Defining Success from the Inside Out

05/21/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

What if our standard definitions of success -- recognition, wealth, health, marriage, kids -- are vehicles for our journey to wholeness?

We've all learned from some relationship that love can be conditional. For me, it started in elementary school. Kids were battling to find the greatest faults in each other. It didn't get any better in high school. The choice in friends was sometimes driven by a need for safety. The scent of vulnerability was like a drop of blood in a sea of sharks. The options were either to get tough or be surrounded by people who had your back. The constant search for safety and significance also drove some of my choices in intimate relationships. All of it reinforced my feeling of not being enough.

The fracturing of myself into parts fighting for control and safety started in elementary school and turned into shrapnel by my early 20s. I refer to these parts and other personalities within me as "my internal society." Every one of them has purpose, desire and fear. They each have their own voice.

In my 20s, different members of my internal society used to fight viciously. It often left my self-worth and self-love crushed on the battlefield. For example, I would get home from a party and the self-flagellation would begin. "Why did you say that? You should've kept your mouth shut." The apathetic self would chime in, "Whatever. I don't care about those people anyway." It was a constant seesawing of competing needs. It was also exhausting.

But something in me insisted there had to be another way to live...

The long walk home.

In my 30s, I realized it was time to heal the divide. My internal society had to learn to speak in unity, or at least learn productive disagreement. In order to do this I had to set the story of my past free. It had been easier to find fault than to take responsibility. But, I couldn't be whole and make up reasons why someone else was at fault for my circumstances. It was time to accept full responsibility for the quality of my life.

Letting go of stories about how my parents had wronged me, my friends had betrayed me, life hadn't made me an easy millionaire, was essential to the cohesion of my internal society. It took time to get full agreement.

My stepfather, who I loved dearly, was talented at many things, including being a functional alcoholic. My mother was equally talented in ceramics and co-dependency. Protecting my mother meant making my dad the enemy. I held onto the mantra, "If you'd just stop drinking" for years.

But in my 30s, I suddenly had an epiphany. I had to love my dad, not despite his drinking, but including it. It was his demon and judging him for that struggle was never going to solve anything. I accepted that he was going to drink. I limited conversations when I knew he wasn't coherent enough to participate. I focused on loving him completely.

My dad died in 2008 of cancer, but our relationship had been healed. We loved each other, told each other as often as possible, and acknowledged our mistakes. This has been the most important lesson in forgiveness of my life. It gave me back a big part of myself.

The next step was to give the fearful members of my internal society better jobs. When I asked them what their purpose was, it always came back to "safety." Safety wasn't what taught me forgiveness. It didn't teach me how to love unconditionally. It preached fear.

Those members had to be part of a team that was growing and learning. They needed to grow up. I asked them to be in service of a greater good. I invited them to be members on a team that was going to give love every chance it had. Eventually, everyone accepted the invitation.

The unexpected gift was that I began to feel space within and around my body. The next feeling that arose really got my attention: deep inner peace.

A new definition of success.

Rather than moving toward more money, more recognition, more everything, success is journeying toward wholeness. When we open to the possibility of a meaningful life, that wholeness is learned through the struggles with our families and the challenges of our careers. All of it becomes the fertile ground for our emotional growth.

The struggle toward wholeness has tremendous value. It teaches us forgiveness, patience, humility, and love, if we are willing to learn. We become more of who we truly are, rather than merely a series of reactions to a meaningless universe.

When we stop resisting reality, we step into the present moment. When we are present, we are free to easily feel gratitude. We can see that life is many stages, each one with its own values, beliefs, fears, hopes, and questions. Perhaps we can offer ourselves forgiveness for what we did not know. And offer that to others who also didn't know.

The fragmentation of ourselves is always rooted in the past. When we forgive the past and celebrate what we have right now, we bring ourselves home. The external measures of success -- money, recognition, family -- are put in their proper place when we are whole.