I am a perfectly content individual until I leave the house. Last weekend, I spent the day with my best friends from graduate school. We sailed around on my friend’s boat in our bathing suits and laughed, shared experiences, and soaked up the sun. Inside, however, I was battling my inner critic. She reminded me I have gained weight and showed me the image of myself reflected in my friend’s sunglasses to prove it. She told me that my job is awful, compared to my friends’ jobs. I do not make enough money compared to my friend who has gone into private practice. Certainly, I was doomed for a life of misery and loneliness compared to my happily married friends. In summary, my life sucks.
Three days later, I was crying to my therapist about all my vulnerabilities and insecurities. She was baffled by the dysregulated girl who had completely unraveled from the secure, independent woman she had met with just two weeks prior. I decided to share my feelings with one of the friends who was present over the weekend and her response was, “I cried to my therapist on Monday and I felt the same way.”
Why do we do this? How can it be that we are perfectly content with our lives one minute and then completely worthless the next? I have a friend who likes to discuss this topic with me at length. We are both single, in our late twenties, and by and large have completely failed at achieving the socially constructed version of success.
I turn 30 in six months. I do not own a house. I do not have a partner, much less a marriage or children. I drive the same car my father gifted to me in high school, and it is covered in rust. On paper, I have failed.
I have a Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I am a registered yoga teacher, a published writer, and a reiki healer. I have traveled nationally and internationally. I lived in Australia for two years and became a permanent resident there. I rebuilt an entire life overseas—made friends, obtained a professional job, and managed to find contentment. I paid off my student loans and I have a savings account. I have two cats and a bike and I live in a house where I can walk out my front door and hop on any trail and run, walk, bike, or rollerblade as far as my heart desires. By my own standards, I am free.
You see, the problem is not my life. The problem begins when I start comparing myself to where I think I should be. If I measure my life against the inflexible path of societally defined success, I have royally failed. If I measure my life against my own values, I have become the person I have always wanted to be.
If you read the second list of accomplishments and thought, “Well, I have never lived overseas, but I could not do that because I have two children and my husband cannot leave his job,” you have missed the point!
This is a permission slip to change your definition of success. This is a reminder to drop the standards that have been set upon your life by others and burn them to the ground.
Failure occurs not because we fail to measure up against the expectations of others. Failure occurs when we lose sight of our own values, dreams, and purpose for the fulfillment of another’s expectations. This is what my therapist reminded me.
I do not own a house because I do not value stability. I much prefer to change jobs, change cities, and create a life of variety and adventure. I do not have a partner because I value independence and autonomy. There are people I could have settled down with many times over, but that would have required me to make compromises I did not want to make. I have known since my early twenties that I do not want children, and I feel no rush to find a life partner as a result. These choices reflect my values and have led to personal contentment.
There is a quote from Desiderata by Max Ehrmann that states, “If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
A great therapist once told me, “You cannot compare your insides to a person’s outsides.”
When I started comparing myself to my friends, nobody won. I monetized their lives. I looked at the checklist of societal success and decided their jobs, houses, and partners made them a success. I was taking their lives at face value, and in doing so, I lost sight of them completely and lost myself in the process.
The truth is, the societal checklist is designed to make us all feel like failures. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach to life. It is designed to create a culture of consumers. Those who are desperate to measure up will never be enough—a raise, a house, a child, a degree, a boat, a publication, a partner will not heal the vexations of their spirit.
The person who decides they are content within themselves despite their personal failings is free. In the words of Paulo Coelho in his book By the River Piedra, I Sat Down and Wept, “‘There are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggle for your dreams than to be defeated without ever even knowing what you’re fighting for.’”
My friends, it is not too late. Figure out what you are fighting for. Search your soul for your values, your dreams, and your unique purpose. Whatever that may be is a precious gem more valuable than any material possession or acquisition. I beg of you to stop comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. Instead, let’s look inside of ourselves for the answers and from that place of enlightenment, inspire others to do the same.