Mental Illness, Success and Underachievement

We live in a society in which people are taught to evaluate themselves and their self-worth in terms of success. I was taught to equate happiness with achievement and learned that the core purpose of my life was trying to get good grades, win sports competitions, climb up the corporate job ladder and so on. I learned to compare my achievements to others and always find myself lacking in some respect. My brain always tells me that I’m not as popular, or attractive, or intelligent, or happy as I imagine other people to be. I always feel that I haven’t done as much with my life as other people. I haven’t reached the milestones that they have. I live for the future and hope that the next success will fill the empty void. I hope for this even though the happiness from all the previous successes did not last.

I have achieved so much. Yet despite this achievement I consistently feel like a failure. I consistently feel like I’m not good enough. I feel this way because I know how much I am capable of achieving and how much greater this is than what I have actually achieved. I imagine how many things I could be an expert on or how many books I could have written. I have not fulfilled my potential because I have been incredibly mentally ill. It is hard to read and write when you’re experiencing crippling anxiety or depression so profound you lack the motivation to eat, let alone get out of bed. I’ve lived in a vicious circle of planning to do things, failing to complete these plans because of mental illness and then hating myself for this failure which only makes my mental illness worse and so on. Despite knowing that my inability to achieve my goals is a product of mental illness my brain still views my failure as reflective of my own individual flaws. I will label myself as lazy or un-disciplined. I will attack myself for wasting my life.

Lately I’ve been realizing that this entire way of thinking is wrong. Why am I evaluating myself and my worth relative to these metrics? Why do I care about achievement? Why do I only consider certain things to be an achievement and not others? I never sat down and decided how I should evaluate my life. Instead I was evaluated by other individuals, such as my parents or teachers, and internalized the value system that underpinned their evaluation. If I am to live my life on my own terms, rather than the terms of authority figures, then I should decide for myself what I care about and what matters to me. Achieving externally recognized successes is not the most important thing in life. There are in reality other things that matter far more: I have survived, I have become less self-critical, I have stopped having daily panic attacks, I have become kinder, I have helped friends, I have stopped being afraid of going outside. Healing from trauma, forming positive social relationships and learning to freely associate with other humans are much more important successes in life than writing an important book or being large on youtube. Surely then I should center my life around these goals, rather than the goals I happened to pick up from society.

I think we would all be happier if we sat down and really thought about what matters in life, rather than uncritically pursuing the goals and values handed down to us by the adult world. We only have one life and it is a true waste of life to spend it pursuing goals that we feel we should aspire for. In our society so many of us spend our lives trying to live the life we feel we should want to live rather than the life we actually want to live or the life that would in fact bring us fulfillment, happiness and peace of mind.



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