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Let’s get one thing straight: I already know that you are good enough.
You probably think that I am good enough, too. I also bet that sometimes you don’t feel like you’re good enough, because I know sometimes I sure don’t.
The self development realm is practically sponsored by messages about our inherent and individual worth, but I’m here to remind you that there are legit psychological reasons why even the most enlightened of us can revert to believing “I’m just not good enough.”
Thankfully, there are practical ways that we can recondition our thinking and build new habits so we can actually begin to trust that simply trying our best—even if that looks different day to day, which it will—really is good enough.
Why Don’t We Feel Good Enough?
There are many reasons why we may not feel good enough, but I’ll just highlight two here.
According to Charlotte Leiberman in her New York Times article “Why You Should Stop Being So Hard on Yourself,” our tendency to self-criticize is rooted in an evolutionary drive to succeed: “[i]n some cases, like when our safety or moral integrity are on the line, it’s crucial that our brains tell us good from bad so that we learn the right lessons from our experiences.” While it’s great that our brains want to guide us in the right direction, conflating “good enough” with “bad” can knock us down into a self-criticism spiral. Just check out our Leiberman’s review of the negative effects (I’ve included hyperlinks to her resources):
And it’s that type of self-criticism that can have measurably destructive effects, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, negative self-image and, in a particularly vicious twist, decreased motivation and productivity, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Another study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that self-criticism leads people to becoming preoccupied with failure.
In other words, if we think we’re not doing good enough, we’re actually more likely to give up instead of trying. I super resonated with this, because one of my “not good enough” triggers is kicking ass at nine out of ten tasks, but telling myself nothing matters unless I complete that tenth task exceptionally, too. Now, I’m not talking about things like open heart surgery or flying a plane; I’m thinking more along the line of “I may need to ask for an extension on a deadline.”
When my self-criticism incorrectly tells me that perfection is the only option, anything else feels like pure failure.
In her Psychology Today article, “When the Best You Can Be is Not Good Enough,” Dr. Abigail Brenner ties not feeling good enough to conditioning or programming due to early childhood experiences with dysfunction. (Content Note for a later part of her article: Brennen discusses her study on the psychological burden on “replacement children” after the death of a child.)
She breaks down how conditioning works for children who grow up in dysfunctional homes:
As a result [of dysfunction due to adult behavior], children may unconsciously attempt to “fix” the problems of the adults around them in order to “correct” the dysfunction. To a child’s way of thinking, if they are “the best they can be” won’t that make everyone happy? And if everyone is happy won’t that make the adults want to love and care for that child[?] But fixing adult problems is not a child’s job, and it’s a futile and impossible task at that. And ultimately, a child may read this failure to fix the problem as an indication—as proof—that they really aren’t good enough because the problem still exists and they can never fix it.
If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, addict, or grew up with other dysfunction in your household, you likely resonated with the part of the quote I bolded. Even though children grow up into adults who may physically leave the dysfunctional environment, that doesn’t mean we just forget our conditioned responses to want to fix people and things. In fact, we may actually seek out relationships and situations that mirror what we’re used to: codependency, trying to fix things that aren’t our responsibility to fix, and feeling not good enough when we can’t move mountains.
So What Should We Do About It?
In order to break out of conditioned beliefs that we inherently are not good enough or are undeserving, we need to actively alter our mindsets and choose alternative responses to “not good enough” triggers. Below I share some of Leiberman and Brennan’s directions for breaking out of conditioned self-criticism, but I’ll also share a step by step exercise I developed that worked wonders for me.
Leiberman offers us three tips in her New York Time article:
- Commit to be kinder to yourself.
- Challenge negative self talk with positive self talk.
- Truly stop to acknowledge how different it feels to choose self-compassion over self-criticism.
Brennan also provides multiple ways that we can challenge the conditioned response of feeling not good enough:
- “Recognize that you are not your conditioning.”
- “Question the validity of the expectations that have been placed upon you.”
- “Create an inventory of the things you are and areas in which you excel, do well, or at least, are good enough.“
- “Practice not ‘feeding’ your negative thoughts and feelings. If you refuse to add fuel to the fire they’ll eventually die down and burn out. It’s by the constant feeding and ruminating that we make ourselves suffer.“
- “Recognize and unload the burden you’ve been carrying for your family (one person or all).”
- And, my favorite: “In any moment, do your best. No one else can or should question the intention you set for yourself.”
I worked on changing my perspective about being good enough last week through two things: I named what good enough actually looked like and I borrowed a trusted friend’s opinion about my enoughness.
Takeaway 1: Define Good Enough
How I Defined Good Enough
I admit that I tend to self-sabotage with setting unrealistic expectations when it comes to accomplishment. When I (unsurprisingly) become overwhelmed because I haven’t hit 150% productivity levels, two things happen: I tense my body, which triggers physical pain, and I revert to negative self talk about how “little” I’ve accomplished. Those two reactions fuel the self-critical voice inside my head that says, “See, no matter how hard you try you will never be good enough.”
The thing is, I know that I’m capable of doing all of the individual things I need to do. Working so successfully in the archive last week really reinforced that belief in myself. In fact, calmly single-tasking my priorities in the archive actually lessened my pain levels, even though I was sitting for hours! Now that I’m back from my research trip, how will I maintain practice choosing self-confidence over self-criticism?
By making “good enough” equal trying my best and taking care of myself.
To practice this, I checked in multiple times a day (not only when I was feeling bad), and asked myself “Am I trying my best? Am I taking care of myself?” If I was doing both, I knew that I was “good enough,” because (1) I had determined what good enough looked like when I was in my wise and grounded mind, and (2) I had based my definition of good enough in the facts of my experience in the archive. If, when I checked in with myself, I was struggling with trying my best or taking care of myself (usually the second), I stopped and altered my behavior. If I only completed nine out of ten tasks I had wanted to do but I tried my best, I remembered that I was still good enough.
How to Define Good Enough For Yourself
Your definition of good enough may be different from mine, but you can still use my framework to determine yours. To define what good enough looks like for you, answer the following questions, preferably in writing so you can reflect back on your answers:
- Describe one recent situation (or more) where you experienced a combination of the following feelings: proud, excited, intrigued, motivated, satisfied, appreciated, validated, a state of flow, grounded, grateful, calm, or another positive emotion that you feel represents good enough.
- Why did that particular situation allow you to feel those good ways? What was happening, what were you doing, what were you thinking?
- Compare that situation to a situation where you were critical of yourself. What was different about those two situations? What allowed you to thrive in the first situation that was missing from second? Or, what triggered you to feel bad in the second situation that didn’t occur in the first?
- Pull one or two criteria from your answers to define what good enough will look like for you for the next week (or day). Remember, you are looking to recondition your mind to think “I am good enough” when you feel triggered to criticize yourself, so it should be something you can use to gauge your emotions throughout the day. If you’re feeling unsure of what to use, I recommend using “Am I trying my best?”
Takeaway 2: Exchange Lists of Qualities
Multiple resources about reconditioning our brains to see ourselves as good enough suggested writing a list of our great qualities. I think this is awesome, but sometimes it’s hard to tap into those feelings when we are self-critical. So, I altered that suggestion and sought out a list of qualities from my mega talented best friend, Chris. We’ve been bffs for over a decade, so if anyone knows all of my qualities, it would be her.
I asked her if we could exchange lists of just five reasons that we think each other is amazing. Please note that this was one of my favorite activities I have done since I started The Tending Year!
Writing the list to my best friend made me feel a total love rush for her, which made me feel very grateful and lucky. She’s a very talented scholar and writer, and she’s also a hilarious, generous, and empathetic friend. When I was typing up her qualities, I took time to reminisce and described specific examples that showcased her amazing qualities, because I wanted her to have evidence of her worth that she could refer to if she ever felt like she wasn’t good enough.
Reading her list of the five qualities she thought made me amazing was extremely moving. It made me feel proud, humble, and loved, and she pointed out things I do that I simply take for granted, but that she really sees as important, meaningful qualities. That helped me to remember practical, applicable ways that I am good enough.
I printed out her list to hang it up by my desk or mirror or door frame so I can look at it throughout the day. This will actively recondition my brain to think positive thoughts about myself, which will help me to remember that I am in fact good enough.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.