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When success is a mirage

‘I think you have success dysmorphia,’ my friend Ali told me about 8 years ago.

Dysmorphia means ‘wrongly shaped.’ 

It’s a term usually paired with ‘body’ as in ‘body dysmorphia,’ when you look at yourself and see someone wrongly shaped (when actually you’re just right).

Unable to see ourselves
as we truly are,
we see ourselves only
as we aren’t.

At the time in my life when Ali diagnosed me with success dysmorphia, I could have checked off most of the items on my lifetime list of ‘success’ — a healthy body, a healthy baby, a wonderful husband, loyal and inspiring friends, organic food in the fridge, a full coaching practice, a dance contract with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, a publishing contract for my first book, plenty of income, weekly massages, a beautiful home, a good relationship with my parents, cute shoes, a well-fed cat — but I didn’t FEEL successful. 

I was unable to see
my success as it was;
I could only see it
as it wasn’t.

But, dear one, where did I learn to work my a$$ off, but never feel satisfied with the results?

— Where did I learn to shrug off congratulations, because I knew there was someone who had done the same thing but with more panache and a bigger payday?

— Where did I learn to look at a pile of accomplishments, and see nothing but an empty expanse of desert?

— Where did I learn to see the mirage of a new success sparkling just out of reach on the horizon, as more real than what I was waking up with each morning?

— Where did I learn to define ‘success’ as a set of metrics to measure up to rather than something I felt inside and defined for myself?

— Where did I learn that success was a destination rather than an ever-unfolding journey?

— Where did I learn that success was determined by people and things outside of myself rather than all that I already innately had access to?

When I was young,
I learned to see life
as an unending series
of auditions.

I assumed there was a panel of Those Who Know How a Successful Life Goes.

This panel was made up of esteemed, successful judges — the Mozarts, Baryshnikovs, Dalai Lamas, Einsteins, and Princess Dianas of the modern day — and at some point I would get my chance to audition for them.

I saw these panel members as gatekeepers of some kind of tenured cool-kids club.

After all, they were great successes, so if I could become great enough to win their favor and pass through their great gates, I assumed they would then bestow upon me, along with a sprinkling of glitter, a sense of great success. Preferably the everlasting kind.

So everyday felt like a rehearsal for my big make-or-break moment.

And how, you might ask,
would I KNOW success
when it finally, gloriously arrived?

I assumed the panel of judges would materialize out of their great green room in the sky, greet me reverently as I got off the N train after my bartending shift, and then, with confetti and official proclamations, let me and the world know that I had finally made it.

I guess versions of this DO happen for some people.

They get a call from Oprah or Ed McMahon. They pick the winning lottery numbers. They get the votes on American Idol. They get discovered in a café and get whisked away to the red carpets of Hollywood. They open a letter one day bearing a return address from the Nobel Peace Prize folks.

I guess versions of this DID happen for me — admittedly on a waaaaay less grand scale. 

But still, I snapped back to my old friend, success dysmorphia. (And I have a suspicion that so too do most of the lottery/Idol/Hollywood/Peace Prize folks).

I didn’t really ever consider
what everlasting success
would FEEL LIKE for me.

I didn’t really ever consider what it would let me KNOW ABOUT MYSELF.

And I didn’t really ever consider it a problem that my success was entirely IN THE HANDS OF OTHERS — and fictional, mercurial, demi-god others, at that.

I was entirely focused
on ‘outer success’
and didn’t even know
about ‘inner success.’

Outer success is the stuff, the toys, the accessories. The achievements you can line up on your resume, for which you worked your a*s off. The cute shoes. The names you can drop. The names that drop your name.

Outer success is all fine and good, but it’s the gravy.

It’s yummy, but it’s not where true satisfaction or meaning or peace or depth or sustenance can be found.

The main meal,
the inner success,
is in your hands
and yours alone.  

The main meal, the inner success — I’ve come to find — comes through what we FEEL and what we KNOW ABOUT OURSELVES.


Inner success is less about the cute shoes, it’s more about feeling comfortable in our skin as we wear them.

— It’s less about the pretty dishware and matching silverware and more about savoring the flavor of the morsel on our fork.

— It’s less about solving problems and more about who we discover ourselves to be as we tackle them. 

— It’s less about the big wins and more about falling flat on our face and then catching ourselves in our own arms when we used to turn rudely away.

— It’s less about the entrance ticket to the cool-kids club and more about the panic that ebbs away and the peace that flows in when we, as one of my clients puts it, “belong ourselves to ourselves.”

— It’s less about the choir of angels letting us know that we have arrived and more about being present for the grace, the ordinary holy joy of the cool morning air on our cheek.

— It’s less about the outfit-and-accessories or the paycheck that bought them and more about looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves as we truly are:

And generally magnificent.

The big cosmic joke is that we think that success comes through our achievements, but actually, it is our fixation on our achievements that keeps us from knowing success for ourselves.

Our obsession with outer success keeps us unable to see ourselves as we truly are, caught in seeing ourselves as we aren’t. 

Everlasting success is measured
not by achievements
but by growth.

It is marked
not by accolades
but by self-love.

Outer success alone — without inner success underneath it like a backbone — is hollow and false and leaves us bereft, with only that as$ we worked off, and our old friend dysmorphia.

To your true satisfaction and meaning and peace and depth and sustenance,

PS: Defining success for yourself and then living into it as you grow and evolve, is a glorious, confidence-expanding, peace-giving experience. I wish it for you.

If you would like help with this beautiful but often tricky inside job, I have two spaces opening up in August 2023 for private transformational coaching. 

I especially love working with those who have accomplished so much in life, with far too little self-love.

If you’d like to explore this option, let me know a bit about what you’re wanting, what you’re feeling stopped by, and what you are curious about working together.

You can fill out this form and your answers will be sent securely to me.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

PPS: Photo by Wendy K. Yalom Photography

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