In the work of being a therapist, I am having daily revelations for myself alongside my clients.
Let me set the scene for you.
We are in group therapy talking about shame, perceptions of self, and identity.
I am fortunate enough to spend my days with brave souls that are willing to show up for healing and recovery. Within that work of healing there have to be moments of vulnerability. In those moments of vulnerability my clients risk to take off the masks of perfectionism, stoicism, and I-have-it-all-togetherism to reveal wounds and pain that have often come out sideways in irrational and impulsive behavior and/or addiction. But, it is in this space where the real magic happens. In the authentic moments of honesty.
There is a 12-step AA cliche that says “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Oh how true this is...
In this group I mentioned earlier, I had my clients write down ways that they desire to be perceived by others. Answers surfaced such as “I want to be perceived as helpful, caring, hard-working, motivated, loving.” All things that are deeply true about each client at their core.
Then I had them list unwanted perceptions that the do NOT desire to be attached to their identity.
“Drunk, selfish, thief, liar, dramatic, manipulative, fake, lazy.” Each of them bravely shared that they have lived out these realities more in their addiction. Hard, honest truths.
One client shared that she wants to be perceived as “successful and not fat.” My first honest reaction was “oh, come on, gimme something deeper than that.” Then my second reaction was “how brave of you to be honest.” I gently and lovingly challenged her primary desire to be perceived for outward attributes. She took it like a champ. She admitted that this drive to be perceived as successful and for her outward appearance has been really harmful to her soul, relationships, and life. Her culture, upbringing, and trauma have led her to hustle for outward validation. I invited her to consider redefining “success.”
Let me go back to “we are only as sick as our secrets.” In admitting her desired perceptions she was able to be challenged. She could have given a BS answer and we would have moved on and missed an important piece of this conversation. But she was honest, and in that space invited me into a conversation with myself.
How much of my life have I spent wanting others to perceive me as outwardly successful and physically beautiful? A LOT.
I come from years and years of schooling and professional work in Musical Theatre. Which is a field I ADORE and hope to be connected to for the rest of my days. I lived in New York in my 20’s and found myself basing my identity and success off of career success and appearance. It was subtle at times. Sneaky. But if I am honest I spent much of my 20’s chasing success and external beauty. I found myself being valued for how thin and beautiful I was or what show I booked. It wasn’t until I left that context that I truly realized how harmful that pursuit had become to me and then saw it swallowing some of my loved ones.
I want us all to consider what we perceive as “successful” for a moment.
Be honest. Until recently I would have said “Broadway show, house, husband, kids, really good job, health, financially stable.” I still think those things are success but I want to update my list.
Success is …
Deep real friendships
An ever growing relationship with God
Acceptance of grace
Respect for myself and others
Respect from others
A peaceful nights sleep
A vocation that I can serve with excellence and work for the common good
Passionately standing for what I believe in
Having the esteem of people I esteem
A flourishing community
A loving family
A body that is cared for and thought of with kindness
Leading with authenticity
Crying when I am sad
Sharing when I am grateful
Laughing till I cry
Speaking the truth
Showing up for hard conversations
Acceptance of Grace
These things are success to me.
I don’t arrive at these every day. Not close. Somedays closer. It is important to have “success” clearly identified so not to wake up each day pursuing that which will leave me empty. As I look at this list I can say with confidence that I am living in success.
I am 34. No house. No husband. No big show to put behind my name. No seas of cash to swim in (like the guy in Duck Tails) ( a whoooo hoo.) Even though I lack in the initial things I thought made one successful I am rediscovering success.
What is your definition of success and is it leading you towards health and wholeness? How do you want to be perceived? What are your unwanted perceptions?