“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have. ” ~Abraham Lincoln
As a child, my father always told me, “At everything you do, you have to be number one.” I tried. In some ways, I succeeded. I got high grades. Sometimes, the highest. Sometimes, I got awards.
I became an expert at figuring out other people’s expectations and meeting them. This got me approval, but it never made me happy. I wasn’t passionate about grades, awards, or approval. I didn’t feel butterflies in my stomach while doing math. I didn’t feel shivers down my spine while conjugating French verbs.
I loved to write, sing, dance. I was the girl who made up song lyrics and got them stuck in her head. I was the girl who stayed up after her parents went to bed to dance around, sing into my pillow, and crawl out onto the roof to dream about flying far, far away. I was that girl who couldn’t understand my thoughts until I wrote them down.
Despite my parents’ wishes for me to pursue an academic, intellectual route, I went to theatre school. There, I thought I would explore the deepest crevices of my desires. I was wrong.
I found the fine art education world to be shallow, and I found myself to be the same. My mind fixated on being the best. I never was. Disappointed with myself as much as the program, I dropped out. I slunk back to logic and facts. Skepticism. Analysis. Things I was good at. I got good grades. I got awards.
But being good at something is never a replacement for loving it. I was addicted to academic achievement because it earned me approval. I could never get enough. Again, I got hungry for art.
After I almost led myself into an early grave, I realized how important it was to make time for the things that made me feel alive. Yet on that journey, I’ve found myself constantly in the intermediate pile. Sometimes, beginner. Never, ever the best.
I run all the time, but I’m not fast. I’ve been doing yoga for ten years, but I still can’t do Crow Pose. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar on and off for years, and I still struggle with barre chords. I’ve been singing since I was a kid, and my performances are inconsistent. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen and doing it for a living since 2012, but most people have never heard of me.
For years, my father’s voice haunted me, telling me to always be number one. I tried to reject his advice, refuse it, write it off as worthless egotism. But still, it gnawed at me.
One voice in my head said I should accept myself just the way I am. Another part couldn’t help but point out all the room for improvement. Along the way, I’ve realized that one voice doesn’t need to defeat the other. They just need to learn to get along.
Accepting my skill level at something is self-loving. Who would doubt that? But assuming that my skills can’t or won’t ever get better is self-sabotage. To work on improving myself is a kind of self-acceptance too. I accept my ability to learn—however slow and awkward that learning process might be.
Some people say that we should always try to be better than who we were yesterday. I can’t agree with that. Some days, I’m less patient, less energetic, and less kind than I was the day before. And that’s okay.
Because, for me, the goal isn’t to be number one compared to others. And it’s not even to be number one compared to past versions of myself. Instead, I’ve learned to do be the best at just one thing: being my own number one fan, supporter, friend, and mentor.
It’s not an easy job. It’s not easy to unconditionally love someone and motivate them to make changes. It’s not easy to hold someone when they’re breaking down one day and push them to do better the next day. It’s a paradox and a balancing act. It’s hard. But it’s incredibly worthwhile.
I spent all those years competing. Trying to be the best. Trying to be perfect. Trying to get recognized, acknowledged, noticed. Trying. Trying. Trying. Never succeeding.
But now I know that the reward for pursuing the passions that light me on fire isn’t the same as the reward for pursuing status, recognition, or achievement. There are no grades, no awards, no medals that can quantify the way my chest bursts open when I sing something real. There are no numbers to measure the lightness I feel in my body when I write words that make me sob and cry and heal. The reward is the experience.
We live in the age of self-esteem. The school system tells young kids: “You can be anything you want to be! You can do it all!” But the message woven into even the most encouraging words is that the measuring stick of success is achievement, recognition, award.
What if all that those kids want to be is happy? Or angry? Or tortured? Or whatever it is that they feel in that moment.
Self-esteem is nothing but a cheap replacement for self-love. I don’t need to esteem myself. I know I’m an awkward, beautiful, human mess. At most of the things I do, I’m somewhere between mediocre and interesting. At some things, I’m between awful and mediocre. But I love that I do them anyway.
I appreciate myself so much for doing the things I love, even though I’m not “number one” at them. I am grateful for how much time, care, and effort I put into trying to be a good friend to myself.
And that’s what I think life is really about: learning about myself. Trying to be a good friend to my reflection. A best friend, even.
So many of us miss out on the chance to experience self-intimacy because we forget what friendship is all about. It’s about secrets, inside jokes, and adventures. It’s about heartbreak, healing, and presence. We don’t love our friends for how skilled, accomplished, or perfect they are. We love them for being real, for walking beside us on the confusing, chaotic road of life.
And that’s what I seek to be for myself: an intimate friend. A fellow voyager. A curious companion. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much. But to me, it’s an accomplishment that I achieve and celebrate every single day.
**Editor's Note: Vironika has generously offered to give away ten digital copies of her new book, The Art of Talking to Yourself (preview available here). A different kind of self-help book. Instead of giving you expert advice and magical solutions, this book will help you discover your own expertise and use it to hear, understand, and change your inner conversation. You can learn more and read reviews on Amazon here.
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Photo by Allef Vinicius