You were not at the top of the class, not the employee of the month, nor are you the "10" you think your partner wants. But you're probably pretty spectacular in some way, and definitely good enough in most areas of life. If ever there were a time to stop beating yourself up for being human, it is now.
The perennial question in the religion of success.
By Eric S. Jannazzo, Ph.D.
Peer with even modest depth into the heart of virtually any person within Western culture and you will find a question unmatched in its capacity to motivate, cajole, and shame the human spirit. It is sometimes asked explicitly and daily; it’s more often wholly unconscious for our entire life, directing our affairs like the gravitational pull of an unseen star. It can shove us into a career we loathe; it can convince us to surgically alter our faces; it can induce us to buy a particular car. It can also propel us to cure disease and produce aching works of art and mow our lawn. That question is: “How am I doing at life in the eyes of others?”
The pursuit of success is a religion because, like other religions, it is a robust system of meaning-making that operates at emotional and cognitive levels, guides our decisions, contains its own morality, is buttressed by particular rituals, and is practiced en masse by a group of people sharing a largely unexamined ideology.article continues after advertisement
The success the religion venerates is not success as self-actualization, self-defined and self-adjudicated, but is instead success as determined by one’s perceived place in the social hierarchy.
The religion of success is a highly dangerous game, and yet many of us are unaware of how much we compulsively lay our lives at the foot of its altar. It is so woven into our way of being, so integrated at the machine layer of our ideology, that we must listen closely in a quiet inner space to hear the ever-buzzing anxiety it produces: “Am I doing all this well enough?”
Of course, it is deeply, inescapably human to yearn to have our basic sufficiency reflected back to us. We long for inclusion and social safety, for true membership at the very least, and perhaps, beyond that, for ascendance to a position so lofty that it lies beyond reproach.
And even more powerful than our yearning for inclusion is our terror of exclusion, or of being tolerated virtually unnoticed at the margins, relegated to picking up the scraps of life left behind by those who are really living. Such yearning is embedded in the software of what it is to be human: Concern with our social standing has for millennia driven our evolution. We are the descendants of innumerable individuals who were appropriately focused on—and successful at navigating—the staggering complexity of social relationships. There’s no other way they could have stayed alive long enough to reproduce and successfully rear their young.
We continue to need each other desperately to meet both our basic needs for food and shelter and our loftiest needs for meaning and love. Healthy interdependence is the gateway to both surviving and thriving, and our capacity to achieve it is entirely contingent on our own social sufficiency, our being “good enough” for cooperation and for love. Much of the work of healing in our lives revolves around this central question of knowing that we are deserving of the belonging, a question that has always been central to Homo sapiens .
And yet Homo sapiens in the West have become organized by a hyper-individualism that demands even more. For so many of us, a sense of one’s sufficiency is, painfully, not enough to quell the inner voice that demands not just belonging but also supremacy.
We keep climbing but what is the actual destination? There’s a vague notion of something that awaits up there that will feel like a sort of arrival, a shimmering Eden perhaps where all feelings are pleasant and all others fawn. Since no reality could possibly match this unarticulated fantasy, it never feels quite right. For so many, this unquenchable longing produces a crisis. The more fortunate ones are aware of the crisis and work to confront it. Many others simply keep climbing until the ladder gives way.article continues after advertisement
Perhaps there is a middle path: Enjoy the knowledge of one’s own enoughness while also honoring the imperative to possess some degree of social status. Perhaps this middle path would instill an internal sense of sufficiency and the social status that is perhaps most nourishing: the deep regard given to those who know, and value, who they themselves are.
Eric S. Jannazzo, Ph.D., is a writer and clinical psychologist in private practice in Seattle, Washington.