It’s time we reframed our perceptions of what it means to be successful and brought our inner dialogues in line with our external achievements. Anna Bartter explains how to celebrate success and banish negative thoughts for good.
It’s fair to say that I am not a natural athlete. The only thing my PE teacher ever asked me to do was babysit her children, so when I started running as an adult, it was a big deal for me. After 5 years of jogging around the park, I started to dream of running a marathon. For years I had watched, breathless with admiration and vicarious nervous energy, as thousands of runners pounded the streets for the London Marathon each spring.
As I entered my 40th year, I decided this would be the year I said yes to things I had previously only ever considered beyond my reach. So, it felt like an easy decision to enter a marathon myself in Brighton.
I’d been lucky enough to make some great friends through running and one of them, a seasoned marathon runner, drew up my training schedule. It was realistic but demanding. He forced me out on cold, dark mornings to run 20 miles into the biting wind along the seafront, and pushed me to carry on when I felt I couldn’t take another step. The training was grueling, but I was proud of myself each time I laced up my trainers. I was so excited for the day itself, and for months beforehand I had an image of myself triumphantly crossing the finish line, bursting with pride.
When the day came, it was tough, but I was prepared for that. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was how I would feel as I finished. Rather than the tearful elation I had pictured, as I crossed the line, I felt an immediate, crushing sense of failure. I’d missed my target time by 7 minutes, and I felt I had failed. Tired and alone, I just couldn’t see past missing my time. What should have felt like an enormous achievement left me feeling flat, listless and depressed.
But it wasn’t a fleeting feeling that passed as I recovered my breath, it stayed with me. Friends visited and congratulated me, my parents, husband and children were proud, yet I felt utterly demoralised. More than that, I was angry with myself. Why wasn’t it enough? Why didn’t I feel on top of the world?
I’m not alone in feeling this way. Clinical psychologist and author Dr Emma Hepburn believes women in particular have a biological pre-disposition to overlook success. “We, as women, tend to let our attention quickly override our successes. This may be partly because our brain is designed to notice and remember the negative more. Self-doubt is normal, but we can interpret this feeling as failure, when it becomes crippling and unhelpful.”
This disconnect between our external achievements and our internal dialogue can pervade all aspects of our lives, from physical achievements like a marathon, through to our careers and the workplace. This constant, negative narrative is incredibly damaging to self-esteem and mental health, something freelance writer and author of Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss Fiona Thomas, knows all too well.
“As a writer, it’s always been a dream of mine to have a book published. I’ve always struggled with feeling good enough as a professional writer and felt like writing a book would boost my confidence. The truth is, when my first book was published, I suffered from massive feelings of failure. Even though people were buying the book, respected people in my industry were endorsing it and I was asked to do lots of speaking events and podcast interviews, I still felt like it wasn’t enough. My mental health took a huge dip.”
This manifested in binge drinking and suicidal thoughts, but thankfully Fiona sought help and now has a fresh perspective, saying “therapy allowed me to see that one small failure doesn’t negate all my other brilliant successes.”
Even radically life-changing successes can be difficult to accept. The 63-year-old ex-banker, Irini Tzortzoglou, won BBC’s prestigious MasterChef in 2019. But despite the praise and public accolades, she struggled to believe that she was worthy of the prize.
“Each time the judges liked a dish of mine, it totally took me by surprise,” she says. “I was more willing to believe that their judgment was not great, rather than my food was! When others were being eliminated, I felt that they should have stayed, and I should have left. I have rationalised my success with every possible explanation but for my own ability and skill.”
Harley Street Confidence Coach Olivia James believes “an inability to embrace success can lead to low mood, burnout and low self-worth. Life can become meaningless; nothing is ever enough.”
So, how do we overcome this? Success is a notoriously tricky concept, and our individual perceptions of it can vary hugely, but the benefits of recognising and embracing your success are profound. James says a well-adjusted approach to success creates a sense of innate self-esteem, where achievements provide an extra boost.
How to celebrate success
Firstly, Dr Hepburn explains that it’s vital to re-examine our definition of success: “Our view of what success means can sometimes be unhelpful. Is success always getting things done perfectly? Or is success being able to recognise and find ways to manage difficulties and problems? Is success about promotion, or is it being able to work or live according to your values? Is success about making your idea succeed, or is it taking other people alongside you successfully? Our beliefs about success often develop based on societal conditioning but breaking this down to think what success really means to you can help redefine it, and help you realise you are already successful.”
42-year-old Welsh jewelry designer Claire Hill agrees: “There’s so much unlearning we need to be doing about success. I was previously a journalist and a TV director and there is always a sense of “next” even when you achieve something. Constantly striving for the next achievement without taking time to celebrate the work it took to get there can mean that ultimately when you get those achievements they don’t mean that much.”
Placing too much importance on future outcomes can be damaging – forever chasing the next goal is draining, reinforcing the vicious cycle of self-doubt and leaving us feeling like we’re never good enough. Hill finds this exhausting and never-ending: “There’s always going to be more milestones to hit. I think it’s a reason I burnt out so often in the past – it’s exhausting.”
Fiona Thomas agrees. “My idea of success is always changing. I’m always reaching one milestone and then berating myself for not being closer to the next.”
To counteract this negative mind-trap, Dr Hepburn suggests a regular check-in with yourself, not just a once-a-year appraisal: “It’s important to take time at regular periods to notice what has gone well, perhaps at the end of the day with a “ta da!” list, or at the end of each week. Write it down, talk it through with someone. This will help you focus, notice and remember what went well.” Keeping a daily log will clarify your motivation and allow you to see your success more clearly, meaning you’ll be on track to feel a sense of deserved achievement.
Furthermore, experts agree that it’s vital that success is meaningful; it must align with your own personal belief system in order to be accepted. Women in particular value integrity and the importance of what they are doing. Being in tune with our emotions can be beneficial here, as Dr Hepburn explains that “difficult emotions don’t mean you are unsuccessful – use your stressors as signs. What is your stress trying to tell you? Is there something happening that goes against your values?”
Women also rate success more highly when it has also contributed to the achievements of others. During the last two years, a sense of community has become even more crucial, so if you’re struggling to celebrate success for your own sake, you could try doing it for those around you. This will breed positivity and cultivate an environment where we all feel valued and appreciated.
Irini agrees: “I realised that rejecting my success meant I was not acknowledging the work of many others who played a role in my performance. These days instead of rushing to push it away, I embrace praise on behalf of myself and of everyone who has been part of my journey. Success is a great privilege that can make a positive difference to so many, and it is a great gift for which we and others have worked very hard, so it deserves to be treasured.”
So when you achieve your next goal, be it a marathon, writing that elusive book, or simply attempting a new recipe, be sure to remind yourself that the capacity for success is within all of us – we just have to let it in. When we do, we all win, and surely that’s something worth striving for.