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Reframing Success

Consistently, whenever I get around ovulation, I have an enormous dip in self-esteem.  I feel like I’m literally the opposite of all of those studies that have found that women believe they are more desirable around ovulation, an evolutionary trick to make humans have sex when they’ll be successful.  Instead of revealing clothing, I am more likely to wear sweatpants and bemoan all the ways I’m just not good enough.  I know, it’s attractive.  Girls in mustard-coloured sweatpants with low self-esteem get the boys hot.

I’m assuming it’s a learned behaviour because it seems to have started in the last few years.  Get enough hints from your body that you suck at family building and you will get the message that you suck at family building.

I was having one of these low self-esteem sessions last cycle when Josh said something profound when I cried that I didn’t feel successful in many facets of life:

“You are not a success in the comparative sense, but you are a success in the objective sense.”

I’ve been mulling this over, rationally aware at this point in life that it never stops.  You can be the most popular girl in school and still perceive that someone is more popular.  You can arguably be one of the most successful writers — your characters beloved by millions of people — and still lament that you haven’t won a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Someone else’s stomach is always flatter, hair is always shinier, boobs are always perkier.  Other people don’t seem to have your money problems: they can afford a single family home and vacations, and they don’t have a job dissimilar to your own.

I have always compared myself to others and used that as the barometer of my success.  I wasn’t as smart as my sister in school nor as pretty, therefore I labeled myself pedestrian and homely.  Looking back, if I consider myself objectively, was I really that mediocre?  Probably not.  I was in AP classes, had been told I had great hair on numerous occasions, even won awards from time to time.  Objectively, I was smart and pretty.  Comparatively, I was not.

Writers will always have the JK Rowlings of the world to make themselves feel like shit about their own writing success.  Infertile women will always have the Michelle Duggars of the world to make themselves feel like shit about their family building success.  Bloggers will always have the Heather Armstrongs of the world to make themselves feel like shit about their blogging success.  It doesn’t matter if you have a published book or a child or have gathered three great friends due to your blog, your achievements only look like a success to the person on the outside who is using your life as a comparison to their own success levels.  In your own eyes, you can never measure up.

Unless you stop comparing.  Unless you can look at yourself objectively.

What do you think of Josh’s statement?


1 Justine { 08.21.11 at 8:27 am }

In theory, this is awesome. But how do we even come up with what success means if we don’t have something to aspire to? And how do we have something to aspire to if we don’t compare ourselves with other people? Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t abandon the flat-boobs flabby-stomach blues (my 4 year old son told me this morning that I’m fat … I proceeded to haul his father over so he could compare relative stomach flatness) … but I just think that human beings measure in terms of what we know … it’s pragmatism at its best.

2 Mina { 08.21.11 at 11:17 am }

I think it is spot on.
Comparatively, we always lose, no matter who we are. We are never a completely successful person, just because we can’t have it all, in my opinion. I am not against feminism, I simply disagree with the sentence that women can have it all. And so, if any comparison steps forth, we instantly lose.

But, thankfully, comparison works both ways, since there are many who are better than us or have more or whatever, and there are many who don’t. It is a vicious circle, and we need some stationary reference points in order to get some answers to this question.

The dual world we live in means that we are and are not successful at the same time. It depends which side you want to take. I take turns in feeling either very good about myself, or feeling a complete and utter failure. And I suspect I am not the only one.

3 Queenie { 08.21.11 at 11:31 am }

I love Josh. You are so lucky to have him. He is completely right (well, I disagree that you’re not a success comparatively, but other than that). Comparative success is worthless. It’s objective success that matters. Because who cares about whether you are comparatively successful? No one but ourselves, and it’s just a cesspool of self-doubt–no one wins in that competition. But who cares about objective success? Again, no one but ourselves, but this time we can make ourselves happy. Does your life make you happy? Are you doing what you want? Are you proud of your choices? THAT’S what matters in life, and you look to me like you’re doing well on all those counts. So buck up, take off the sweatpants, and go out and enjoy the day.

4 Queenie { 08.21.11 at 11:32 am }

PS I disagree with Mina–I do think we can have it all. I feel like I have it all. But then, I have a very flexible and supportive partner, which I think is the key to having it all as a woman.

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.21.11 at 11:53 am }

Both you and Josh are brilliant, comparatively and objectively.

One of my Teachers once told me to “bring the yardstick inside” and to “look straight ahead for my success, not to the side” which are other ways of saying care more about what *I* think of myself than what others think of me and stop comparing.

Easier to say than do.

Thank you for this. And Josh.

P.S. Ironically, you are one of the people I compare myself to. And even though I come up short in so many measures (except, perhaps, height, lol) I am perfectly OK with being side-by-side in my mind with you.


6 Pam/Wordgirl { 08.21.11 at 12:00 pm }

Hi Mel,

We always seem to have some synchronous thread in our posts — I just wrote a post sort of reminding myself, yet again, why I blog — because as you say — comparatively I may feel like a failure — but it is all determined by the very question of how one defines success or failure … and I had to remind myself that I truly would not have gone through, could not have gone through the journey to Z without this community and without my blog. My blog has sustained me in real ways — and what is that if not success?

Thanks, as always, for the food for thought,



7 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 08.21.11 at 12:07 pm }

When I was in middle school, my best friend and I competed and bet over grades. Every assignment, every test, we’d compare the number. Most times, I won, just barely. If she got 97%, I got 98%. I amassed a fortune in our betting currency (which was something that only kids would value, but still, I had dozens). As adults we talked about how silly it was that she felt bad about getting 97%. Using objective over comparative standards in her case would have made her feel a lot better about herself. If one of my kids was in 7th grade and playing those comparison games, you can bet that I’d be emphasizing the objective “you got a very high A” over the competition. Or, you know, the value of learning for its own sake.

re: Mina and Queenie’s discussion of having it all, I think that we can get by in all areas, but we cannot be as good as we would like to be at everything simultaneously (at least if your standards are as high as mine). Going back to the school example, in school you can get an A in English and an A in math and an A in history. In life, it’s just not possible to get all As simultaneously. I can’t get an A at parenting and A at my job and A at marriage and A at running a household and A at blogging. I just can’t. I have to choose for any given period of life what gets an A, what gets a B, what gets a C, and what gets dropped until the next semester (I’m looking at you, pottery and exercise).

8 Liana { 08.21.11 at 12:23 pm }

I think Josh makes an excellent point.

I can look at others and find a million ways in which I lack. But when I look at my life and only consider what’s in front of me, I am incredibly fulfilled and don’t yearn for more or better. I can look at others and know they wish for what I have. I think there’s a huge gap between striving to be better at your life and trying to be the Best at Life. One brings you happiness and fulfillment, the other brings you struggle and disappointment.

I find the discussion about “having it all” fascinating. I’ve laways felt the biggest lie we were ever told is that we can have it all. of course, this all depends on how you define “all,” but I think mostly if we want it all, we can have it, just not all at the same time. I think Baby Smiling in the Back Seat put it perfectly.

Man, I’d love to see everyone post on this subject. I find it fascinating and enlightening.

9 Aisha { 08.21.11 at 12:47 pm }

This post came to me exactly when I needed it. I thank Josh for his words bc they hit me hard. Thanks for the perspective

10 Quiet Dreams { 08.21.11 at 1:29 pm }

Echoing what LavLuz said, I think the key is to find our own definition of success, one that does not require the compare/contrast game.

11 BigP's Heather { 08.21.11 at 2:57 pm }

I keep having this conversation this week, apparently God/The Universe wants me to REALLY get this lesson.

This is like the Pain Olympics. Just because someone has “more” pain doesn’t negate that you have pain too. Just because someone has “more success” doesn’t negate your success.

A friend told me she was introduced to a group of women last week and they all looked so posh and put together. The more they talked, she realized they are just as “broken” as she is. No one has a perfect life, some are just better at making it look that way from the outside.

12 Willow { 08.21.11 at 3:52 pm }

Such a great point! It’s so hard not to compare, but no one’s circumstances, abilities, and goals are identical, so I’m not sure how useful these comparisons can ever be. I’d like to just be happy with what I’ve accomplished without constantly measuring myself against others, but I think making comparisons is a very human thing and thus very hard to stop! Certainly worth trying, though

13 Esperanza { 08.21.11 at 3:56 pm }

I have been struggling with this a lot lately. I look at others around me, especially in my area, and find my life lacking. You have to have so much money to live here, at least at the standard of living I grew up with and expected for myself as an adult, I don’t think I’ll ever have as much as I expected I’d have, and that is hard. I’m still living in the apartment I moved into right after college. If you told me I’d be having kids here, I’d have punched you in the face!

There is always someone who will have more of some things and someone who will have less. Lately, after I’ve gotten myself down about other people having more than me I’ve made myself look closely at how or why they have it. Would I really want that big, beautiful apartment if it meant I had to work as a firm lawyer 80 hours a week? Definitely not. There are pros and cons to everything.

Recently I put up a post about wanting to find an intention for my life and for my blog. Justine asked how can we not use others to compare our success and decide if we’ve attained it, and I think the answer is we can do it if we have our own intention and we stay true to that. If we know we want to do something in the world, we only need to look objectively at whether or not we’ve done that thing. It won’t matter what other people do or don’t have, or if they’ve lived their life as we want to live our own, it will only matter if we’re living our own lives in tune with our intention.

I’ve thought about this so much with my blog, as you know. I think the main reason I’ve gotten tripped up is that as I’ve continued to write my intention has changed but I haven’t realized it. If I can find a new intention and work towards that, I will know if my blog is successful for me. Otherwise I will always find people who write better, get more comments, have more hits, give more back to the community, etc. I will never be successful as a blogger if I compare my blogs to others’.

It is the same with my life. And so I need to figure out my intention and then learn how to live so as to further than intention. When I’ve figured all of that out, I’ll let you know.

14 a { 08.21.11 at 4:29 pm }

This has set me to thinking quite a bit. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve been competitive, but usually it’s only because someone makes me angry about something that is generally unrelated to the way in which we’re about to compete. (Ha! Make sense of that sentence! I dare you!). Let’s try again. I’m not much for competition for 2 reasons – I’m not particularly athletic and I grew up in an atmosphere where if I wasn’t ALWAYS the smartest, I was always most likely to answer the question. I never compete where I can’t win, I suppose, is what that all means. Also, I am extremely stubborn and somewhat crafty, so if I decide to do something, it’s probably because unconsciously I’ve already picked the clearest path to my eventual success. (I only compete with others when they make me angry about something. Then I find a way to make them pay for their insult.)

All this is to say that I’ve never worried about comparative success or objective success. There is only being where you want to be in life or being on the road to get there. Of course, my husband, who is very competitive, would just say that I never challenge myself. He might be right, but I can’t worry about his opinion either, since it is rooted in the dissatisfaction that compels people to want to be better all the time. That’s just crazy.

Anyway, be proud of your accomplishments (objective success). But be aware that you unhappiness with you comparative success is what drives you to do more. And when you hit 40, you might find it easier to be content.

15 missohkay { 08.21.11 at 4:31 pm }

I like this theory. (And for the record, most of us think of you as wildly successful!) I think it applies to not just successes… I just (minutes ago) wrote a post about being hard on myself because I perceive that I can “handle” less in the infertile trenches than my bloggy peers. But three miscarriages is objectively a lot, so thanks to you and Josh for reminding me of that.

16 Mo { 08.21.11 at 5:07 pm }

I think you married a very wise man. I always find myself comparing and “in a race” with everyone. I’m never good enough, though everyone tells me I’m great. I wish there was a magic potion that could make me view myself objectively.

17 Annissa { 08.21.11 at 5:23 pm }

I agree – you married a wise man. It makes you think. However, will it change to sad little feelings? Will you still climb into the sweat pants? I would.. After so many years of fighting infertility and struggling to get and stay pregnant … I still find myself with that *urge* to jump into charting, keeping track of when we BD … to dive back into the world… and it doesn’t matter that my husband got fixed! (Well, that and we had a confirmed m/c 4th of July 2010, so obviously SOMETHING is still getting out of him …. he got fixed in 2008) … and I still badly long for that elusive baby girl I’ll never have… It’s weird how damaging the world of infertility is… it’s amazing how deeply and profoundly affects you for life. {{HUGS}}

18 jjiraffe { 08.21.11 at 5:55 pm }

I read this book called “Status Anxiety”, which is about how difficult it is to feel good about yourself when you are surrounded by others who have more than you. From a material point of view.

The downside of social media is if you are a writer or a blogger, you are virtually surrounded by others who are (seemingly) doing better than
you. Sometimes, I admit, I feel envious of others. And lacking in comparison. And wonder if I should get off the Twitter rat race. But then I would miss out on the support and laughs, which provide me with a lot of support and comfort.

Great post, again 🙂

19 HereWeGoAJen { 08.21.11 at 7:53 pm }

I’ve always thought you are awesome and I still do.

20 Kim { 08.21.11 at 9:50 pm }

Josh should teach a class to all partners on how to talk us down from the emotional ledges we can’t seem to keep ourselves from climbing out on.

21 Krissi { 08.21.11 at 10:25 pm }

I’m about to have a published book, I have 3 beautiful miracles and my blog continues to grow some success (although a bit more couldn’t hurt) and yet still I feel like I can’t measure up at times. But thanks! You have put things in perspective for me! By the way, your blog’s HUGE success is what I often compare mine too (as we do similar things helping the ALI community) and you should be pretty damn proud! Twins, 2 books, an awesome blog! Yes, you are a success in every sense of the word! Kudos!!

22 Mrs. Gamgee { 08.21.11 at 11:59 pm }

This post speaks directly to the center of my self-doubt. I am constantly seeking answers to the comparative questions in my life… and most of the time I don’t like the answers I get. Accepting that I am successful, in my own way, seems like bragging, but then, if I can’t brag about myself and my little successes, then what can I brag about?

23 Kristin { 08.22.11 at 12:11 am }

I think Josh is brilliantly perceptive and Lav Luz is spot on in her comment.

24 MrsH { 08.22.11 at 1:30 am }

Very profound. Like my husband MrH, living with an infertile woman has made Josh a good psychologist hehehe…

25 Timi { 08.22.11 at 1:55 am }

Thanks. I really needed to hear this this morning. It’s very true, but something that is very hard to remember.

26 Chickenpig { 08.22.11 at 8:12 am }

Right now I feel like I’m a failure because my husband never tells me things that lift me up anymore. 😉 I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your husband’s uplifting words to make me feel better.

I’m not sure if the statement holds water 100%, but right now I’ll take 75% and run with it. My problem is that even when I have achieved success, and I feel successful, I can’t hold onto it. The job that made me feel like I had arrived vanished while I was on maternity leave. The ‘success’ of finally getting and staying pregnant was drowned by crushing PPD. The achievement of finally finding a home that we loved AND could afford was knocked down when we outgrew it. I would like to be able to enjoy ‘success’ for a while, for the rest of my life would be nice.

There is a difference between striving to be greater and achieving success. I’m sure Rowling is perfectly aware that she has achieved success, but I bet she isn’t satisfied to just sit on her laurels. Just as any Olympic athlete knows she/he has succeeded when they get a medal, but they still want to win again. An athlete who comes in 4th place has succeeded in ways that most of us never will, but I would bet any money that while the other athletes are standing on their platforms they don’t feel successful. This isn’t making any sense. I guess I’m saying success is about 25% subjective 75% objective????

27 Chickenpig { 08.22.11 at 8:14 am }

PS I think you are smart, beautiful, and successful. I want to be you when I grow up 🙂

28 Mina { 08.22.11 at 8:47 am }

Thank you, Baby Smiling in the Back Seat, for clarifying my point. That was what I meant to say, that you can’t have it all at the same level. Yes, you can have at the same time a career, a family, hobbies and a party life, but they can’t be equally good at the same time.

I am happy for you Queenie that you have it all. I know absolutely no one who can say that. You are the first.

29 Mary { 08.22.11 at 9:28 am }

Mel, thank you for this, and please thank Josh for me as well. I so desperately needed this today. I remember a kindergarten incident, in which my first real friend taught me the “make new friends, bit keep the old…” song. I was absolutely crushed when she told me I was “silver” because she already had a friend in her old school, and old was gold, which is better than silver. Rather than rejoice in having a new friend, I cried into my pillow that night because I was “only” silver. When my son comes home with this feeling, I will tell him what you wrote today. Hopefully it will help him. Again, thank you!

30 Kristin { 08.22.11 at 10:44 am }

His statement is very true but isn’t it easier said than done to think that way! I think we all need to stop and think every time we start feeling bad for ourselves but I also think sometimes it is okay to feel bad for a little while as long as we don’t let it take over our lives.

31 serenity { 08.22.11 at 12:29 pm }

I’m coming in VERY late on this because we were away last week.

For me? If I loved myself, really accepted me for being ME, I’d probably NOT compare myself to other people.

But since I don’t actually LIKE myself, I want to be someone else. I look outside and compare who I am to my friends, my sister, other bloggers. And yes, I feel comparatively inadequate. Which makes it really hard to reconcile to the objective success I am.

It’s inhabiting the space in between the objective and comparative that gives me so much grief right now.

So I’m hoping that learning to love myself, warts and flaws and all, will help me overcome this need to compare. We shall see, though.


32 stephanie { 08.22.11 at 1:42 pm }

I think Josh is very wise. For every comparison you could make in which you do not live up to the “ideal,” you fail to see the ways in which what you are doing contributes a thread to the fabric of our society.

Also – if I may be so bold as to deconstruct your examples:

JK Rowling wrote a great series. Some of her books are plodding and horribly dull in parts. See? She is at once great and not.

Michelle Duggar has a vagina that won’t quit. Her children do not get quality one-on-one time with her in the same way that someone with fewer kids could give. See? She is at once impressive and not.

Heather Armstrong helped to put mommy blogging on the map with her then revolutionary take on writing about mothering. Her recent years of writing are banal and bore me to tears. See? She’s a trailblazer and a relic all at once.

33 kario { 08.22.11 at 4:28 pm }

I find that, in my struggle with depression, I always get worse when I fall into the trap of comparing myself with others. As soon as I begin asking the question, “Am I the only one who___________?” I am in trouble. It is important to set and achieve goals and truly understand what we want in life, but if the only reason we are doing the majority of our activities is to keep up with others, that’s a danger sign. Thanks for this!

34 Aimee { 08.22.11 at 9:38 pm }

I think he’s a smart man, and he knew just when to say what he said.

I think success *is* subjective, because it’s being better than the average, and the average has to come from somewhere. But sometimes we need to remember that being just better than the average is okay!

As a woman trying to get pregnant, I am a failure. As a married woman, I am a success – I have a faithful husband that I love, I’ve been married almost 11 years, I own a house and have no other debt, and I live near my family so I can visit my sister’s kids. Every so often, my husband reminds me that I’m not horrible at life, just at trying to get pregnant, and that’s what I need. I certainly am not going to think that up myself.

35 Mali { 08.22.11 at 10:43 pm }

After my pregnancy losses, and learning I would never have children, I realised that my life’s values had changed. Or rather, I came to understand it exactly what it was I valued, and had always valued. I realised that I didn’t measure success by career, or family, or wealth. To me, success was being happy with myself. Accepting myself. I’m still a work in progress, but I can honestly say I’m more contented now than before I knew I was infertile.

(But if I did want to compare myself to someone else, you are more successful with your twins, your blog, and now a published author! But that’s okay. Because your success doesn’t take away from mine.)

36 Natalie { 08.23.11 at 7:51 pm }

I am constantly comparing but trying to be objective. Appreciate the things you do have, is what my mom always used to say. But I have to admit she was right. I do try to remember the home and the job and the kid that I do have and not dwell on the bigger homes and higher paying jobs and more kids that my friends have. Would I want their husbands to go along with all that? Nope.

37 kateanon { 08.23.11 at 11:54 pm }

I needed this post. That’s all I can tell you right now through some tears. Thank you.

38 Battynurse { 09.01.11 at 4:25 am }

I think I agree with kateanon although I’m not crying at the moment. I too am so bad at comparing myself to everyone else. I’ve been feeling so much like a failure lately (to the point that I keep putting off seeing my surgeon) because I only lost 115 pounds and not like 150 like so many others. Ok, maybe now I’m crying. Thank you though for a great post.

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