No Form of Success Can Ever Make You Feel Good Enough: How Our Thoughts Distort Our Accomplishments

When we seek out success, we sometimes search for purity.

The worst thing that a high achiever can hear is, “Yea, but.” “Your accomplishment isn’t really an accomplishment because you got lucky.” “Your accomplishment isn’t really an accomplishment because you had help.” And on and on. To some degree, each of those comments are usually true. I mean, when have you ever achieved anything that didn’t involve luck or some form of help? But, to perfectionists in search of the ultimate proof of their worth, these comments are like spears driven into their fragile psyches, devaluing their achievements and, therefore, their value.

The cliche is that if you aren’t enough without the achievement, you’ll never be enough with it, as the achievement, whatever it is, can never be perfect in the same way you won’t be, regardless of effort. If you ever found yourself in a heated discussion about who the greatest basketball player of all time is or whether or not you deserved to win that fantasy football trophy, you’ll recall the moments when some form of success was devalued and reduced to its flaws. In our fantasy football league, which is full of haters (myself included), we find ways to discount each others’ successes when feeling jealous. The “Yea, but”s are plenty.

For a long time, I took them to heart; back then, I didn’t know what distorted thinking was. Thus, my drive became obsessive, compelling me to form a team entailing unqualified success. I wanted to silence my critics to foster a sense of mastery. In some way, I could have only internalized a positive image of my skill by initially proving it to them. However, the rub was that I would have never been granted credit as long as I won, for their psyches would never allow it.

To paint a picture: consider Michael Jordon in the ’90s on those Chicago Bulls teams. And think of how many times his ability was devalued because of his supporting cast. When someone indicates that he wasn’t the best basketball of his era, or ever, they point to his team, noting the reality of him having played with a bunch of all-stars. Would Jordon have won six championships without them? Unlikely. Does that somehow reduce his value in any significant way? Doubtful. But, when needed, haters will hate.

Disqualifying the positive is a form of distorted thinking in which we take something good, such as an A on an exam, and turn it into something neutral (e.g. that A doesn’t count because that test was easy). Instead of seeing the bigger picture wherein we accept the positive (e.g. getting an A) and negative (e.g. most people received an A), placing the positive in its proper context (e.g. even though the test was easy, I’m still somewhat proud of myself for performing well), we eliminate the positive altogether (e.g. it only counts if it’s difficult). And you can do this for anything because no achievement is perfect, even the hard ones.

Returning to fantasy football, I eventually realized that ‘disqualifying the positive’ could be applied elsewhere, everywhere in fact. If I wanted to, I could have pointed to luck and external help in others’ victories; none were absolute. And, if I chose to do so, none of them would have counted, including my own. Even the victories that are less collective and based more on individual effort are founded in external sources. Is it ever possible for someone to have taught himself something or resolved some issue solely on his own without some foundational knowledge? No. If someone isn’t directly helping us, help exists in the past tense, as teachers, books, and loved ones have helped foster our development and, consequently, deserve some of the credit. Individual success isn’t so individual when we consider the context of growth. And, if you’d like, you can completely devalue it by noting one’s luck in having good tutors, which undoubtedly, can confer an unfair advantage. Additionally, you can reduce its significance by comparing it to a higher achievement, which we often do.

All of this isn’t to say that some forms of success shouldn’t be counted, such as when an individual cheats or plagiarizes (and I don’t mean artistic influence). But, having help in some ethical way is as ubiquitous as luck is. In my fantasy football victories, I had the luck of having the time to invest in learning about the players, of having the opportunity to pick up great players after losses, and of lenient schedules. But, my competitors had their own forms of luck. Success is, and always will be, cumulative. And as much as we’d like to wish that we can do something completely on our own, we’d be just as delusional as our haters are.

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