This past spring, my parents finally did it: they asked me to clean out the boxes I had left at home that were full of the stuff of my childhood–more accurately, of my years in High School.  So, when I was home, I sat cross-legged on my parent’s living room floor and sorted through embarrassing photo’s, passed-between-class notes, 9th grade art projects, and mementos that fall under the category “why did I keep this?!”

As I sorted, one thing continually struck me:

My whole life as a High School student had been about success.

All four years, I strived academically, working myself into ninth place in my graduating class. When I applied for college, I had to attach four pages to answer the question “what extracurricular activities were you involved in?”  I knew by freshman year that I was never going to fit in the “popular” crowd, so I settled for being the most liked: my senior class superlative? “Best Personality/Most Friendly.”

Yea, I was that girl.

I was a goodie-goodie, overachiever, and sorting through my high school “time-capsule,” made me feel a little sick.  Why? Because all of that striving had made me successful by the world standards, yet I wasn’t taught how to be successful at becoming and accepting myself. It set me up to enter college, trying to become the “perfect picture of a successful woman,” by fulfilling other’s expectations for me.

My ideas of what “success” meant, shifted and changed through college and then into my first two jobs. But my tendencies to push, to fulfill other people’s expectations, to strive–were all still very present. I was good at people pleasing and yet it left me very empty, and I found myself in a very broken place around the time I turned twenty-five.  Thankfully, however, I was blessed with some very cool mentors, and one of them said some profound words. He said:

“Melissa, whenever someone tries to become more than who they are meant to be, they always become less.”

If we were to name things in our culture that we treat as “gods” (think small carved statues), success would be right up there with apple products and caffeine. We are raised to value and work hard for success; however the true definition of success for a woman is very difficult to interpret.

Historically we have been the Keepers of the Home, and Mothers of Future Generations. More recently, however, our roles have become muddled.  The media gives us constant, contradicting personalities to aspire to–as if it is possible to cook like Giada, decorate like Martha, mother like Michelle Duggar, run your own mega corporation like Oprah, and yet be a supportive and strong wife like First Lady Michelle Obama.

Where does the pressure to be all of these things at once, come from?

(“whenever someone tries to become more…they become less…”)

All of my striving actually made me feel less and less like the person I wanted to be, and more broken.  Through the help of friends, mentors, and some counseling, I started on a journey that I am still on, to figure out how to be me–nothing more, nothing less.

If we are going to Redefine Female, we need to redefine success, and its new definition will need to make room for the truth that being “a success”  will look different for each of us.

All of the women we aspire to are usually really amazing at one thing, and good at a few others. Who we are meant to be is something special, so why do we feel the need try to be a bunch of people rolled into one?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Anna Quindlen, Author