How Do You Define Success?

I had dinner Saturday evening with one of my girlfriends and we got into a deep conversation about a variety of topics.  But the one that had me thinking all evening and most of today was a simple question she asked me: “How do you define success?”

In truth I don’t know. What is success?  My daughter and I discussed success today as it concerns weight loss.  Is it the number on the scale? The size of clothes you wear?  Or your BMI?

In light of this blog, I gave much thought to this topic and considered it in light of the roles of emotionally barren families.  This is not a topic I’ve researched, nor is it a topic I’ve come up with directly in my practice, but I think it profoundly affects all of us who may be locked into a way of behaving – whether that’s a huge padlock that keeps us still or a diary lock that’s easily broken. Remember too that all these roles are defined by their family.  The accomplishments of a hero in a poor, uneducated family will likely look much different than those of a child from a middle class family. Remember, these aren’t conscious choices, but are an instinctual reaction to the families’ stress.

The Hero (which I clearly am and still work to overcome) never succeeds.  From the outside, they look good – they have multiple accomplishments, awards and acclamations.  They do things no one else has done and in time frames that are amazing.  But…while they can celebrate their accomplishments in the moment, usually heroes end up diminishing them after awhile, often saying “No big deal, anyone could have done it.”  Ironically, they mean it at some level.

Another thing about heroes is that they usually have a wonderful portfolio, resume or CV. But it may not seem to be so great to them. When heroes are locked into their role, whatever they have done is not enough. Goals become stepping stones to more and bigger and better.  And there’s always another goal.  How would I know success?  I’m not sure.  Because with every step of my life there’s always another step to reach for.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing or undesireable.  Heroes can change the world.  But often this happens with incredible stress on ourselves.  And with a constant sense of ‘not being enough, quick enough, well enough.’

Rebels measure success in a totally different manner.  Since they are the ‘failures’ of their family, they often measure success by how far their rebellion takes them from their families’ desires.  So if wealth and professional success matter to their family, the rebel will actively seek outcomes that do no contribute to the family’s status.  They will measure success in a totally different field.  I had a client who’s family were all doctors and dentists.  She went into the IT world, becoming very successful, eventually becoming the director of a large department.  She got her bulimia under control and lived a contented life.  To her family, she was still a failure, because she hadn’t gone into medicine.  As a speech pathologist, nurse or veterinarian, she still would have been the family failure.

She could never completely enjoy and delight in her success because it wasn’t good enough for her family. She made a professional income, had a great deal of responsibility which she handled well.  But she never felt like a success.  None of the rest mattered – she had absorbed the family decision that she was a failure and lived it out, in spite of her accomplishments.

The Lost Child is often an introvert who chooses to minimize their relationships with others.  They may achieve success, as defined by the outside world, but often don’t feel successful.  And if the stress is too heavy, they will walk away from that position in order to find something with less demands on them. If they are of an academic bent, they may go back to school, looking for the perfect career.  This is a good way for the Lost Child to look like they’re moving forward and to justify to themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing, but it is still a way to avoid the stress of a regular job and to avoid people.

The Mascot is an interesting study when considering success. For some of them, their humor will be an element of ‘cool’ and will propel them to levels of success.  For others, that humor will deny them professional success and keep them in jobs that are below their abilities.

But of course, success is more than your job and your accomplishments, isn’t it? So how do you define success?  Has it been affected by your role in your family?  Or your place in the birth order? Or your own drives?  I’d love to know what you think about this topic…because I’m still thinking about it.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in ACOA, adult children, Louise Behiel, Roles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to How Do You Define Success?

  1. Bird says:

    Is it possible to fall in more than one category? Because honestly, I can kind of find myself a little bit in all of these…weird.

    • I think that’s not uncommon, Bird. We all have bits of each role in our make up and different elements will show up at different times. so not unusual, or weird, at all.

  2. iamnotshe says:

    This is great. I still see myself as a person defined by a mixture if these roles. I also think I may define my level and “type” of success by those early lessons I learned and the roles I played in my family. Not as much as in my younger years, but the socialization within a family has a strong influence ion who we become and how we view the world ( in my humble opinion). Good or bad, I cannot judge Or decide! XO Mel

    • I totally agree, Mel – early socialization is what this model is all about. and hopefully we change as we get older, although not everyone does. and no, don’t judge or decide.

      • iamnotshe says:

        I see a lot of people who get stuck in their family stuff. It’s hard sometimes when you’re a grown woman to see other grown women and men thinking of themselves ONLY in terms of what mom said they were, etc. HOWEVER, i believe those were LOUD voices (and i still hear them, no s***).,The key is MOVING ON, accepting yourself, forgiving the fu***** for doing the best they could, etc. No lies here … just the facts, and follow through the best we can. It’s an ACTIVE position to keep moving along in life in [one’s] own personal progression and journey.

        • it is very definitely an active position and job to overcome the stuff from childhood and move on. some families were more supportive and emotionally healthy and others not so much. we need to see where we come from and then start the process of healing, I think.

  3. gingercalem says:

    Louise, you could put a picture of me next to your description of the Hero’s definition of success. *sigh* But since I’m a work in progress, I’m getting better and better at recognizing and acknowledging true success. Another great post!

    • Well then, you and I will be a duet…My friend said that if Oprah begged me to come on her show and I made a gazillion dollars, 3 months later it would be ‘no big deal’. LOL and she’s right. yes, I’m a work in progress and I keep evolving. LOL

  4. SJ Driscoll says:

    Ohohoho! Louise, I have to stop reading your blog. Like Ginger and you, I’m an H. Why? lLet’s all just quit that right now!

    • Sally, you and I and Ginger will be the H Triplets. I’ll bet there’s a few more of us around this blog LOL

      I keep working on the hero thing but this was a whole ‘nother view into it.

  5. Coleen Patrick says:

    I also am unsure about the meaning of success. I feel like I’m living the way I want to live, but like you said, there’s still more steps. I do find myself wondering what it feels like to be “done”–is that a good thing or a bad thing? Not sure! 🙂

    • my only concern with an ever higher list of goals is at the end of productive time, at work or writing or whatever — what motivates us then? how do I celebrate what I’ve accomplished and still have a meaningful day when my skills, etc might be in decline.

  6. I probably fall under more of the Hero mindset, at least to some extent. There’s always bigger, better and upwards. But most frustrating for me is the inner struggle between working for my own benefit and approval, or looking for external approval (from parents, friends, etc.). If I’m not getting the latter, sometimes the former is harder to maintain.

  7. I think I was always the rebel, but not exactly the way you mean. lol Mine was rebelling against stereotypical women. My mom was that way. Back in her day, women didn’t divorce, but she did when forced to. Women didn’t work away from home, but she did out of necessity. She wanted to be a nurse, but her family thought she wasn’t strong enough, so she became a nurse’s aid, which was much harder. She loved caring for people. I always thought she was a hero.

    I wanted to travel at a time when only the wealthy were able to, but I found a job with the airlines, so I could do what I wanted to do. Not sure what that makes me. lol

  8. Tawny Stokes says:

    Oh I’m a classic hero. Although I used to be the rebel. Weird.

    Success, not really sure how to define it, I want to aquate it to happiness, but I’m not sure that’s it either. Because I always say, I will be happy when…. and it happens, and I’m still not happy, then I say, I will be happy when…. and so on.

    • that’s common for many of us, Tawny. I tend to think of success as an external event. But when that happens, nah, not so much. Interesting tha you’ve moved from rebel to hero…not uncommon, for sure. thanks for stopping by

  9. I think “success” is a moving target. It’s also relative, IMO, to our goals and satisfaction with meeting those goals (or our progress toward them). I remember back when I first started back into fiction after a long absence, I considered “success” as finishing a novel. But soon after I met that milestone, “success” became publication. And after I met that one with an epublisher, ten years ago, success then came to mean being published by a publisher that actually had real distribution – especially since I had a contract, but so few sales I never felt published until I took it upon myself last year. And now, I think I’d feel successful if I only had better sales. Only that number too would surely be a moving target. LOL! I am a first child, with one younger brother. I think us firsts and onlies tend more toward the hero role, perhaps? Good food for thought…

    • ah yes, I am so with you on the moving target definition of success. for us poor heroes, there’s never anything to say ‘we’ve made it’…we’ve arrived. there’s always another mountain to conquer or another mill to climb. and yes onlies and firsts tend to be heroes.

  10. I believe sucesss is whatever you want to make of it. If you (or me) wants to be “successful” at something and we accomplish it, then – voila – we are successful. Success for me is accomplishing a goal. If my goal is to finish the first draft of my manuscript and I actually write the end, then I am successful. It might not mean anything to anyone else, but in my mind – I’m a success.

    Success is achieving whatever it is you set your mind on doing, or getting. If you do it, or get it, you’re successful. It’s that simple. Reaching your goals is success. The only unsuccessful people are people who don’t set goals or strive to accomplish anything.

    Listen to me going on like I know what I’m talking about. Sheesh.

    Patricia Rickode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Pat, I think you make some excellent points and I agree with you completely. But let’s say your goal is to sell 10,000 copies of your book then what? I tend to continually build on the last goal which means there’s never any being ‘done’. so I never say “I am successful’. because there’s always another goal to achieve. for me that’s the hero piece coming through. and in truth, I don’t know what i”m going to do when I retire and the goals are so very different than what I”m used to.

      • Well, Louise. I don’t aim as high as you I guess. My goal is to sell 10 books, then 100 books, then 1,000 books. I think the concept for me is to make the goals attainable. That’s not to say that I don’t strive for more, but baby steps that are met builds confidence to shoot higher next time. And so on. After all, my original goal was to finish the damn book, which I’ve now done. Now my goal has changed. Publish the damn book. Next goal, have someone buy the damn book. You see how it works for me?

        Maybe don’t shoot quite so high. And as far as retirement goes – when you get there call me and I’ll give you some ideas. Or better yet, I’ll cross over the border and spend some fun time with you seeing Canada. I’ll keep you busy as tour guide. I already know what I’ll do but at the rate I’m going financially, I won’t be able to retire until I’m dead. Hey, there’s a goal – reach retirement before death!


  11. Louise, there’s a mound of research out there on human happiness, right? One of the best definitions I ever read of happiness was something l can’t quote specifically but it was basically: The continued achievement of worthy goals. This was based on the “Flow” research by the guy in Chicago whose last name I can’t spell but his first name is Mike C-something. His point was that we should continue to set higher and more difficult goals for ourselves in order to remain engaged in life and to feel accomplished and successful and happy. This makes sense to me. Because I don’t believe success is an “end,” but rather a life-long process. He wasn’t saying we should all desire to be Sisyphus, but that we should take the stair-step approach to our life-long journey, climbing ever higher and farther and enjoying the trip. Maybe that just means I’m trying to justify my own Hero tendencies, though…. LOL! Another great post on a fascinating subject. Thanks!

    • I think you’re right Diane. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is the author of Flow and one of the founders of positive psychology. I love his work.

      I couldn’t agree more with him but I need to learn to find a way to acknowledge the accomplishments of today or yesterday without diminishing them and without denying the need to keep moving forward. Some of us heroes are very good at celebrating yesterday’s successes while we move on to tomorrow’s and some of us not so much.

      that’s why the question. it’s about ensuring we heroes don’t get stuck in chronic dissatisfaction because “been there, done that’ is not enough for today. thanks for another insightful comment.

  12. Joan Leacott says:

    My version of success has been to step out of my Lost Child role and become a Found Adult. I engage in work that satisfies my creative drive, regardless of the confines of my family’s expectations. Oh, they still have those expectations, but I’ve learned not to pick up the end of the rope and engage in a useless tug-of-war. I’ve learned to walk away. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m happy and I love my life. If my family is unhappy, I’m fine with that. Thanks for helping my to see that, Louise. 🙂

  13. Hi Louise,

    Every morning when I wake up, I look down at my feet. If they are above ground–not six feet under–then the day is a wonderful day, and I feel happy and successful. We get to set ourselves up for success and can make the criteria for success as easy to achieve as we wish.

    And optimism is contagious.

    Cheers, Ashley

  14. theproverbialwife says:

    Very interesting. I can identify many family members using this, but not myself! I’m not an all out hero, but rebel and lost child don’t define me either. At times I think I’ve been like the Mascot/Hero mix at times:) Success for me is living the life I was intended to live. Using the gifts I was given to their fullest and not wasting them. Now the problem with this is that sometimes I find myself wondering what my gifts are and just what exactly I’m supposed to do with them!
    Great post, that once again got me to thinking:)

    • Funny how it’s easier to see these behaviors in others, isn’t it? mascot/hero is an interesting mix. I so hear you about the ‘what are my gifts and what should I do with them?” yeah, that’s a typical hero question. Heaven forbid we should ‘waste’ time or not be productive. thanks for stopping by

  15. Debra Kristi says:

    Well, paint me confused as I have some clear hero, but definite lost child syndrome in a few spots. I believe I over came that though. Is it possible to be a hybrid? 😀 I agree with Jennette, I think of success as a moving target. It’s a tricky bastard. And I really love what Diane said in regards to success as well.

    • i think we’re all hybrids, Debra, but usually we go to one role more than the other. and if you had fewer or more than 4 children you may have picked up another role. the hero and the lost child is actually a common hybrid – the hero is busy succeeding but on their own. think of the child who gets great grades but is always studying – at the library, school and with friends. they are ‘lost’ to their family but are still very successful. and yes, success is probably a moving target.

  16. Interesting, Louise. I’m still amazed at how well these traits fit different people. For instance, one of my younger sisters fits the Lost Child so well. This series is a great way to understand the people around us and in understanding them a little, helps me be a more compassionate person (I hope!).

  17. kresedakaine says:

    All very interesting points and lots to consider – I think you just gave me the premise for an internal conflict for a character though for me to work things out!!

  18. I see elements of the Hero in myself, but also the Rebel. In my extended family, the belief is that you need to be “cool” (in other words, you’re always dressed fashionably with your hair and make-up looking lovely, you drink the right wine, which you make yourself, you like the right books and movies, which are defined as raunchy comedies or anything literary, you watch hockey, and you never, ever seem awkward or nerdy) and you need to have a job that comes with a regularly scheduled paycheck and benefits. Yeah…I could be on the NYT bestseller list and still be a failure in my family’s eyes because I’m an uncool, super nerdy writer. And I don’t drink alcohol or like sports.

    • Marcy, you have just described the family rebel perfectly – they don’t do what the family expects of wants. tough place to be, but I know you’ve found some peace with it given how clearly you see the picture. thank you for sharing this piece of your life. I appreciate it.

  19. Reetta Raitanen says:

    More fascinating insights to how people work. Thank you, Louise. I’m most like the Lost Child, always a good girl and retreating to my room to read after the work was done. So far I have been hiding safely in the studying world and as a work-at-home mom (because mothering and running a household is fun but hard work). The thought of graduating and getting a ‘real’ job terrifies me. Totally new world where I have to grab a spot in the limelight.

    • I can see where that would be difficult for you – The lost child loves and feels most comfortable in an environment where they have control (or a semblance of if with children ) thanks for giving me yet another insight into this model and thanks for sharing.

  20. I think success for all of us, regarding lifestyle goals, careers and even money, boils down to emotional fulfillment. I’m lucky to have parents who taught me and my siblings to pursue our dreams and treat others with kindness. The pairing makes for success on multiple levels. I wouldn’t trade it for all the money or physique “perfection” in the world. 😉 Great post, Louise!

  21. Elena Aitken says:

    Wow, very interesting post. This is a hard one for me. A hard one to define. Up until a few years ago, I would say I was the rebel. Now…I may be a hero.
    How do you define success? Hmm…lots to think about today.

  22. Pingback: Link Feast Vol. 7 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog

  23. Kourtney Heintz says:

    It’s funny because writing has forced me to redefine success. It can’t be about getting published. Otherwise I’d be a failure every day. It has to come from meeting my own goals. It’s the only way I can take the army of rejection letters.

I'd love to hear from you. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s