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“Good enough”

Why so many amazing people feel bad about themselves (and how to stop!)

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to love and accept ourselves, and why so many amazing people struggle to ever feel “good enough.”


Unfortunately, our society is set up in such a way that most people learn very early in life that who they are isn’t good enough. They learn that the full and tender truth of who they are is a problem, and that it threatens the security of their attachment relationships, which is to say it threatens their very survival.


Most of us learn early in life that there are parts of ourselves which are lovable, likable, acceptable, and desirable… and that there are other parts, which are not. On an unconscious level, then, we learn to display some parts of ourselves, and to hide others in order to secure the love, acceptance, status, and belonging that we crave. 


In other words, we become whatever we learn we must become, to survive.


Paper cutout of the words, "How to Survive"

The truth is that the vast majority of what we think of as our “identity” and “personality” is, in fact, nothing more than a calculated strategy, based on our experiences of positive and negative feedback from others, to secure our attachments and get our deepest needs met. 


This unconscious survival strategy, though undoubtedly effective and valuable in some ways, tends to lead to feelings of shame, insecurity, and unworthiness. After all, each individual person is aware (on some level) of both the parts of themselves they’re displaying or exaggerating, and the parts of themselves they’re hiding. Other people may love and accept you for your performance, but it’s difficult to ever feel truly worthy and good enough when you know, deep down, that the performance is false or incomplete.


So where does a strong and resilient sense of self-worth and confidence come from?


The process of knowing and relating to ourselves is an internal one, taking place only in the heart and mind of each individual, so it’s easy to think that each person simply needs to decide for themselves that they are good enough, no matter what anyone else thinks or says! Our culture’s love affair with “rugged individualism” makes it feel like this should be possible, that any individual with a high level of intelligence and moral character should be able to overcome whatever experiences they may have had, and just choose to feel good enough. 


Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works, and that perspective represents a catastrophic misunderstanding of basic evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and psychology. 


The truth is that nobody can cultivate self-worth in total isolation. 


As infants, we develop our sense of self within the container of secure relationships with our attachment figures. As our little brains develop, we sort of “borrow” the perspectives of people looking at us, and determine who we are based on their opinion. 


If everything goes well and we have access to secure and resilient attachment relationships, we learn to feel lovable and valuable through the reflections of other people who seem to find us so. But the opposite is true too. If those early attachments are conditional, insecure, or absent, or if their reflections and perspectives on us are negative, then we learn to feel unlovable and worthless.


Our own sense of identity and worthiness is, in other words, all tangled up with how other people see and treat us, from long before we have the developmental capacity to recognize ourselves as distinct individuals. Confident and secure people generally become that way because their attachment figures reflected to them throughout infancy and childhood that who they were as people was welcome, lovable, worthy, and safe. 


That begs the obvious question, then: what the hell are you supposed to do if that’s not what you experienced or had reflected to you??


I’m glad you asked, since this is the exact situation a lot of my clients find themselves in. 


First of all, I think it’s important to recognize that your early experiences have impacted you, and get clear on the fact that just because your attachment figures couldn’t or didn’t make you feel loved, accepted and worthy, doesn’t mean you aren’t


Two people hugging in a moving therapy session

There’s a certain amount of separation that often has to happen in these situations, for an adult child of emotionally unavailable, neglectful, critical, or abusive caretakers— a simultaneous acceptable of what happened (and how it’s impacted their sense of self), and a recognition that they deserved better; that it shouldn’t have happened that way. 


That separation—the recognition that your worth is actually separate from whatever was reflected to you—creates the space and agency for you to rewrite your own story. From there, the real work begins. 


The “work” I’m referring to here tends to be long and slow, and may include all manner of self-examination, fear-facing, shame-busting, skill-building, and re-education, as well as the progressive cultivation of affirming connections, vulnerability, and authentic self-expression. There are endless tools and resources that can help a person do this work, and I’m a big fan of therapy and coaching in these spaces for those who can afford it!


In my work with clients, I find mindset around this work to be important, and that the clients who recognize they’re not attempting to adopt something new, but rather to return to something they lost tend to have the best results.


 

The truth is that we were all born feeling good enough. We were all born with both an expectation of, and a sense that we were worthy and deserving of, care, love, respect, and protection. It's only when we receive and internalize false messages (both implicitly and explicitly) from other people and the wider culture that we come to believe otherwise. 


The process, then, of developing confidence and self-esteem more isn’t so much about gaining something, as it is about stripping something away; stripping away the false beliefs, pain, and shame we've been given about how we're not good enough. 


In my coaching practice, I see the process of learning to feel “good enough” as very similar to body neutrality, in that it similarly requires us to strip away the false or inflated meaning, moral judgments, biases, and interpretations we’ve learned to layer onto our sense of self. 


Maybe I should call it something like “self neutrality,” or “identity neutrality,” what do you think?


Big hug,

Jessi

PS: If you’re looking for help feeling good enough, apply for coaching with me here! 

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Hi Jessi - Thank you for this post! I have struggled with body image anxiety my whole life but didn’t really know that’s what I was experiencing until a few years ago. Up until then, I just thought I was really bad at being “good enough” as a woman. About five years ago I went on a big health journey to redefine my relationship with food and exercise. I lost over a hundred pounds and began feeling much better physically but in many ways I was feeling worse than ever mentally/emotionally.


I began exploring the concept of body neutrality last year and of course your book popped up as a “must read” in many articles I explored. As soon as…


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