take your life in a direction you may not have wanted. From my own perspective, the “falling apart” as I call it has been a blessing in disguise. It is taking my life in different directions, and while that’s scary as hell, I believe it’s a good thing. Or will be in the long run.

    I think we have different definitions of “competitive”. I agree that exams and job interviews etc are “competitive” but I don’t see them that way. For me, competitive means vying with others, and while that’s exactly what you’re doing in exams, it’s the system that is competitive, rather than the people. Of course not everyone can get the top grades, or get the same job, or buy the same house, or win the running race. Those things are competitive, but like I said, it’s the system.

    I am a very competitive person by nature and I don’t like it. As a simple example, I play one of those farm games in Face book. Whenever someone gets above me in the rankings, some weird little beast wakes up in my head and I have to do whatever it takes to get to the top again. I hate that, but I don’t know how to stop it. So, to me, being competitive is about the pushing against others and that’s a negative for me. Does that make sense?

  16. Pingback: Reflections on 2010 « Kerro's Korner

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