Measuring True Success

The modern day idea of success seems to require us to be successful in all aspects of our life. Successful in our personal life, successful in our love life. Successful in our emotional life and successful in our careers. We waste much of our living considering the life we want to live or about our unfulfilled aspirations.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips states:

We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have in ourselves to be or do…. we share our lives with the people we have failed to be.
…The myth of our potential can make our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage.’

It feels increasingly that our need to achieve our full potential has been amplified by the media’s obsession of highlighting the notion of the ideal self – whether that be in our appearance, our partners, our homes, or our careers. This notion can often come in sharp contrast to the reality of our true selves. Donald Winnicott defined the idea of the ‘true self’ as a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, a sense of all out personal aliveness or feeling real. For Winnicott, the need to create a False Self arose as ‘other individuals objectives can become of overriding significance, addressing or contradicting the unique sensation of self, the one linked with the very origins of the being’. Winnicott believed that such an excessive type of False Self developed in beginnings, as a protection against an atmosphere that seemed risky or frustrating, perhaps due to a deficiency of reasonably attuned caregiving. The risk is that ‘through this False Self, the baby makes up a incorrect set of connections, and through introjections even reaches a display of being real’. The outcome can be a ‘child whose prospective aliveness and creativeness has gone unseen…concealing an vacant, dry inner globe behind a cover up of independence’.

To move away from the struggles of a ‘false’ self’ way of living we must accept that a successful life is not some kind of a teleological process, or as straightforward as a cliché “the journey is just as important as the destination.” The truth of the matter is that real life is messy, complicated, painful; and it can feel difficult to reach balance. Every single one of us, even the ones who from the outside look like we have made it, stumble and fall flat on our face multiple times. It is in our capacity to recognise our inherent incompleteness and in the relative meaningless of our existence that we can begin to fully embrace the fullness of our lives. The increasing struggle to do this comes from our cultural desire to view ourselves as unique and special and encourages us to optimise our time on earth in a productive way.

‘…we are nothing special – it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear with and hopefully enjoy their insignificance in the larger scheme of things.’ – Adam Phillips

Real life is not just about a series of goals, nor is it about the path to get there. Managing life often relies on our buoyancy, our ability to bounce back. Success, in a ‘true self’ sense is about learning to fall better, to fail better, it is about learning to break more gracefully. It is about learning to heal better, to get back up again, and to fail again. Our possibilities for satisfaction and a fuller sense of living lie in our capacity to bear with the frustrations of our failures and to consider and bear the gap between our wants and desires and realities of our existence. To feel real we must learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.