On paper, 2021 was a great year for me.
I published my first book, got promoted, bought my first property with my partner. I loved all of these moments and they brought me a lot of happiness, but 2021 hasn’t really felt so brilliant.
Despite the outward markers of ‘success’, I, like so many others, have been struggling with grief, anxiety made worse by the pandemic, and doubts about my self-worth and my abilities.
These dark moments of fear and uncertainty don’t tend to make it on to people’s highlight reels when they recap 2021.
You will all have seen the threads on Twitter and the carousels on Instagram, the neat, bullet-pointed summations of the last 365 days – the things we are proudest of, our wins for the year.
Celebrating our achievements – both privately and publicly – has never been more important. We all need to pat ourselves, and each other, on the backs for continuing to survive and thrive through these difficult times. But it is interesting that so many of the achievements we choose to highlight are wrapped up in our careers, or our money, or buying property.
A quick scan of social media on New Year’s Eve will show you just how much we value the successes that are traditionally rooted in capitalist principles. What have we earned? What have we bought? How far up the career or property ladder have we climbed in the last 12 months?
While these achievements shouldn’t be diminished and are worth celebrating, they are not the only things worth celebrating. I know first-hand that ticking these things off your list doesn’t always equate to a happy and successful year.
So, is it time we reassessed our definition of success? Maybe, at the end of 2021, we need to extricate our self-worth from the values of capitalism, and remember that there is more to us than our job titles or how much we have in the bank.
We spoke to some people who are taking the time to celebrate their non-traditional wins of 2021 – and keep reading for tips on how to redefine your own definitions of success.
Shama Nasinde, journalist and presenter
‘One of my successes this year was being more open to finding love.
‘I used to be closed off to men and dating. I’ve emotionally matured drastically in the past year because I stopped letting my doubts sabotage my dating life. I’ve probably gone on more dates, both virtual and IRL, in the past year than I have in my entire life.
‘I met a few people on Hinge and even someone spontaneously while I was on holiday. I overcame my aversion to FaceTiming since that’s the easiest way to connect with people and I have a much healthier mindset when it comes to relationships now.
‘Although I haven’t found the right person yet, I’m glad I’m in a much better position to accept love when it comes.
‘I think it’s important to redefine success because if we zoom out from everyday societal pressures, what really matters is if you’re happy.
‘Success should be focused on whether you’re pursuing what gives you joy. In your final days you’ll reminisce about all the memories you created with your close ones and how much love you gave, not how much you earned or what model your car is.
‘Most importantly, success should be defined on an individual basis because we’re all too unique to be trying to fit into one tight definition.’
Jazmine Rocks, content creator and social media manager
‘I do find it hard when it feels like my milestones outside of the “traditional” ones are less deserving of celebration.
‘One of my achievements this year was that I dedicated more time to nurture my passion for floral design, floristry and gardening – I’m so proud of myself to making time to learning new skills purely for enjoyment and education.
‘It feels like so many people decide to learn a new skill in hope to monetise it, however I wanted to invest in two online floristry courses and many hours of “getting my hands dirty” purely to focus my energy into something that wasn’t my job.
‘One of the biggest things I’m proud of is quitting a toxic job. In my opinion, quitting a job should be celebrated as much as (if not more than) getting a new job. I’m a firm believer that quitting is not a sign of weakness or a failure – it’s a strength.
‘I hope we can start to redefine success – it’s not just those big moments that should be worth celebrating; all of those small moments, anything from growing in confidence to learning a new skill, or having a week were your mental health is in a consistently good place when you’ve previously struggled to get out of bed, should all be recognised.’
‘My perspective shift around what success looks like has been incremental, but probably started 12 years ago with the decision to leave a big titled job and work for myself. By doing so, my identity stopped being defined by career and I was able to seek a more purposeful definition outside of it.
‘The key things I am most proud of in the last 12 months are not work-related.
‘I turned 20 years sober. This says so much about the shift in my own self-worth as a priority, and it has transformed my relationships and the consistent service I have been able to give to others.
‘The word used the most in feedback from the people I work with has been that I am a “cheerleader”. I think it’s the best role – we can’t all be on the pitch playing – the encouragers need to be as plentiful. It suits me, it feels purposeful. Nothing has brought me more joy than seeing others absolutely smash it, virtue or grace, I am grateful for that feeling.
‘Sometimes “self-care”, “be kind” or “mental and physical wellbeing” can become non-specific slogans. In fact, a purposeful life in service to yourself and others by being specific and intentional is the yardstick that has brought the most “success” for me.
‘Looking back, I can see I have pretty much mirrored my late Dad’s whole life game, and that’s a resounding honour.’
Katrina Cliffe, PR agency MD
‘My biggest achievement of 2021 was setting out to complete Dry January and seeing out the whole year without alcohol.
‘Initially, it was a case of just trying to cut back and kickstart the usual healthy plans for the year, but it became so much more.
‘2020 was a year of, “It’s been a crap day – have a drink”, or “it’s been a good day – you should celebrate with a drink”. And while it was only ever a couple of drinks, it was a behaviour I didn’t like.
‘While 2021 has been just as challenging in many ways, I feel that by not drinking I’ve been able to cope much better with situations that require me to make decisions. I’ve also felt less anxious when difficult situations have arisen.
‘Most importantly though, I’ve felt better on so many other levels. I feel that I’ve had more patience, which is important with 10 and 16-year-old girls, and that we’ve had more quality time together. This is the measure of success to me – not the fact that I stopped the alcohol itself, but that I became a better person all round for the people that matter.
‘While I said I’d get to 12 months and then I can drink again, I really don’t see me being in a rush to do that.’
Melissa Weldon, personal trainer
‘It took quite sometime, but working on healing and managing my stress has given me the tools I needed to come off my antidepressants this year.
‘I have reconnected with my children. As a solo mum to two teens, living in London; the reality is work takes a massive chunk of my time and energy so I can provide. Lockdown gave me the headspace to re-calibrate my work patterns, giving me more time at home and the time, space and energy to be much more present both physically and mentally.
‘I also created a beautiful garden. I found my green fingers in lockdown one, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 where I really got to enjoy the garden I created over all those dark days.
‘For me it’s really important to put value on non-traditional successes because these are the ones that actually make you happy. I think this is especially important now, when businesses and careers are struggling in the midst of this pandemic.
‘Recognising we can still do great things, outside of the milestones society sets out for us is a gift.’
Yasmine Lajoie, student
‘I’ve struggled with borderline personality disorder and complex post traumatic stress disorder my entire adult life. Five years ago, I was in hospital under section. The idea of recovery felt bleak, even violent. I lost everything. It was hopeless.
‘This year, at 33, I won a place at Cambridge University, where I am currently studying for a degree in Human, Social & Political Sciences.
‘I applied impulsively at the beginning of 2021. I never considered I’d get in. I was invited to two interviews, had to submit examples of written work, and had an exam. It’s really competitive.
‘Even when I received my acceptance letter, I wasn’t sure I would be able to enrol. Student Finance said they wouldn’t fund my tuition because I had studied before and dropped out. So I set up a GoFundMe and raised over £9,000 to support my education. I am forever indebted to the kindness of everyone who donated.
‘Before I came here, I was really scared I wouldn’t fit in. I’m 15 years older than a lot of other undergraduate students, state school educated, queer, brown, disabled. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to adapt to student life after so long out of education. It has been challenging, but I’m so glad I’m here.’
St. Clair Detrick-Jules, filmmaker and author
‘Up until this past year, I had defined success largely in terms of wealth and education. I wasn’t grounded in myself – I hadn’t built a strong sense of identity for myself – so I turned towards the approval of others and let others define my success for me.
‘After graduating and no longer having the means to define myself in terms of grades, I started thinking of success in terms of how much money I had in my bank account and where I was in my career.
‘The passing of a college friend radically shifted my idea of success. In his short life, he traveled the world, ran ultramarathons, and spent a lot of time in nature. His passing made me realise that, when I die, I don’t want to look back on my life and regret spending most of my time on work instead of doing the things I loved.
‘In my grief, instead of working to distract from my sadness, I decided to sit with it and learn from it. I tried to figure out what my grief was here to teach me and how I could emerge from it stronger.
‘One way I did this was by writing every day. Through my writing, I find that I’m becoming more fearless, more grounded, and more excited about life in general.
‘Capitalism will have us believe that our value stems from our labour, when the truth is that we are all intrinsically valuable simply because we exist.’
How to redefine ‘success’ in 2022
It is possible to reframe your definition of success – to create more space to value your relationships, your mental health and your personal growth, alongside more material achievements.
Judith Quin, life coach and founder of Your Whole voice, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Having been in a dark mental health place myself in the past, I would say the simplest way you can reframe your success definition is to stop looking at what you think you “should” have and take time to know what you really want in your life.
‘Remember, it’s what you want – not what your family or society says.
‘Then, look at what you do have (rather than what you feel you don’t) and remember to notice the good in your life and fill that bank daily.’
If you’re prepared to do the deeper work, Judith has some more tips for longer-lasting change in terms of how you perceive success:
‘Ask yourself what it is you feel more money, etc, would give you energetically or emotionally.
‘Often, if we are overly focused on these elements, it is covering up a deeper need. If we then put our focus on what we’re really trying to get, we can fill the empty space a little more.
‘Ask, “what do I really want from this?” then ask, “and under that?” and, “and under that?” – until you get to the core, basic need.’
Judith says you will also need to make changes in your actions, behaviour, and life – and notice how that impacts not just you, but those around you.
‘For example, when you are happier, are you easier to work or live with?’ she asks. ‘Do more things that make you happy. Or, if you are frustrated by not being heard – if you start to speak more confidently and start to be heard will people understand you better?
‘When people start changing their behaviour, they feed those basic safety and security needs and feel the reward mentally, emotionally and energetically by being acknowledged, included, appreciated.’
*Name has been changed at the contributor’s request
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