What are you pursuing, exactly?

12 Aug

How do you define success?

Every time I get on Facebook, someone has posted a new quote apparently designed to ooze motivation and enthusiasm for trying harder, being better, striving more, pushing further, and demanding success…and all in the name of what? Most of these quotes have a hard-body in the background, muscles rippling, iron in hand, a look of determination on the model’s face. And again I ask, in the name of what?

Success is great, it is. I love it when I can close my laptop after having turned in my research paper that took me well over 30 hours to complete. I am ecstatic when I walk away from giving a great lecture and even more thrilled when I get emails telling me that the  material really resonated.

I wouldn’t be thrilled, however, if I received a poor grade from my professor. In fact, it has happened, and I’ve just about flipped out. A few expletives later and some deep breathing, and I’m okay. But dang, it’s a bit wounding. When this happens, first I get pat myself on the back for not getting even more angry. Second I waffle back and forth between wanting to send my professor a scathing email and justify why I did what I did or said what I said in defense of what he/she blasted me for versus just getting down to business and peeling back the layers of the comments with a fine-tooth comb to learn and synthesize the info in a new way. Third, I pat myself on the back again for not sending an email and  start digging in with the understanding that this is what I better get used to and find challenging rather than damaging if I expect to complete this PhD. Finally, I remind myself that this is far more than “getting a PhD.” I get to learn a boatload of information and apply it in a way that will help others!

That last sentence is important. You might want to reread it. Studies show over an over that goal achievement in anticipation of feeling good (imagine all those times you said, “I’ll finally feel like I measure up when….” or “Once I complete ________, I will actually believe I can do it”) will leave you largely unsatisfied. Self-esteem, defined as our overall sense of self-worth, if measured by our successes, is super fragile.  So I ask you, what are you pursuing, exactly?

Sure, having high self-esteem confers some benefits. It does make us want to persist. People who have higher levels of self-worth also report less depression and greater feelings of happiness. A study by Baumeister and colleagues found, however, that a significant disadvantage of high self-esteem could severely override the positive consequences, namely poor estimation of our personal frailties or deficits. What are the drawbacks to this?  Ever met someone who won’t take responsibility? Who blames others or the “thing” when they perform poorly (the teacher or the test)? Ever heard anyone say, “how dare he treat me that way!” ?

Yes, you know what, you are important, you do matter, and you need to be cared about and loved. But most people don’t even have low self-esteem. A study conducted in late 80s showed that the overall American self-esteem score was far above the midpoint, and it’s growing exponentially. In 2008 a similar study was conducted  on high school students and scores were significantly higher. Yet higher self esteem barely has any impact on grades, relationship quality,  or even likelihood of engaging in substance use.  Why am I telling you this? Because if you’re pursing self-esteem, you need to get over yourself!

If you want to feel lousier because you base your worth on mistakes or failures; be a victim of circumstance; find that your motivation roller-coasters like your weight does; and avoid trying new things or taking risks for fear of failure, which actually has you falling short even more, well keep saying, “I’ll feel better about myself when I….” The benefit of happiness as it relates to achievements doesn’t last long. It’s fleeting and even after achieving something major, it returns to baseline levels fairly quickly. I was surprised after I earned my first pro card at just how UN-monumental it felt. And each subsequent win after that was even more anticlimactic. I have  medals and trophies and tons of competition photos, and I’d be happy taking all of them to the dump. More than anything, it’s the memories that are most meaningful to me, and not even the memory of winning. The events surrounding the win, the effort that went into preparing, and the friendships I developed through the process stick with me.  NOW, I can say that. Earlier in my competitive career, I couldn’t. I was chasing self-worth.

My point to this is that I have clients who I know have their self-esteems tightly wound to their accomplishments, and it never ceases to surprise me–and them–just how horrible they feel when they fail and how just barely elated they feel when they succeed. This has much to do with what motivates us also. Self-determination theory explains how it is those intrinsic, value-oriented, internally-based drivers that create a long-standing and enduring motivation to persist toward a goal (Check out my article in the next issue of Oxygen Women’s Fitness, as well as that coming out in Alpha–The Evolution of Fitness)– not the hard body you see on a poster with a get ‘er dun look.

So where do you go from here? First, ask yourself what you’re pursuing, exactly. Second, maybe consider doing what Joey did in an old Friends episode. Stepping out of his typically selfish, ego-driven, me-centric world, he decided to act with selflessness and found the benefits to be tremendous! (I wish I could find the clip!)

Acting with compassion toward others and showing support and responsiveness leads to a greater feeling of connectedness and self-trust! When you do make a mistake,  acting with compassion toward yourself means you’ll fall a little softer. Think if you don’t beat yourself up that you won’t work harder the next time? Think again! Studies show that the likelihood of taking responsibility for your behavior happens more often, and you’ll approach the issue from a more solution-focused perspective as opposed to feeling discouraged and wanting to give up.

Hmm…sounds to me like a worthwhile goal to pursue. Makes me wonder how someone like Lance Armstrong would have behaved if his self-esteem weren’t tied so heavily to success.

Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm ~Winston Churchill


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