Embrace the Good (Enough)

We have not done a great (er ehm, dare I say, good enough) job of creating a society of secure, grounded adolescents and young adults. At least, in my experience as a psychologist, I have tended to encounter young and not-so-young adults who struggle to make sense of themselves and their place in the world around them largely because they do not feel that they measure up or will ever be done with resume "fillers" as they move from one accomplishment or university and degree to the next.

On the flip-side, I also have seen a fair share of individuals who fit a more narcissistic, egocentric profile who have trouble empathizing with others. These clients struggle more in having meaningful, long-lasting relationships due to their lack of emotional connections and availability than just personal insecurity (although this is usually a deeper underlying issue as well).

I find that most of my work with clients circles back to repairing one's relationship with and understanding of the self, and that many of my clients received messages from parents or other adult figures and peers that they did not measure up or hold any real value or purpose in some way. Unfortunately, for a child, a parent's word (or a teacher's, or a coach's, or an idol's; you could insert any significant early figure here) is usually unquestioned and taken in as truth, and enough of these truths alongside other significant life events become woven into a child's story about themselves that are carried with them into adulthood. This is how children learn the lesson about whether they are loved and valued outright and always just simply because they are enough; or that they are loved and valued only if certain conditions are met (thank-you profusely for pointing this discrepancy out, Dr. Carl Rogers!).

We learn to value and judge ourselves based largely on how we see others judging and valuing us as well as themselves. So we begin looking for ways to earn value and love from those around us and to feel worthy- by proving our selves and our worth. This could be by making sure our room is always clean, or by picking up our toys at night, or helping cook dinner, or grabbing the mail as children- all of which are relatively innocent and appreciated ways to pitch in around the home and would be unlikely to have any long-term negative effects other than teaching one basic life skills for adulthood. However, these behaviors can extend into further tendencies towards people pleasing and having loose or no boundaries, wherein perhaps you never say 'no' for fear of rejection or hurting others at your own expense or you are constantly being taken advantage of or even are at an increased likelihood of being in an abusive relationship as an adolescent or adult.

I saw this manifesting at the college level when students would come in for walk-in crisis appointments and regularly scheduled counseling sessions alike: anxious, depressed, sometimes suicidal, and almost always, burnt-out. They didn't know how to handle the possibility that they might not get into the class they had been building their freshman and sophomore schedule around or that their test score was not enough to pull their "B" class average up to an "A". They were panicked to think that they might not be able to land a job straight after graduation with a Fortune 500 company or to make a high enough score on their GRE or the LSAT to end up at the graduate or law program their father and grandfather and great uncle had attended. They had not planned for years and years of perfect or near-perfect grades, and hours upon hours of extracurriculars, and volunteering, and job shadowing, and interning to result in them not being an absolute, indisputable success. And I didn't blame them for their disappointment, frustration, panic, and disbelief.

For those students who came in for more than just a brief intervention and coping plan, I worked to help them identify ways to find fulfillment and happiness in the day-to-day moments and to be more attuned to their needs and boundaries. As time progressed, we would explore the "why" questions behind their decisions to pursue certain majors and career paths, and to make a certain amount of money, or to live a certain lifestyle, and in most cases, students struggled to answer these questions with more than a standard "because that's what you do" or "that's what I've always done" type of response. These students had not stopped to consider what would make them happy and healthy in the years to come, and many of them had not truly had time to slow down and consider these questions outside of more practical considerations of making as much money as possible, having prestige and status, following in my father's/mother's footsteps, pursuing the major because my parents believe it is the best fit, etc.

My next series of questions for these students would be around the topic of self-worth and definitions of the self. In many cases, the students felt value only if they were achieving something, and or were reaching some benchmark of perfection, which we all know is ultimately unattainable and thus perpetuates our sense of lacking value as we never fully achieve this standard. Once said accolade or accomplishment had been achieved, the celebration was short-lived or unacknowledged, as I would check in with students after passing exams or receiving an award from their organization who would report minimal relief and share their anxiety and concern about the next hurdle or benchmark they had their sights set on.

I began to ask myself (and I know that I am NOT the first to do this!), What's the point?! Why work so hard and tirelessly and receive such little recognition for one's efforts not only from others but also from one's self? Why are we moving from one exam to the next and one project to the next and one race to the next and one competition to the next and worrying about the possibility of failure and defeat throughout with little to no celebration of our successes and accomplishments in between? Why are we placing so little value on what we have achieved when we place so much value on perceived losses and failures or potential losses and failures? And to take it even further, when is the competition over? When is the resume full? When have we accomplished enough- when are we (good) enough.

Because that's the issue. And the goal. To finally feel like you are good enough.

It's a journey I embarked on many years ago, and a concept I still grapple with from time to time. It's something my clients struggle to accept, but one that I have encountered in my work with college students, teenagers, children, and adults. Particularly for those who are already receiving messages that they are somehow lacking in value, re-instilling this sense of being someone of worth and good enough-ness is vitally important. Individuals experiencing divorce or receiving a life-altering medical diagnosis or who are coming out as gay, lesbian, or transgender need the strength, stamina, and support to pursue their lives while also dealing with the ongoing changes and unforeseen challenges that await them in the days and months ahead. And a sense of finally and truly being good enough gives you the armor that you need to fight these battles and not lose yourself in the midst of the chaos and disappointment.

You have to choose to have compassion towards yourself and to practice forgiving yourself each and everyday, because you are going to mess up. You are going to disappoint yourself and other people, and they are going to disappoint you. It's not about no longer holding yourself accountable- it's about accountability with compassion and intention, and being content with what you have accomplished so far. If you have goals in life, you can still go after them. But you still need to acknowledge what you have already achieved, because this shows you what you are already capable of, and those are truly amazing things.

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