One of the most painful experiences many people endure is having their worth as a person confused with the success of their life projects.
I even saw a reasonably well-known personal growth writer spell it out explicitly in an online post: “Your results are a reflection of you. If your business is a mess, it’s because you’re a mess.”
I get the point he was trying to make, though I might have framed it somewhat differently. I might have said, it’s almost impossible to compartmentalize your life projects from your overall health and functionality as a person. That it’s unlikely for your business to succeed when you’re a mess.
But the way he put it suggests that there is no difference between us, as people, and the things we do in our lives— which just isn’t true. There is a relationship that exists between us and our projects, to be sure, but we are not our projects.
In your life, you’re going to have lots of projects. Careers. Romantic relationships. Platonic relationships. Pet ownership. Home ownership. Skill acquisition. Hobbies. Performances.
Some of those projects are going to go very well. You’ll have times when your job or career is going well. You’ll have romantic relationships that are full of fun, sex, and good vibes. You’ll have friendships that are supportive and sturdy. Dogs and cats who you’ll love, and who will love you back. Places to live that you feel comfortable and safe in. Skills that you pick up and which are useful and satisfying. Hobbies that are interesting and fulfilling. Performances that will impress others and edify you.
And…there will be times when those projects don’t go so well.
You will lose a job at some point. You will be broken up with. Some friendships will drift apart. Pets don’t live forever. You won’t love every place you live. Skills you value at some point will deteriorate. Hobbies will lose their luster. And not every performance you give will lead to a standing ovation.
If you’re a human being who lives under the fat part of the bell curve with the rest of us normal human beings, it’s not a question of if, but when those things happen. Both the good and the bad.
The success, or lack thereof, of your life projects will definitely impact your level of happiness and level of functionality in the world. No question.
And it will mean absolutely zero in terms of whether you are worthwhile human being or not.
A lot of people fall into this trap of only feeling worthy when their life projects are going well. It’s a bummer, but it’s understandable: we get rewarded, in our culture, for doing those tasks well. We get admired. We get financially compensated. We get the rewards that come with being close to people— sex, intimacy, companionship.
We like those rewards.
We spend much of our time working toward those rewards, trying to do our life projects well. And when we get those rewards, we reward ourselves internally, psychologically: we’re proud. We figure, “I must’ve done something right, to get these rewards.”
This is where the problem starts.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve succeeded at your life projects, hooray! You’ve done exactly what that sentence implies: you’ve done exactly what you need to do to succeed at those projects. Good for you.
But if you’re not reaping those rewards; if your life projects for whatever reason, aren’t going well, that statement we tell ourselves when life’s going well— “I must’ve done something right, to get these rewards”— turns into a blade that we often turn against ourselves. You know, in the form of “I must’ve done something bad, because I’m not getting rewarded.”
You haven’t done something bad.
You are not bad.
You simply haven’t, for whatever reason, been in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, to succeed at that particular project. No more; no less.
The person who happens to have been in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, is not more worthy of love, respect, compassion than the person who happens to not have been in that position.
Circumstances change. Levels of success change. Occupations change, relationship statuses change, seasons change, people and lives change. It’s just what they do. And while there are definitely habits and behaviors we can develop that will enhance our chances of succeeding in our life projects, it’s essential to keep in mind: WE ARE NOT OUR PROJECTS.
If you only allow yourself to feel good when you’ve succeeded at a life project, you’re being unfair to yourself.
If you insist on torturing yourself because you’ve not succeeded at a life project, you’re being cruel to yourself.
Over time, we do not develop and sustain positive relationships with people who are habitually unfair and cruel to us.
Take your life projects seriously. They’re important to you; otherwise they wouldn’t be your life projects. But when you start to feel your self-esteem rising and falling based on how your life projects are going? Stop.
Take a step back.
Take a deep breath, and remember: you are a human being, worthy of dignity, kindness, and respect.
Literally no life project outcome can possibly change that.
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