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How to measure success? Look in the mirror!

By Julie Ryan

Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide.

There are many ways to gauge success.

My view of success has always been a little different than most. Perhaps it’s because of how I was raised, or perhaps it’s just something in how I see the world. The movie that spoke to me the most when I was young was Dead Poet’s Society, specifically the scene where the teacher, played by Robin Williams, teaches his students to look at the world from a different point of view (by getting up on top of their desks).

It’s all about perspective.

In many ways society teaches us that success is measured by dollar signs. It’s about how much you make, how much you’ve accomplished, how many people know your name, what kind of car you drive, and how big your house is (or how many houses you own). That is not how I measure success.

Measuring success based on things will always leave you lacking. You’ll never have enough. You’ll always want for more.

During the first week of June 2018, two major celebrities took their own lives. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, by most accounts, seemed to have successful lives, lives that others often dream of having. They were known by all and seemingly loved by just as many. Their families spoke well of them, those around them spoke well of them, but were they happy? Evidently not. Were they successful? Evidently, they didn’t think so.

A friend of mine posted this comment following these deaths, “If these two can’t measure themselves as successful, how can I?”

I’m sure she wasn’t alone in that question, it’s an easy one to ask. But, we can’t compare our success to that of others; their yardstick is different. Bourdain and Spade both had obvious career success, and from comments from their families, it would seem they also had success in their relationships, but they still didn’t measure up to what they felt success meant.

While they may have felt successful, success does not belie depression, nor does success overcome mental or physical pain.

I’ve been there. I’ve danced in the fire and come out the other side.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety for about 15 years. Often, the times I struggle the most are when I seemingly have it the most together. It’s during those times when I seem to be handling so much that the stress of handling so much creates an anxiety that is overwhelming. Anxiety and depression are interlinked. The stress of “how am I possibly going to manage?” becomes “There’s no way I can do this.” Which leads to a desire to hide from all the stress or to give up entirely and end the struggle.

I came the closest to ending it all in 2012. After two years of struggling with the pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia, two years of feeling like every medication just made me feel worse, I was ready to give up and stop fighting. I completely understood why others did. I regularly imagined how I might end my life. The previous two years had left me feeling like a complete failure. What was the point in going on if I’d never have a life beyond my couch? At every turn I saw opportunity and examined how it might play out. Would I be successful at ending my life? Or, would a failure lead to more pain?

I remember the day when I realized that if I didn’t do something drastic, I would attempt suicide. I honestly think the fear of failure is what made me reach out and ask for help. I considered checking myself in for a three-day hold, but anxiety kept me from doing so. Instead I did what felt more comfortable and reached out to those who cared most about me and asked for their help. I was honest about how I felt, and I asked them to keep a close eye on me, to check in often and just to be there. I also reached out and found professional help.

It was that point of rock bottom that became the springboard for finding a healthier me. I knew I couldn’t go on living the way that I had been. I had to make changes. It started with professional help and ended with me taking control and finally being willing to try anything to feel better. Thankfully, the changes that I made helped, and my physical and emotional health improved.

Thankfully, I came out the other side, and in doing so, I changed my definition of success.

No longer is success about how much I make or how many hours I can work. Nor is it about how many “friends” I have or how many activities I can plan. My definition of success is now based on whether I’m working towards my purpose.

My definition of success is simply having a purpose and living towards it.

Success, for me, is about overall happiness. That doesn’t mean I have to be happy 100% of the time to consider myself successful, but it does mean than instead of islands of happiness in a sea of misery, I experience islands of misery in a sea of happiness. I just choose not to live on those islands.

So often when I talk with others living with chronic illness they express depression and anxiety at not being able to live a full life, at not being able to work a career they were trained for, at not being able to be the perfect partner or parent they think they should be. Often when living with chronic illness we feel we’ve had our purpose stolen. We feel hopeless.

A life without purpose can feel like a very unsuccessful life.

Fortunately, despite chronic illness, despite the pain and fatigue, we can still have purpose. We are still able to give, to help, to make the world a better place. What we often forget is that we can still do all of those things, we may just have to do them differently.

Fifteen years ago I was successful by most people’s standards. I had a great income, owned a business that was doing very well, owned a house, and had a lot of friends. But I spent my days feeling anxious and worried that I couldn’t keep up with the life I’d built.

A few years later that life came crashing down on me when chronic illness hit. Depression soon joined chronic pain as I realized that the life I had was being ripped away, even as I was realizing that the life I had wasn’t really the life I wanted. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what life I wanted.

It was through hitting rock bottom that I feel I found my purpose, that I realized I could help others by helping myself. By just getting through and doing what I was able to, by sharing that journey, I now feel successful by my standards.

I am successful because I overcome. I am successful because I keep pushing no matter what. I am successful because I strive to be happy despite setbacks.

My definition of success may not by the same as others, but I’ve found that it’s the definition that works for me, and by living a life focused on my version of success, I am happier for it. I’ve lost people from my life because of it, but they are people who would have pushed me towards their version of success and a life much less happy.

This article was first published on ProHealth.com on July 11, 2018 and was updated on May 1, 2021.

Editor’s Note:  If someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time,  you can be the difference in getting them the help they need. It’s important to take care of yourself when you are supporting someone through a difficult time, as this may stir up difficult emotions. If it does, please reach out for support yourself. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time for help. Source: Suicide Prevention Hotline [1]

Julie Ryan is a fellow Fibromyalgia Warrior, freelance writer, and blogger. In addition to Fibromyalgia, Julie is currently diagnosed with Endometriosis, Migraines, Cluster Headaches, and Hypothyroid. She shares her journey, along with inspiration, and information on her blog at http://countingmyspoons.com [2]

You can follow Julie on Twitter [3] and Facebook [4].