How can I … become successful?

Or more successful, depending on your outlook and circumstances.  Is success something that you feel is hard to come by?  Or does it feel like a shadow – something that is never really under your control?

You’d be surprised at just how frequently the issue of success comes up, in my private therapy sessions, as well as with my work with offenders.  It is a crucial concern for people in many different ways.  In this article, I will talk about a few clients who have struggled with ‘being successful’ in different ways and how this concept can be worked upon to improve your life, rather than hinder it.

When we think of a successful person, the image that often comes to mind is the person who seems to have it all.  A wonderful, high-flying career, a fantastic, supportive family and things like a great house, car etc.  Perhaps a particular person might come to mind, such as a certain sports-person or Hollywood actor.   On the other hand, an unsuccessful person might be thought of as someone who has failed at life in some way, personally, or in their careers.  We might all know people who we could classify as having made a success of their lives and not.  Yet, when people discuss being successful with me in sessions, or the opposite; feeling that they have failed, they usually talk about a whole range of issues which might seen unimportant to other people.  Success is relative, so for somebody who has a debilitating illness, success for them might be having a shower that morning.

Parental ‘Success’

I have many clients who come to see me due to concerns about their teenage children, as well as young adults coming to see me about concerns to do with their parents’ expectations.  So, what is going on here?

If we focus on ‘mothers’ (although it can just as easily be fathers too), we might be able to see some interesting differences in how mothers might determine success in their roles or not.

Melissa, Jane and Amira all want to be successful at being a good mum.  But they are very different women, so what does being a ‘good mum’ mean to them?

Melissa actually does think she’s a good mum.  Her problem is that social workers and the family court disagree, so her children are now in foster care.  Melissa needs to be able to see how her own perception of being a good mum is different to other people’s perceptions, and she needs to change in order to have her children returned to her care.  So, for Melissa, other people’s opinions of success at parenting are highly relevant, and she needs to take action to bring her own parenting into line with their views.  Clearly, the consequences if she chooses not to are very serious, as she is likely to have her children permanently removed from her care.

Jane sometimes thinks she’s a good mum.  Her children are happy, healthy, bright and interested in the world.  However, when she talks to the other mums at school she hears about all of the extra-curricular activities their children are doing, how highly they have scored on a recent school test and how ‘ahead’ the other children appear to be, compared to her own children.  Her perception of her own success then wavers, and she feels bad for not ‘pushing’ her children more.


Amira thinks she has failed at being a mum.  Her daughter is 17 and on course for extremely high A-level results but has no motivation to apply for the best universities, attend open days or prepare for interviews.  She spends her life arguing with her daughter about her future and is adamant that her daughter will go to the best university and become a solicitor “even if it kills me.”  After all, “she’s always said she’s wanted to be a solicitor since being a little girl.”  For Amira, success is determined by her daughter becoming a solicitor, regardless of whether this is her daughter’s ambition.

For these women, issues related to their own self-identity need to be managed.  Their success in doing this or not will impact on their children.

Success at work

Many clients come to see me due to feeling stressed because of work demands and their manager’s expectations.  Whilst there are various problems linked to these areas, people tend to frequently worry about how they are perceived by their colleagues and managers and whether they are viewed to be “successful at my job.”  Again, the definition of success is important; Tim feels successful if his clients think he has done a good job for them, Darren thinks he is successful if his colleagues praise him for helping them make their joint targets for a bonus and Laura thinks she is successful if her boss gives her a good appraisal and says she is in line for a pay-rise.  It is important to consider what motivates you in the workplace.  Is it mainly to be respected as a professional, or to be able to pay your mortgage off in the next five years and retire?  There is likely to be a main motivator, and it is helpful to be honest with yourself about this.

Other people’s opinions

It is crucial to consider the relevance and importance of these.  Obviously, if you like and need your current job, the opinion of your manager is highly relevant to you.  Yet there are ways of making sure this can be used to motivate you, rather than hinder your performance by leading to stress as it sometimes can.  Often this requires an improved understanding of the motivations and attitudes of other people.

As a parent, does it really matter what other people think of your parenting?  Well, yes if you are being assessed by social workers and your parenting is under scrutiny by professionals who could have an impact on your children remaining in your care.  But this is a rare situation.  Worrying about the opinions of other parents who have no impact on your family situation at all can lead to stress due to comparing yourself with others.

To summarise, people often conclude our sessions having changed their focus regarding success.  To be free from worrying about other people’s expectations gives a sense of wellbeing that is ultimately what people are striving for in life.  When they have achieved this aim, it feels like they can be successful in enjoying life again.

What can help?

  • Be really clear on what you mean by success. What matters to you? This will (or should) be completely different for you, compared to your friends and family.
  • By whose criteria are you measuring success? You can only ever be responsible for your own criteria so if this is something you are struggling to accept or move on from, consider if you might need to discuss this further with a mental-health professional.
  • Are you able to identify the very clear ways in which ‘success’ in that area will improve your life? If not, it is likely that you are focussing on other people’s expectations so rethink the above point.
  • If other people’s agendas or expectations are relevant to your success, consider what you are able to change and the benefits of this (see some of my other blogs for ideas related to this)
  • Define your main end-goal, as well as the really small sub-goals to reach that main goal.
  • Are your goals realistic? Do they fall within your own responsibility or not?


Remember, you cannot change other people, only your own drive and self-motivation.

All names and identifying details of clients have been changed to protect confidentiality

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