Celebration for Success

Critter celebration - Celebration for Success

November is the month of Thanksgiving. This special holiday combines two elements that are essential to human wellbeing  — celebration and gratitude.

Celebration, from the Latin celebrātiō, means big assembly. In gathering with others for Thanksgiving we affirm the good that we have accomplished, and express gratitude for the results.

Gratitude, from the Latin word gratus, means pleasing or thankful. Gratitude takes the spotlight off our own doing by acknowledging forces outside of us that helped bring about our success. In addition to our mentors, family and other support people, we might also pay homage to that undefinable element of achievement sometimes referred to as grace, or luck, or blessing.

When we express our gratitude we acknowledge our connection with others and to things larger than our self.

Gratitude stimulates a feeling of safety and support and a softer, quieter, more encompassing state of joy than celebration alone might give us.

On the whole, we would do much better in our lives if we celebrated and gave thanks more often. Celebration and gratitude are necessary to achieving our vision and dreams, to fully using our innate talents and accomplishing our goals.

Each time we acknowledge our success, we reinforce the actions that brought us there. As we repeat these actions the neural pathways in our brains are strengthened and we more easily achieve our desired results. Without celebration and acknowledgment of new behavior, the body and mind will tend to act by habit — habit that may no longer be relevant or helpful.

By encouraging more effective behaviors, celebration can help us change old patterns that hold us back.

One reason we may not celebrate as much as we should is that we live in a culture that motivates more by criticism and fear than by encouragement and acknowledgement. In school, we are pitted against each other for the top spots in academic achievement, popularity and sports. Many fall by the wayside, never realizing their full potential. And even those who are able to achieve their prescribed success often feel precariously close to that slide to the bottom. The high rate of suicide among teens is a testament to the inadequacy of this competitive reward system. And yet, this system of competition and fear of losing continues in our corporations and government.

This “winner take all mentality” robs society of much of its natural resources — its human potential.

Collaboration, cooperation and mutual celebration can change this dynamic. When we learn to help each other, rather than compete, when we encourage each other rather than shame, and when we uplift each other and share in each other’s success we tap into the reinforcing benefits of thankful celebration.

There are other experiences that can discourage celebration. Parental messages like:

  • Don’t get too big for your britches;
  • Who do you think you are?; and
  • “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

These messages can leave us feeling uncomfortable and even fearful of any self-acknowledgement. We may be warned not to aim to high, lest our wings burn in the sun like the mythical Icarus, and we drown in the sea.

Self-sabotage is a protective response to rapid or unexpected success.

When we don’t feel worthy, or our success threatens our beliefs about what is good, or we fear that our social support system will abandon us, self-sabotage is a way to return to the status quo.

Shortly after I received my Ph.D. I asked my father his thoughts about my achievement. Instead of telling me how proud he was, he told me that he felt ashamed of his own failure to earn a college degree. I had never thought of this as shameful. Rather I saw it as a testament to his genius and that he had achieved so much with out it. However, his statement coupled with a cruel comment by my boss of the time, left me embarrassed about my accomplishment and I did not speak of it again for a long time.

A slightly different social dynamic was at work in a bereavement group I facilitated for Hospice. The group, a partner-loss group, was open-ended so that people could stay as long as they needed. Naturally the group members bonded with each other. This made them reluctant to leave, particular when the group was their main support system. Six months, even a year was not an uncommon stay. When someone finally did leave, it often triggered a mass exodus of other members. Suddenly there would be only 1 or 2 group members left and it could take months to restore group cohesion. This feast/famine cycle of membership made even me want to hold on to members who were ready to go.

An interesting thing happened when I had to discontinue this group. In the 6 weeks notice that was given, I saw more progress and change than I had seen in my previous 5 years. The members were not only more motivated to change; they reached out to each other to create support systems outside the group.

Social support is so important to our success that it may be necessary to upgrade it as we grow.

A social upgrade could mean new friends, new colleagues and even new intimate relationships. We may also need to place limits on topics of discussion and amount of contact with family members who might undermine of our efforts to change.

We also may need to upgrade any limiting beliefs from our past that might be holding us back — particularly around money, capacity and the meaning of success. Replacing limiting beliefs takes both action and the courage to face the fears that arise when we try something counter to those old beliefs. And of course we need celebration and gratitude when we succeed.

There is one more thing that is important to keep in mind about celebration — it has two faces.

Professor Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind, describes two very different kinds of responses that can arise in the body around success: one comes from the sympathetic nervous system, the other from the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the body’s arousal system, which is primarily designed to prepare it for handling threat. It triggers a release of chemicals that increase heart rate, blood flow, focus and muscle tension. In our culture we often use this same body system to express joy. It is the over-the-top kind of excitement and fervor we frequently express at sporting events, graduation parties and weddings. Stimulants are often consumed at these events to heighten emotions.

We have become conditioned to associate this heady excitation with  happiness.

The problem with this kind of happiness is that it can easily shift into distress, fear, even anger and violence because it arises from the same nervous system as our survival mechanism. Anyone who has been to a sports event where a sure win changed into a last minute defeat, knows what this shift feels like.

The parasympathetic nervous system in contrast was designed to calm the body down. The happy feelings that arise in this system are physically more subdued — a warm glow of contentment and peace rather than hyper exuberance.

Professor Gilbert is a big fan of this second type of happiness. It is more stable, more long lasting, more reliable and will support our successes just as well if not better than the other kind. We just need to get used to its subtlety.

How do we cultivate this type of happiness? Focusing on our gratitude when we celebrate may be the key.

Happy Thanksgiving.



WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief and Loss Expert Dr. Michelle Peticolas empowers professional women struggling with grief and loss to find peace-of-mind, closure and a life worth living. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary illustrated guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at www.secretsoflifeanddeath.com

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