How good is 'good enough'?
I have to start this article with a nod to a friend and colleague who gave me the inspiration. She had reached this question while going through her own stuff and reflecting on how both she and so many of her friends are dogged by a feeling of being 'not good enough'. It is a feeling that at its core is dangerous and destructive. If we don't feel good enough, we risk making poor choices in our lives and relationships because we don't believe we are worthy of anything better. If we don't feel good enough, even when good stuff happens, we are at risk of self-sabotaging because it feels almost too good to be true. It can feel impossible to believe that we are good enough to deserve the good stuff.
What is 'good enough'?
My very wise friend pointed out that 'good enough' is an impossible benchmark. We can't quantify what good enough is - we don't know when we have reached good enough status and so we are left constantly feeling we have fallen short. We don't feel good enough and yet we don't know what good enough actually looks like.
Feelings of inadequacy are often buried very deep; actually fully articulating our 'not good enough' feelings, laying them bare, probably happens quite rarely because these feelings are strongly linked to feelings of shame (see the article 'Shame - The hidden emotion'). Not only do we not feel good enough, we feel ashamed that we don't feel good enough, and so we struggle to express it.
Common signs of feeling inadequate
Feelings of inadequacy manifest themselves in lots of different ways, but commonly may take the form of:
- lack of confidence
- social anxiety
- reluctance to take risks
- lack of self-care
- self-destructive behaviours
Common signs of low self-esteem
Perhaps to some, more surprisingly, low self-esteem may manifest as:
- risk-taking behaviour
- controlling, dominating or abusive behaviour
- criticising/blaming others
So where do our feelings of being 'not good enough' come from? I want to prefix this saying by stating that I am not being judgemental of parenting or 'blaming' parents for their children's low self-esteem. I am rather illustrating that research into child development indicates that these feelings are often (although not exclusively) rooted in childhood. As children, our primary emotional need is to be loved, and our behaviour becomes shaped by our need for love, approval and attention from others. Children soon realise that when parents are happy, they are more likely to lavish love and attention on them.
It is important to remember at this point that a child is very intuitive, but also very simplistic in their emotional understanding. If they can see that parents are very stressed, unhappy, or struggling with their own issues, they won’t understand the complexities of the issues but will tend to try to fix the problems themselves. This fix comes in the form of trying to modify their own behaviour to try and make things better.
In their mind, if they can be 'good enough', their parents will be happier and will love them more. At the other end of the spectrum, the child may view any attention as better than none, so may try to elicit attention by exhibiting challenging behaviour.
This effect is magnified in families where other issues mean that the child is frequently witnessing distressed, angry or perhaps emotionally distant and detached parents. Let's be realistic here - parents are all at some time going to have external stuff going on that absorbs them and limits their capacity to be emotionally present for their children. We are human and sometimes things feel so overwhelming that even just functioning on a practical level feels like a struggle, let alone tending to the delicate emerging shoots of our children's emotional growth.
If you are reading this and beating yourself up that you haven't always been the perfect parent, that perhaps this knowledge about how children internalise blame and modify their behaviour accordingly has passed you by, please remember that those feelings may originate in your inner child feeling 'not good enough'.
The antidote to feeling 'not good enough' is to understand our limitations; to understand then when other people are distressed that it is in all likelihood not your fault and that it may not be in your hands to 'fix' it. This doesn’t mean blithely shunning responsibility for the impact of our behaviour on others, but we need to understand that moderating our behaviour simply to gain love, recognition and approval from others is likely to lead us to feel unfulfilled because they may have issues that are way beyond our scope to influence or change, no matter what we try.
When we feel 'not good enough', it is our inner child telling us that if we could just 'be better' all will be fine. The reality is that it is easy to then get caught in a loop of constantly upping the ante, striving to meet the indefinable benchmark of 'good enough'.
Self-care and self-compassion are crucial in addressing feelings of inadequacy. Self-compassion is in this instance about nurturing the inner child. In giving ourselves compassion, we are drawing upon our own resources rather than seeking out the love and approval of others. The need for self-compassion is highlighted more fully in the article 'Can we be a little kinder to Ourselves?'. In being kinder to ourselves we are:
- Stepping out of the cycle of feeling that we need to moderate or improve our own behaviour in order to feel loved.
- Acknowledging that we are human and as such we are perfect in our imperfection.
- Accepting that there are situations and circumstances that are beyond our sphere of influence (see the article 'Acceptance - Can Helplessness be Helpful').
It may be useful to picture yourself as a small child or picture any child that is observing what is happening at home and concluding they can make it better by being 'good enough'. Envisage what you would say to them such as:
- This is not your fault.
- You are perfect just as you are, you don’t need to change.
- I can see you are worried but this is not your problem to fix, all you need to do is keep being you.
- You are loved.
Find the words that fit for you, then extend the compassion to yourself as an adult, think the words, say them out loud or write them down. After a lifetime of feeling 'not good enough', challenging and changing these feelings isn't easy. It may feel awkward or silly and will take practice and persistence. Having a tangible reminder that we can literally reach for when we find feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt creeping in can be so helpful. Write a post-it note and stick it inside your sun visor in your car, inside your purse, wallet or diary.
Think about the things that we say when we are being kind and compassionate to others and say them to yourself. Remind yourself that in striving for 'good enough', we are aiming for an indefinable, intangible target which by its nature is impossible to reach. Perhaps it's time for really thinking realistically about what 'good enough' means for you.