Success – What Part is Up to Me?

“It’s so embarrassing, I’m 35, unemployed, and single. All my friends have kids are planning trips and paying off a mortgage. Some are even on a second marriage. I feel like a failure.” Serge had, at this point in his life, completed a PhD, spent several years working overseas doing environmental sustainability planning for a foreign government agency and was recently back in Canada. His self analysis was clearly not considering the whole picture.

At some point in life, most of us will look at where we are and what we have, and how close we are to what we imagined our life would be. Whatever we see, how we feel about it will often be connected to how we feel about ourselves.

Some of us carry a fundamental belief about ourselves as deserving or undeserving, which may affect our assessment of ourselves, over all:

  • If we believe that we deserve what we get than we will feel shame and guilt when we do not succeed, and potentially self inflated when we do, no matter how much effort was put in.
  • If we fundamentally believe that we don’t deserve anything bad than we become bitter at a society that does not treat us “properly,” when things go wrong.
  • If we believe that we don’t deserve anything good than we may feel like an imposter when good things happen, and be always waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

This way of thinking about ourselves affects the way we look at and treat others. If someone is struggling, we might assume that they did not deserve anything better, assuming that they didn’t try hard enough. If someone is doing well, we might either decide that they didn’t deserve it (particularly if it’s something we think we deserved) or we might decide that they deserved it and we didn’t.

I recently tried a little experiment. I choose one area of my life that I am feel good about  and feel that I have worked towards… my job. I wanted to see if I could figure out if I actually deserved to be in the place I am now, with the sense of fulfillment I get in this part of my life. I started by tracing back all the things that led to me being able to have this job and tried to categorize them into the things I felt I had control over; things I felt I may have had some control over (the amount would be debatable, depending on the situation); and the things that I don’t believe I have any control over.

This is what I came up with:

Things I have (had) control over:

  • Years of study
  • Working to pay tuition
  • Application for scholarships
  • Taking moderate financial risk to start my own business
  • Being proactive in finding places to practice (office space and online practice)
  • Learning about running a small business and doing the work to run it each week
  • Continuing to pursue learning and my own professional development

Things which I may or may not have had some control over:

  • I have never had an unplanned pregnancy.
  • I’ve never had major conflict with professors.
  • I have had people give me technical support to start this businesses.
  • I have had people decide to trust me at first glance, and give me opportunities for learning and practice.
  • I have a partner that has supported me emotionally, practically, and financially while I went to school.
  • I’ve never had to go through divorce.
  • I’ve always enjoyed school.
  • I have housing that I can afford.

Things I definitely had no control over:

  • I’ve never had a learning disorder.
  • I’ve never had a major illnesses, either physical or mental.
  • I’ve never had any major trauma that would impact my mental health.
  • I am not responsible to care for family members with disabilities.
  • I’ve not had to deal with any major family losses during my studies or entry into this field.
  • I live in a country where no war has interrupted my studies.
  • I was born in a society where, while there is still stigma regarding mental illness, it is not a taboo subject.
  • I was born in a society where some can afford to pay for mental health services and where government and insurance companies will often support these services.
  • My particular ethnic group (English and Dutch have not been faced with racism or genocide or systemic oppression in the lifetime of any living member of my family.
  • My people (White, European, English speakers) generally own and or run most systems in my country making them easy for me to navigate and succeed in.

There is a lot  that is outside of my control. Of course, I can have all of those good things and not take advantage of opportunities, misuse money, waste time, etc. On the flip side. I could have had none these advantages and still potentially succeed. Countless movies and books tell the stories of individuals who ‘beat the odds’ and succeeded, despite all.

What I took from this exercise is that I can be grateful for what comes my way, continue to do my best to work towards my goals but recognize that it is never ONLY my effort that will make them happen and, therefore, it is never ONLY  my failings that cause me to miss it. This is something that NO ONE can measure. We humans do not live in laboratories where cause and effect can be measured in any precise way.

Taking on ALL responsibility for outcomes, either positive or negative will either leave us hopeless, bitter and or judgemental. None of these will serve our own goals or our happiness.

We need to acknowledge ALL the factors that contribute to the way our lives our going and that includes a lot of gratefulness for the good things that are outside of our control and letting go of responsibility for the bad things that are not in our control.

This acknowledgement is most likely to bring peace and leave energy and hope to put into the things we do control. 


For more on evaluating yourself check out

5 Steps to Recovering from Failure

Also 7 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem

Or When You’ve Been Accused

5 thoughts on “Success – What Part is Up to Me?

  1. Great exercise. I’ve tried doing this also. I have so much to be grateful for and also acknowledge the work I did to get to where I am. But there is also this nagging piece that says, “you aren’t allowed to be happy in the chosen profession you have.” Wondering if women in particular struggle with guilt for being happy?


    • Hi Maria, I think that guilt about being happy might be gendered, however, I think that there are a lot of factors. A general sense of low self esteem would, of course contribute to this. For myself, my religious upbringing left me with the impression that it was selfish to be happy and that a sign of a good life is one that “feels sacrificial.” I learned as an adult that my “self sacrificing, martyr mentality” actually makes everyone around me suffer!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I too share the religious upbringing. It’s a tough one to untangle from! It was only after being separated for many years from the institution, and learning about the Enneagram, that I understood that different personality types enjoy different things. For some, working in a creative field would be torture!

    But again, I still feel women/mothers have a lot of work yet to do to let go of their need to please and hold up a certain standard.…Perhaps a different topic!


  3. Pingback: Overcoming Death Anxiety | It's Not Just You

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