“Imaginary obstacles are insurmountable. Real ones aren’t. But you can’t tell the difference when you have no real information. Fear can create even more imaginary obstacles than ignorance can.” – Barbara Sher
While we have some basic survival fears that are easy to identify like pain avoidance, many of our fears may be harder to see at first. They can be subtly present in our automatic, reflexive decisions rather than blaring at us like the gut-gripping alarms of snakes, needles, heights, and thieves:
“…many of our avoidance reactions—turning down an invitation to a party if we tend to be uncomfortable in groups; putting off a doctor’s appointment; or not asking for a raise—are instant reflexes that are reactions to the memories of fear. They happen so quickly that we don’t actually experience the full effect of the fear. We experience a “micro-fear”—a reaction that’s a kind of shorthand code for the real fear.” -Dr. Karl Albrecht
Author and consultant Dr. Karl Albrecht came up with 5 basic categories of fears that he believes all fears can be classified within. The framework is useful for excavating the micro-fears he mentions above as well as other various emotional signals to deeper fears (which we will dive into in a moment).
- Fear of Extinction
Essentially death, annihilation, or ceasing to exist. It can be triggered by things like looking over the edge of a tall building or thinking about dying from a disease.
- Fear of Mutilation
The fear of losing a part of the body, getting an injury, or being invaded. Triggered by things like spiders, snakes, or power tools.
- Fear of Loss of Autonomy
The fear of being trapped or restricted either physically or in our lives more broadly; it is the loss or restriction of our freedom. It can show up in physical situations like small rooms or social situations like relationships.
- Fear of Separation
The fear of abandonment, rejection, and becoming disconnected from others. Separation is the fear of not mattering to others and not belonging. It can be triggered by things like conflict in relationships and being evaluated (or the idea of being evaluated).
- Fear of Ego-Death
The fear of shame, humiliation, or worthlessness. Anything that feels like it affects our fundamental worthiness, or mattering. It is the fear of being ‘no-one’ and things being meaningless. It can be triggered by failure or being wrong.
Fears related to purpose that might be holding you back most likely fall into the last three categories: Loss of Autonomy, Separation, and Ego-Death. You may notice that these are exact reflections of the things we often hope to gain from pursuing our dreams in the first place: Freedom, Love, and Mattering.
Below is a masterlist of fears that may qualify for those three categories and show up in your purpose process.
- Fear of failure (mattering)
- Fear of success (failure)
- Fear of intimacy (separation)
- Fear of rejection (separation)
- Fear of commitment (autonomy)
- Fear of being alone/loneliness
- Fear of abandonment (separation/belonging/mattering)
- Fear of change/unknown (autonomy)
- Fear of being forgotten/ignored (mattering/separation)
- Fear of getting old/growing up/the future (maybe dying/autonomy)
- Fear of loss (autonomy/separation)
- Fear of forgetting/amnesia (autonomy)
- Fear of becoming your parents/being a bad person (separation)
- Fear of being unwanted (not mattering/belonging/separation)
- Fear of wasting your life/settling (mattering)
- Fear of missing out (separation)
- Fear of not having control (autonomy)
- Fear of being helpless/needing help (autonomy, belonging, separation)
- Fear of not being successful (mattering/separation)
- Fear of being impoverished/poor (autonomy/mattering)
- Fear of being weak/physically incapable (mattering, autonomy)
- Being wrong (separation/mattering)
So let’s get down to it and identify some central fears you’re operating with.
Look for Fear Signals
When you do a cursory check-in do you determine that you ‘don’t really have any fears’ or you don’t have many? Well, you almost definitely have them! They can just be a bit tricky to see sometimes.
Check out this printable exercise to help you identify some of your fears. By looking at our reactions and judgments we can often tease out underlying fears that may not initially be obvious to us.
Alright, so you’ve identified some serious fears and some of the ways they are affecting your actions and choices. The next step could be to work with those fears directly. You can learn more about how to do that in “Working with Fear.” But first, you’re highly encouraged to do the other fear exercises on this page and find out how your fears might be showing up in your beliefs about reality and the other behaviors you engage in. Read on for more!
Fears that masquerade as beliefs about ourselves and our reality.
**This particular section will be most impactful if you’ve already identified something (or many things!) specific that you want in life. If you’re not sure what your dreams or desires are, or they could use some specifying (hint: they probably can) check out the following exercises in the Clarify section:
Of course you are also welcome to try the exercises here if you only have a general idea of what you think you want! And, it is recommended you refine those desires if you’d like a bigger takeaway. 🙂
Figuring out what it is we want from life can be especially difficult. And even if we do know, sometimes we don’t pursue what we want anyway. Our reasons range from “I need to spend a couple more years at this job so I can pad my savings,” to “I don’t have the time right now,” with so many others in between (of course, we may also have real practical obstacles, which are often a different story-you can learn about planning for those on the Align page). When we continue to see and buy into various reasons not to take action towards what we ultimately want, many of us end up in our fifties or sixties wondering where all the time went.
An apt analogy for the phenomenon of never really getting our feet on the ground and working towards what we deeply want is the boiled frog:
If you were to take a frog and drop him in a pot of boiling water he would jump out immediately. However, if you put a frog in tepid water and slowly increase the temperature, he would get sleepy and eventually end up boiling to death.
Professor, purpose expert, and author Victor Strecher expands on this metaphor in his writing and in the following (a few paragraphs down) Ted Talk, making the point that many of us are sleepy frogs unaware that we are boiling to death. The boiling frog problem is common in public health concerns like obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and climate change- things that happen so gradually we barely notice them until suddenly (it seems) we boil.
Maybe this sounds extreme. So let’s try a thought experiment:
Imagine you are plucked up and dropped into your body 20 or 30 years from now and have to stay there. You discover that you never pursued something you deeply cared about and your dreams have not been fulfilled. You find yourself doing the same things you do today that you dislike or don’t care for. You look around at your life and judge yourself as stagnant, bored, and disappointing. What do you do?
Your current self in this new situation may have the vigor and outrage to jump out of the boiling water and change your life. However, the version of you that sat in that slowly heating water over those 20-30 years may have allowed it to continue unchallenged. How many people in your life do you know who fit this description? Who let their dreams gradually slip by over the years?
Not so extreme sounding anymore, hm?
Strecher makes the point in his talk that telling the frog it is going to boil in order to motivate it by fear to jump out of the pot doesn’t work because fear isn’t a strong enough motivator (because it is extrinsic) to motivate that type of positive behavior. Instead he offers three other intrinsic ways that motivate the frog:
- exposure to different views and general learning/awareness
- ego-dissolution through perspective-changing life events like loss or near-death experiences (not that it is recommended to seek these…)
- and value-affirmation through having and pursuing purpose.
Those are all excellent approaches to getting out of the pot– you’ll obviously find the third option explored at length in the purpose section overall (while the second option is less of an approach and more of an event that transpires beyond our control). However, it is also worth exploring how we end up in the pot in the first place and why we do not notice the water heating up. (Hint: this is where fear is a strong enough motivator).
The following exercises are designed to help you see what beliefs (which are actually based in fear) could be keeping you in the pot. Becoming aware of them and challenging them can empower you with the extra zing on your journey to jumping out of it!
The three exercises build off of one another:
- Fear Fallacies – The first is to help you tease out beliefs you have that are based in fear that are keeping you from cultivating purpose; it’s a more involved exercise that you can print out to complete. The insight is priceless.
- Where did these limiting beliefs come from? – The second helps you uncover where you learned these ideas.
- The Worst Thought Experiment – And the final one is a perspective-shifting activity to encourage you to overcome your fear.
Find Your Fear Fallacies
“Fear Fallacies” are our beliefs about ourselves, the world around us, how that world works, and even other people that reflect that are often based in fear and limit our options. See examples of limiting beliefs in the table below.
This exercise will help you examine your beliefs and the fears that likely correspond with them, empowering you to understand how they impact you, dispute them, and create more possibilities for cultivating purpose.
The following table is a list of different kinds of limiting beliefs that show up when we’re afraid of something. These are “Fear Fallacies.” You can explore them more deeply and get a solid understanding of how they impact your choices and behavior by doing the Fear Fallacies exercise above.
Get a printable version here:
|(I’m afraid that)
I’m not capable
|(I’m afraid that)
It’s the way the world works
|I’m too old or too young.
I don’t have the skills to do it.
I don’t have the aptitude or personality for it.
I’m lazy or I tend not to finish things I start.
I don’t have the energy.
I won’t be able to do it, I’ll fail.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
|People who make money are bad people/ money is evil.
Having a passionate job is a pipedream.
What is meant to be will be.
Good things don’t last.
Work is for survival, not enjoyment.
Work just sucks.
My parents/other people did it this way.
|(I’m afraid that)
I don’t deserve it
|(I’m afraid that)
It isn’t worth it
|I should be happy with what I have, rejecting it shows that I’m ungrateful.
What makes me think I can have it when others can’t?
I should have figured it out when I had the chance.
If I deserved it it would already have happened
It’s irresponsible or selfish to do what I want to do.
|It’ll be too much work, too hard, too uncomfortable.
It’ll take too much time.
It’ll be too expensive./I won’t make enough money.
Nothing is as good as you thought it would be when you get there.
I just want things to feel easier/it’ll be too hard.
I could lose what I’ve already achieved/have.
I’ve invested too much time in something else already.
|(I’m afraid that)
(essentially “reject me”)
|(I’m afraid that)
It’s beyond my control
|People will think I’m stupid or crazy.
No one will take me seriously.
No one will help me.
People will be disappointed in me for XYZ.
|I can’t afford it.
I don’t have enough time.
I can’t because I have kids (or debt, or other responsibilities)
I don’t have the right opportunities.
It’s not my fault, I’ve tried really hard.
Try This: Where did these limiting beliefs come from?
Go through the following questions with any (or all) of the fear beliefs you came up with in the previous two exercises (‘Fear Fallacies’ and ‘Looking for Fear Signals’).
- Write the belief (and its corresponding fear -if applicable) at the top.
- What is your earliest memory of experiencing this belief? Has it been since you were really little? Did it show up a few years ago?
- What experience(s) or people might have taught you that this belief was true? For instance, did you see a parent model that there was never enough money? Were you criticized for your intelligence by someone in school? Did you fail when you tried something you cared about? Did someone tell you this thing was true about you? Is it a belief held by the people you surround yourself with or the media you consume? Write down the experiences and people that taught you this belief.
- If you didn’t do this in the exercise above, go through the disputation process:
- How have the reasons/beliefs you identified impacted the choices you’ve made/actions you’ve taken toward each dream? List a few for each. (“My belief that I don’t have the energy to do it leads me to not try or even start.” “My belief that I should be happy with what I have causes me to stay in my current situation.” “My belief that I can’t afford it causes me to not even consider ways I could make it happen.”
- For each belief, assess how rational it is. Is this belief absolutely, 100% true? How do I know? What evidence could possibly show that something else is possible?
- For each belief, write an alternative belief that allows for possibility (even if you don’t fully believe it… yet). For example, “It’ll take too much time” → “I can create time for this thing that is so important to me.” Or, “Good things don’t last” → “It is worth it to me to try to create a good thing anyway.” Or “What makes me think I can have that?” → “I am worthy of experiencing this thing.” Or “I don’t know how to do it” → “I can learn how to do it.”
Try This: The Worst Thought Experiment
Caution: This exercise prompts you to consider negative circumstances. It could be triggering, so proceed with caution and tenderness if this is the type of thing that gets to you.
Seriously consider this for a minute: what is the worst that could happen if you pursue your dreams? Take a moment to imagine what kind of failure you might experience specifically. Would you go bankrupt? Would your friends turn their backs on you? Would you lose your house? Would you be embarrassed? Would you fail and end up right where you are now?
- Write those things down.
- Beside each, write down something you could do to recover from that situation. E.g., get a new job just for money for a few years until you’re back on track. Move in with a family member for a few months. Go back to life as it was before you took the leap…
- Somewhere else on the page, write down some of the absolute worst things you could imagine happening in your life as a whole.
- Now back to your first list– not all risks are going to be worth it to you. If you dream of being a heart surgeon and the worst thing you could imagine is someone dying on your watch, you need to assess if that risk (and what it would take for you to recover from that type of event) is worth it to you. Look over the worst case scenarios you listed above and the steps to recovery. Consider how severe those situations are in relation to your second list. Number the events in your first list TOGETHER with the things in your second list from least severe to most; 1 being the least severe and the highest number being the most.
- How do you feel about the risk involved in pursuing your dream considering the other things that could happen in your life? Why?
- Now imagine your life if you never pursue your dream and never take any big risks. What will it look like? How do you feel about that?
Sometimes one of the worst things we think could happen to us looks a lot like our current scenario… Is that true for you?
Signs You’re Secretly Afraid
So you’ve been roaming the world for a while and you’re relatively satisfied with your life (or perhaps not). Aaand you’re here reading a website about cultivating purpose, so one could assume you haven’t quite cultivated purpose yet (or perhaps you have before but aren’t sure how to do it again). If all this is true, what do you think is the reason you haven’t created purposefulness or perhaps passion in your life yet?
Fear may be at least part of the answer to that.
Are you often bored with your day-to-day or life at large?
Do you struggle with motivation?
Do you feel stuck?
Do you often fuss over little details before you go forward with something?
You love many parts of your job, yet you imagine you could love life more with something different.
Do you feel that things are pretty good, actually- not great, but believe great would be an ungrateful goal?
Do you feel that you can’t do what you want to do by yourself?
Well, you might be afraid.
This little section on signals that you’re secretly afraid will help you identify fears that aren’t typically obvious. Follow the signs for fears that could be lurking under the surface!
You’re Not Lazy, Bored, or Unmotivated
In this 14 minute illustrated video from The Art of Improvement, the narrator offers in the first half that we’re not unmotivated, bored, or lazy, we’re actually afraid. He argues that when we avoid certain tasks or behaviors it’s because we’re afraid of consequences, not because we aren’t motivated to do them. He suggests that we’re not bored but afraid of being alone with ourselves in our own minds and are thus looking for distractions. Instead of unleashing our fear out into the world we self-medicate with social media, television, alcohol, shopping, or actual medications. (The second half of the video is the narrator’s philosophy on how to deal with the fear; his suggestion is “Just do it.”)
Your fear might show up as stuckness, boredom, perfectionism, an attachment to your current identity, or even impatience and lack of perseverance. Scroll on to read about each in turn or click the following links to jump.
You’re stuck, bored, or unmotivated
How to quit your life (and reboot): Priya Parker at TEDxUHasselt
Priya Parker, author, podcast host, facilitator, leadership developer and more, explains that many people who do not like their jobs are often stuck there due to fear. People are afraid of the risks involved in starting over, but they’re also afraid of their lives and or work being meaningless. Priya said that the folks who were able to move forward didn’t get rid of their fear, they simply found ways to manage it. She recommends seven practical exercises aimed at clarifying visions and building the confidence necessary for quitting your life and rebooting. (The one related to fear has been included the Working with Fear section below.)
Are YOU stuck in a job you don’t like? Are you unsure where you’re headed? Do you feel like nothing is really moving in your life? Stuckness can typically show up in the boiled frog problem we mentioned earlier.
Consider comedian Amy Shumer’s series, “Life and Beth” (*Spoiler alert*). The show follows the story of a woman who is about to turn 40, in a relationship she isn’t thrilled about, and working a job she thinks is cool but doesn’t actually care about. When a family member passes away she realizes her life is not what she dreamed it would be and begins to reconsider what she is doing.
Beth is a classic boiled frog held back by fear (and a lack of deeper consideration for what she wanted out of life). The series offers numerous flashbacks to events in her youth that influenced her current circumstances and behaviors. She worked in food service until she wanted to make more and ended up as a wine rep because it looked cool. She was getting older and didn’t want to be alone so she stayed in a relationship that wasn’t serving her. Her fear of conflict led her to not stand up for herself over the years.
Beth’s circumstances aren’t uncommon. Many of us stay focused on getting to the “next thing” (promotion, marriage, house, kids) without examining the big picture and what we want from it. We can get stuck in situations that aren’t ideal because we think we’ve invested too much time, our identities are wrapped up in what we’re doing, we haven’t considered what we truly want, we don’t want to consider that we might be unhappy, it feels like it might be too late, or we’re afraid of not getting what we want if we try. Does this sound like you?
Another way fear can keep us stuck is when we decide to leave the changes we want up to fate. Are you hoping something will suddenly happen to you one day and everything will change? Maybe you’ll win the lottery. Maybe the partner you’ve been dreaming of will bump into you at the grocery store.
Project Wayfinder, a Social Emotional Learning project from Stanford that focuses on teaching students how to develop purpose, says leaving it up to luck is like floating around on a boat in the ocean and just hoping you’ll bump into an island. Not exactly the best way to get to the most desirable island, is it? Or any island, for that matter. And what if the island you happen to bump into is pretty lame? Do you shrug it off and accept that?
Waiting for our life circumstances to force us to make a change is not only a disempowered approach to creating the life you want, it’s probably unlikely to actually get you what you want. This is your life we’re talking about- is it worth risking it by waiting around for something to happen?!
So what do you do about it? If you’re stuck, first you gotta figure out what you want. Then you can figure out what you’re afraid of (maybe you already did that). Then you can begin to work with your fears (tip: that’s the next page).
You’re impatient or don’t persevere
Do you tend to give up easily? Or simply find yourself beginning more things than you finish? Do you start out with a burst of energy and a beautiful vision, only to wade into it and decide it wasn’t realistic?
There are a few things that could be going on if you regularly find yourself not persevering through the projects you begin:
- You’re afraid of success or failure
- It may not be something that aligns with your top values and therefore isn’t intrinsically motivating for you
- You haven’t developed passion or purpose around the thing (yet)
- You expect results more quickly than is likely
- You have a fit or fixed mindset and imagine that if it doesn’t come naturally it won’t come at all
- All of the above
Figuring out which of these apply to your situation may take some deeper consideration. Which of the things on the list resonate with you? Regardless, many entrepreneurs and coaches advocate for patience, tenacity, and informed expectations as the cure.
Author and entrepreneur James Altucher explores what he calls the ‘5 Year Rule’ in his book, “Reinvent Yourself”:
“Year One: you’re flailing and reading everything and just starting to DO. Year Two: you know who you need to talk to and network with. You’re Doing every day. You finally know what the monopoly board looks like in your new endeavors. Year Three: you’re good enough to start making money. It might not be a living yet. Year Four: you’re making a good living Year Five: you’re making wealth By year three you’ve put in 5000-7000 hours. That’s good enough to be in the top 200-300 in the world in anything.”
Sticking with something and taking it day by day leads to incremental progress that adds up, while expecting results quickly can be discouraging and makes us more likely to give up. (You can learn about how to implement the magic of incremental change in the Habits section on Kaizen).
Of course, it must be noted that not everything is worth sticking with indefinitely. Some things may be better to cut losses on. But how do you know? You can use the following table as a quick guide:
To confront your perseverance or impatience, you can try the following:
- Clarify your values— things that align with our deepest values are meaningful to us and are intrinsically motivating.
- Educate yourself on how long it takes to accomplish the things you are trying to do. You can find this out through online research, but the better option is probably to find someone (ideally 3 people) who have done what you’re attempting and ask them how long it took them and why! You could email them or meet them for coffee (James Altucher suggests you offer something to those you ask for information or support from).
- Exercise your Hope muscles – Scientifically speaking, Hope is an orientation towards the future and a practical way of approaching challenges. Learning how to practice Hope will make you more resilient, empowered, and confident in handling problems.
You’re a perfectionist
Do you often avoid activities you’re not good at? Or do you work privately on skills and only share them once you’re comfortable with your level of competency? Are you highly critical of yourself and/or others? Do you procrastinate constantly? Do you need high levels of control to feel comfortable? Are you overly concerned with what people think of you?
These are some of the traits associated with perfectionism– striving to be free (or as free as possible) from flaws and defects. It often gets touted as a positive trait indicating that you’re a hard worker who is extremely motivated and has high standards. There are actually a few types of perfectionism (adaptive and maladaptive) but while perfectionism is more complicated than mere failure avoidance, the gist of what’s underneath it is a fear of failure and rejection (Harari et. al 2018).
Today it’s easy to hold ourselves to incredibly high standards since we’re exposed to the best (and edited) parts of everyone’s lives via social media. Social comparison is a block to purpose on its own since it can cause us to get stuck measuring ourselves against society’s standards of what is important or what is timely rather than our own. We can easily get stuck chasing what everyone else has instead of determining what is right for us because we’re afraid of not keeping up. When we mix social comparison with perfectionism, the social comparison hindrance becomes more extreme.
Our egos are our sense of self-esteem and self-importance. When our self-esteem is at risk we may be dealing with an “ego-death” fear. You can do all sorts of things to protect and bolster your sense of self worth, such as building confidence through learning and challenging our negative beliefs. Unfortunately we often seek external signs of our worth instead of building it up internally. An ego that’s worth isn’t intrinsically determined often seeks confirmation in extremes: things like fame, desire, and power. We come up with various unconscious strategies to protect our ego (such as perfectionism and failure avoidance) which can cut us off from cultivating purpose and even passion.
The movie Black Swan showcases an extremely toxic version of perfectionism in which the main character completely rejects her self (symbolized through actual murder) in an effort to be perfect.
The School of Life explains in this 3 minute video that perfectionism harms us because it makes it exceptionally difficult to satisfy our ambitions. They offer that a key issue is inaccurately anticipating how difficult something will be to perfect.
Perfectionism is a hindrance to purpose when it impedes our inclinations toward risk and learning. Trying to be perfect makes it difficult to learn because failure is not an option. Thus, perfectionism can ironically block the person afflicted with it from attaining the excellence they desire to achieve. Studies even show that perfectionists aren’t better or worse performers than non-perfectionists (Harari et. al 2018).
Combating perfectionism begins with self acceptance, a fantastically worthy life-goal that may take a lifetime of practice. You can visit the sections of the site on self-love and vulnerability to learn more, and you can try the fear exercises that can help you identify ways you’re afraid of not being “enough”. Try the following exercise as well:
Try This: Consider what is “Good Enough”
Before you answer these questions, keep in mind that this is a very simplified exercise for the sake of getting your brain moving and considering your options. Also, you could spend several weeks, months, or even years contemplating these questions and even then the answers would likely change with time. It may be helpful to use the answers you come up with in a spot where you can review them whenever you find yourself aiming for perfection. Then, make time to revise your answers every 6 months to a year.
Part 1: Defining Your Metrics
- Make a list of the top 5 priorities in your life right now. Family? Security/Stability? Play? Learning? Health? Love/Friendship? Wealth? Healing? Others?
- Imagine you’re a pretty good juggler and are currently learning how to juggle five balls. Let’s say each ball is one of your priorities you named above. So far you can only keep three balls consistently in the air and occasionally drop the other two. Which balls(priorities) would it be okay if you occasionally dropped? Why?
- List your 5 most important values. (You can use this list. There is a whole section on values and clarifying them; doing that will help you here, but if you don’t have time right now it is okay to name the ones that you identify with from an initial look over the list).
- List these from least to most important; it’s okay if some tie.
Part 2: Applying the Metrics
- Write down a particular task/situation in which you are trying to decide what is good enough
- Which of your priorities does this task/situation apply to? How important is that priority(ies) on the list of priorities? If it doesn’t relate to one of your top priorities, write that down.
- Which of your top values does this task help you align with? If none, note that.
- What is the goal that completing this task would help you achieve?
- If you achieve that goal, what is it you think you would experience? (i.e. Completing this task well contributes to my goal of getting a promotion. I think getting that promotion will create more ease in my life because I will make more money and it will help me feel seen for my contribution.)
- The things you hope to experience are called ‘possibilities.’ They are different from the specific goal and can ostensibly be experienced through other tasks than the specific one you are working on.
Does doing this task less well interfere with your ability to access the possibilities you listed? In other words, at what quality of performance does your ability to experience the possibility diminish? Keep in mind other ways you could live into the possibility. (i.e. Not doing the task at all may affect my ability to get the promotion but it would not diminish my ability to experience ease and being seen in other parts of my life or job)
- Considering everything you’ve learned from above, what is the minimum quality possible in this task in which you would still be able to live in alignment with your values, contribute to your priorities, and live into your possibilities?
Note: Defining ‘Good Enough’ does not mean lowering your standards. Rather, it allows a margin of forgiveness and understanding and helps us manage our resources in the face of competing priorities.
Related to the above, you can also try the Worst Thought Experiment exercise to help you flip your perspective on failure and what’s most important to you!
If you haven’t already, check out how your conception of success can be a barrier to purpose. The way you define success can set you up for perfectionist tendencies, so try out the following exercise from that section to set yourself up for… success!
Try This: Understanding your definition of success
Note: There is tons of exploration that can be done to help uncover and refine your definition of success. This reflection is only a starting point. Check out the Clarify section to be guided in defining your values, interests, dreams, and skills. All of these components relate to your definition of success.
Grab a few pages of paper and find a quiet spot to write. Try to free-write responses to the following questions and give yourself permission to record what bubbles up without editing or judging yourself.
Part One: The Past
- What bigger goals/states of being/circumstances are you drawn to or currently pursuing in life?
- How are the things you listed above related to being “successful”?
- When you were growing up, what did you learn success meant? Who or what taught you this?
- In what ways has this definition affected your life? What choices has it influenced?
- Does this definition leave anything out?
Part Two: Rewriting the Script
- Imagine you are on your deathbed at the end of a long life. Someone comes into the room that you do not recognize at first, and then you realize it is a different version of yourself! This version of you is totally fulfilled and satisfied with their life and their personal character. They are the absolute best version of you.
- What would they say to you?
- What are their best qualities?
- What accomplishments would they have made?
- What things did they prioritize most in their life?
- Fill in the blank (you can write as much as you need to):
If I had success I would also have __________________.
- What would you most like to be known for?
- Who is someone you look up to as having lived a worthwhile life and why?
- What are the top 5 moments you’ve felt most proud of yourself?
Part Three: The Definition
Considering the answers you came up with from all of the above questions, take a moment to reflect on themes of things that are important to you. Then write your own personal definition of success. Keep it to less than 3 sentences, and know you can always revise it in the future.
You’re too attached to your identity
We spend our entire lives creating and rehearsing our identities. Identity is a complex phenomenon. Having a healthy one has an impact on our well-being, relationships, and resiliency. Your identity could be supportive to purpose cultivation or it could be a hindrance– it comes down to your level of attachment to who and how you are.
Being attached to the identity you’ve already developed could block you from considering other options and finding better alignment as you and your life grow and change over time. Think about the following ways of being:
|Not acknowledging that you’ve changed||“I’m an athlete” (when you were injured and can’t play anymore)*
“I’m the life of the party” (when you’ve started to feel exhausted by and less genuine in this role)
|Fiercely maintaining what you like and don’t like||“I hate tomatoes, always have.” (And you won’t try them even though you established this distaste as a child)
“I’m not a sports person.”
“I’m really flexible and don’t have a preference” (not even taking the time to think about what you might like)
“I only date really playful women.”
|Believing your skills are static and won’t change||“I’m not good at writing.”
“I’m not really a people person.”
“I can’t cook.”
“I’m mediocre at leadership.”
|Believing your interests are static and won’t change||“I’m only interested in history and science.”
“I’ll never think rock-climbing is interesting.”
“I only enjoy international, remote travel.”
“I’m never going to be interested in finance.”
|Being attached to a particular role or limiting yourself to a single role||“I’m a caretaker so if something doesn’t fit that it won’t make sense for me.”
“I only take leadership roles.”
“I’m the one who brings everyone together.”
“I’m the creative one.”
*There are healthy ways to integrate multiple identities (which is largely outside the scope of this section). However, it ought to be said that you certainly can maintain an identity you’ve outgrown and have it be serving to purpose cultivation so long as you are flexible about what it means.
Consider the athlete example from the table. Athletes often get injured in their sports and retain the identity of being an athlete. Doing so could be harmful when the nature of that identity relies on excellent physical ability and active participation in the ways they always have. When those features of your identity are no longer options, you may get stuck when you don’t have the same possibilities to live into as you used to. An article from the New York Times cited a study on 353 male college athletes of whom 51% exhibited symptoms of depression after getting injured, and 12% became severely depressed. Losing access to their work and sport often coincides with a loss of access to their identity and self-esteem.
You can see how not being able to embrace a different form of the athlete identity could be harmful when they can no longer do what they used to do. However, being open to your identity shifting and changing makes it possible to live into a new form of said identity. The athlete could stay involved in their sport and community in other ways (coaching, planning practices, supporting teammates, organizing events, increasing access to psychological support for athletes, etc.) and grow into a new version of themselves that is still an athlete, albeit showing up differently.
Narrative lock on our identities tends to match up with fit and fixed mindsets- meaning we believe that who and how we are are static (if you haven’t already, you can read all about limiting mindsets here). It isn’t uncommon for us to decide that we are a certain way or we’re going to do one single important thing with our life: “I’m going to be a mother!” “I’m going to be an artist!” “I’m going to be a business mogul!” “I’m going to commit my life to supporting cancer research.”
Sometimes these decisions are even influenced by past traumas. Doing so can be empowering and healing. Think of Malala Youzafzai, a young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head for speaking out against girls not being allowed to attend school when the Taliban took over her country. She recovered from her injury and became an activist for girls’ rights, eventually receiving the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17 and going on to attend Oxford University as she continues her advocacy work. Malala is living an empowered and generous life and has developed the identity of a high-profile activist for girls’ rights around the globe. She is a very purposeful person.
But what if one day she becomes passionate about some other cause? Will she be flexible enough with her identity to give herself permission to become another version of herself? Or will she feel stuck in her current role, one that was defined for her and by her at an especially young age when she hadn’t had much time to consider what else she might care about?
It is not wrong or bad to have one or a few main identities or domains that you devote yourself to in life. Living this way can absolutely be done joyously. However, being open to seeing the self as more fluid, capable, and susceptible to dramatic change could create far more possibilities for even more joy and fulfillment in life.
The essential perspective shift to make in order to open up more possibility and ease? Consider the following questions:
- “What could I be?” instead of “What am I?”
- “What could I enjoy?” instead of “What do I enjoy?”
- “What else could I learn?” instead of “What do I know?”