Your experience of success may be the most surprising challenge you ever face. Like a compass whose true north is personal happiness, its needle will point to just how on or off course you are. No matter how far you travel, you may find that you are headed in the wrong direction — toward a sense of failure and unhappiness. This most often happens when your feelings of worth as a person are closely tied to the recognition, admiration, or wealth that you earn. And you can most readily recognize this dilemma by the panicked feeling of being found out as incompetent or as a fraud (if you have attained some recognized level of success).
With all the imperfections and frailties that come with being human, your efforts will inevitably fall short at times. You will make mistakes. You will be slowed by personal weaknesses and gaps in knowledge. And you will also fall victim to the whims of fate and the imperfections and temperaments of others. When — with all of this — you are driven to maintain a steady (and possibly rapid) progression toward success, you are doomed to fail, and to feel like a failure along the way.
Life’s path looks different, though, to those who accept their imperfect selves for who they are. If you can lovingly accept your limitations, you will also be able to let go of your intense drive to succeed or to maintain a façade that will ensure that you're viewed positively. You will be more open to appreciating yourself and your path in life, with all of its highs and lows. But achieving this self-acceptance is not easy.
One way you can open up to self-acceptance is by imagining yourself as two people — the critic and the victim of that critic. For many people, the critic harshly accuses the victim of being a failure as a person. As an observer of this dynamic, you might note that the accused is no different from other people in that:
All people have weaknesses. No one is equally knowledgeable and capable at everything in life.
All people make mistakes. As Alexander Pope so aptly stated, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Of course, you can only forgive yourself if you first accept your that you're going to make mistakes.
All people have vulnerable emotions. You don’t have to look far to see others struggle with difficult life circumstance. They feel sad, hurt, angry, guilty, and a host of other emotions. Having these emotions does not reveal weakness, as many people fear, but is simply part of being human. Of course, what people do with their emotions is another matter — but, again, when this reveals a weakness, it’s essential to remember that all people have weaknesses.
If you have difficulty accepting these parts of being human, it can help to practice thinking about them. Consider how you see and accept them in others. Note how you accept them in children, grandchildren, or good friends. Also note how when you are supportive and accepting of them in their struggles, they often react positively — feeling and doing better for receiving your acceptance, empathy, and compassion. Now contrast this with your harsh response to yourself. As you become aware of how hard you are on yourself in comparison with others, test out responding to yourself as you would respond to them. Invite your emotions and practice being empathic. When you judge yourself for doing this, consider how well trained you have been in being critical — and be sympathetic to yourself for how hard it can be to change.
If you practice recognizing all of the above aspects of being human and allow for them in yourself, you will experience a shift in how you relate to yourself. You will be more compassionate when you make a mistake or fall short of your expectations. You will care less about the criticisms (or imagined criticisms) of others. And rather than being enslaved to proving your worth, you will feel good about who you are, spurring you on to continue growing and developing toward your ideal self.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness