What is Accomplishment?

A psychotherapist describes how to find meaning and joy on your own terms

By Sarah Brokaw

I spent my 20s and early 30s doing what I thought I was supposed to do, chasing the usual dreams: A successful career, a thriving relationship and motherhood. I was able to establish a practice in psychotherapy and thought the rest would just fall into place.

As the clock ticked, I realized that the latter two were a bit more difficult to conquer. Like many other women, I began to worry. It was either panic that kicked me into gear, or a voice in my own head telling me to remove my hands from my eyes.

Whatever it was, I found fortitude. I harnessed my courage and embarked upon a seemingly epic odyssey towards motherhood on my own. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to look like, but I knew that with my determination, I was going to be a mom. And at 42, after 5 rounds of IVF and IUI, my son Archer Thomas Merritt was born.

I also found I was not alone. So many of my patients and friends face a kind of uncertainty about aging. In my book Fortytude, I write about the values to consciously harness our inner strength and find joy as we age. They are grace, connectedness, accomplishment, adventure and spirituality.

Overwhelmingly, accomplishment is the most difficult to define—and to feel. When asked to describe it, the majority of responses pertain to careers, marital status, fertility, and physical fitness.

When it comes to careers, many women express conflicted emotions towards the super powerful women of today, particularly Sheryl Sandberg, and her brilliant concept of “leaning in”. While Sandberg is a tremendous role model for women of all ages, many out there feel that her concept is unrealistic due to her wealth and standing in her company. Not every woman is as successful as she, or as other women at the tippity top of the corporate ladder are. So then what happens to our sense of feeling pride in what we have done, whether it’s volunteering, raising children, or working in a corporation?

Some women directly link marital status to a sense of accomplishment, which can backfire if marriage ends in divorce, or if they never marry. Is partnership a complete measure of success? When I ask my divorced patients about the possibility of meeting another mate, many often express doubt due to the feeling of having reached their expiration date of being a desirable, sexual, youthful woman. My response to that is your expiration date is stamped only when you’re six feet under.

Fertility is another sensitive area for feeling accomplishment. If you really want to be a mom at the end of the day, it is possible, even without the traditional parameters of a partnership. I am an example of that. But what happens when we measure our success by our FSH levels? We all have basic human instincts—and the maternal instinct is strong—but try to separate your biological urges from cultural assumptions. Consider whether motherhood really is right for you, or it’s something you just assumed would happen in your lifetime. The answers may not be the same.

Physical fitness is a big factor, too. As we age, of course our bodies are not the same as they were in our 20s or 30s, or can perform like other women who have the genes we may desire, but do not have. But does that mean we throw in the towel crawl into bed in the fetal positions? Um, no. And please be extra careful of the all the new trends from CrossFit to Spartan racing to juice fasting that make us believe we can do depth jumps and Olympic lifts or subsist on green liquids for days. Our bodies ultimately suffer, as do our minds as we often feel like failures.

The answer to all of the above questions is simple. Avoid comparison and literally define accomplishment in your own words. Try to measure yourself by who you are and would like to be, not by a partnership, a baby, a career, or how many squats you can do. Take into account what you enjoy and what you’re good at, and feel gratitude for what you have done in your life, whether it’s created lasting friendships, raised a family of six, or planted a tomato garden.

Here are a few ways to reflect on what accomplishment means for you, so you can harness your own fortitude.

1. Write down few words that you think define accomplishment and ask yourself if these words positively raise your energy level or if they make you feel uncomfortable. Then take a moment to think about if you’re hearing someone else’s voice when you think of these words. The goal of course is to listen to your own voice.

2. Look for realistic role models in the areas where you do not feel accomplished. And remind yourself that they, too, probably struggled with a sense of accomplishment but have figured out ways to define accomplishment in their own words.

3. Believe it or not, you are now a role model. There is some young girl, a teenager, millennial or even a peer who is looking for guidance and can’t find it. This is the moment to be there for some one else who is in need of someone who has lived, learned and continues to sally forth.

4. Remain curious. With curiosity comes confidence. With fear, comes dread. Stay in the learning mode.

5. Repeat. Repeat and repeat.