By Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D
“I’m just not good enough.” It’s something we therapists, counselors, and coaches hear all too often from our clients. In fact, it’s probably the most prevalent belief in our society: number one on the hit parade of limiting beliefs about self.
The cognitive approach is to refute the belief in an effort to convince the client that he or she is, indeed, “good enough” – an acceptable human being. I myself have done that. I’ve urged clients to list their positive attributes. I’ve reminded them that they are not axe murderers. I’ve had them stand in front of a mirror, as motivational speaker Louise Hay recommended, and say kind and loving things to themselves. Sometimes these methods help. Sometimes they don’t.
Another approach is to offer evidence that the belief is illogical and meaningless. So I usually begin by investigating the wording of the belief. “Not good enough for what?” I ask. Most clients are not sure at first. The question implies they might be good enough for some things but not for others. They usually answer that they are not good enough to accomplish the very outcomes for which they came to therapy, counseling, or coaching. No surprise here.
They want better relationships, or improved health, or more confidence – but they don’t believe they are worthy of what they want. That’s a dilemma.
Next question: Not good enough according to what standard of measurement? This question is often perplexing because most people are unaware that “enough” implied a measurement or criterion against which we can agree that some humans are good enough and some aren’t. Of course there is no such standard.
Most people, if they think about their “goodness” at all, simply decide for themselves that they are “not good enough” due to their shortcomings. Shortcomings alone do not qualify as adequate measures for determining the worthiness of a human being.
Some people have low self-esteem due to a history of toxic shame, often at the hands of authority figures, such as parents, teachers, or mentors. When shame is the result of insult and abuse (physical or psychological), shame becomes toxic, leading to emotional and behavior problems as well as eroded self-esteem. With toxic shame, people evaluate themselves as unworthy, defective, and inadequate; unable to meet their own expectations and incapable of creative lasting love, success, or happiness.
They want these accomplishments, and assume that such accomplishments will give them the self-worth they long for. Yet they don’t feel worthy of those very accomplishments. They compare themselves unfavorably to others who have found love, success, or happiness, – and feel even more inadequate.
Sometimes I ask: Do you, or the person who harmed you in this way, have sufficient training and experience to be an expert on determining human worthiness? The answer is always “No.”
At this point, I can summarize that the belief of “not good enough” is based on an unsupported standard of measurement, determined by an amateur. This makes the belief of “not good enough” nothing more than a fabrication. It’s not real; it’s made up. But even though I can convince some clients that the belief isn’t logical, they tell me it still feels true. Most people with low self-esteem would like to feel better about themselves – if only they knew how.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that trying to change the “not good enough” belief is a lot of effort, when it’s easier to just agree. “I agree with you. You aren’t good enough.” Yes, I know – that seems cruel. So let me tell you the rest of that conversation.
“I agree with you. You aren’t good enough. Let’s suppose for a moment that the made-up conclusion you’ve been telling yourself over and over really is true. So what? What difference does it make in terms of your capacity to have what you want?”
If we have to believe we are “good enough” for the things we want to do or have or be, according to some non-existent, nonsensical standard, then it seems to me that all us must at least sometimes feel “not good enough” in one way or another.
I applaud self-improvement and personal growth. I just don’t believe we have to feel perfectly beautiful, intelligent, and competent in order to explore our potentials. There is no rule that only the perfect and best among us get to satisfy their hopes and dreams while the rest of us must hang our heads and dig our toes into the dirt.
As humans we are inherently flawed and prone to error, ignorance, and poor judgment. Our achievements are few in comparison to our shortcomings and mistakes. We blunder through a life that is messy and often unpredictable, learning by trial and error. It is human nature to feel unfinished and incomplete. In this sense, all of us are “not good enough” because all of us fall short of our aspirations and ideals.
Acknowledge your mistakes, weaknesses, and inadequacies. Then go after what you want anyway – even if, along the way, you screw up – even if you fail and look foolish. Failure isn’t an invitation to quit; it’s an invitation to learn new tactics and modify your plan. Obviously I don’t endorse this philosophy where human lives and wellbeing are at stake.
Here’s the dilemma. You can’t be anyone other than you own “not good enough” self. For each of us, contending with who we are and who we aspire to be is the only game in town. So celebrate life anyway. Stop worrying about your worthiness and direct your energies and attention to what you love doing, where you can contribute, and how you can improve.
Accept that you will always be perfectly imperfect. Accept that you have faults and that every life holds mistakes, failures, regrets, anger, disappointment, embarrassments, and hurts. Just like any other human, you have your own baggage, full of negatives that you can correct, improve, or move beyond, if you want to. Accept that you also have talents, gifts, blessings, skills, accomplishments, and triumphs, just like any other human. Life is confusing, glorious, complicated, and messy for everyone.
Many books on self-esteem and spirituality speak about the “true self” or “core self” – who you “really are.” Let me tell you what I believe about who you really are. You are more than your possessions, your looks, and your work. You are more than your struggles and triumphs. Your are more than your body. These are all transitory. The real you, your true self, is eternal, ineffable, and transcendent. It is what remains after you take away all that is material. It is made of the Infinite Consciousness that creates the universe and holds it together, differentiating every living entity, giving life, animation, and endless variety. This creative energy – call it what you will – is the essence of who you really are.
The need for love is in our genes. We sometimes forget that the love we want most is the love that comes from within. Until you can get along with yourself, in spite of yourself, all the love in the world will never fill the void. Embrace that you, good enough or not, are a living being on this journey of life, and understand what makes you a unique and precious child of the Universe.