Many of us are in the habit of telling ourselves we’re “not good enough.” Whether it’s in our careers, our intimate relationships, our appearances, or some other area of our lives, we’re always convinced we don’t measure up to some standard of how we’re supposed to be. Because it seems we can always find something to criticize about ourselves no matter what we achieve in life, this habit can be hard to break.
I used to say this sort of thing to myself all the time, until I had a realization that transformed my understanding of what being “not good enough” really means. One day, I was beating myself up for not having published a book yet, telling myself that my work would never be good enough and that no one identified with or understood it. (This, by the way, is a testament to the fact that you’ll never run out of ideas if you’re determined to beat yourself up.)
For some reason, it occurred to me that I used to torment myself in similar ways many years ago, when I was nine years old. When I was nine, I entered some sort of essay contest for kids and didn’t win, and I didn’t let myself hear the end of it. Hey, I noticed—I’m criticizing myself for exactly the same stuff, and in exactly the same ways, that I did when I was nine.
This realization prompted me to wonder: when and why did it all start? When was the first time I said “I’m not good enough”? And what prompted me to do that? Interestingly, I couldn’t recall a period of my life when I wasn’t under some sort of mental attack. Beating myself up had been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life. Maybe I’d never been “good enough” in my own eyes.
But somehow, that didn’t seem to make sense. I’d always believed the reason I didn’t feel “good enough” was that I’d done something inappropriate or immoral, or failed to do something I should have done. And this is consistent with the way that, for better or worse, we typically judge ourselves and others. If we judge someone else as “bad,” it’s normally because they did or failed to do something. “This politician is bad because he supports policies I don’t like,” we say. “My ex-boyfriend is bad because he left me.” And so forth.
If I haven’t been good enough all my life, however, it can’t be because I did or failed to do anything. When I was two years old, I’d hardly “done” anything at all in the world—and yet, as far as I could remember, I didn’t feel “good enough” even then. Apparently, I was “bad” before I even had the opportunity to do anything bad. But believing I was bad before I had a chance to act badly was kind of like calling a tree or a rock bad. A tree doesn’t “do” anything but grow and absorb nutrients, and a rock simply sits there. The idea that an object that hasn’t done anything—and can’t really do anything—isn’t “good enough” seems absurd.
This realization gave me a sudden sense of freedom. I didn’t “deserve” my feelings of inadequacy at all. In beating myself up, I wasn’t “serving my sentence” or atoning for some past sin. I wasn’t sure how I acquired the conviction that I wasn’t “good enough”—maybe it was my genetic makeup, an early-life experience, or something else. But the point was that, because I saw there was no good reason why I should suffer, I became able to let go of that suffering.
Further, I understood the mistake I’d been making in addressing my sense of inadequacy. Before, when I’d have a negative thought about myself, I’d assume I could eliminate that thought by improving in a certain area of my life. Thus, I’d pursue more achievements in the world—I’d look for ways to make more money, get invited to more social occasions, publish more articles, and so on. However, nothing I did seemed to shake that core conviction that I wasn’t good enough—my mind would simply come up with more ways my life needed fixing. Now, I recognized that seeing that core conviction for what it was—not adjusting my circumstances in the world—was the path to peace.
If you’re constantly plagued by thoughts that you’re inadequate, I have a mental exercise for you. Forget, for a moment, about the specific ways your mind is criticizing you, and the areas in which it’s saying you need improvement. Instead, ask yourself whether there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve been free of mental criticism. No matter what you’ve accomplished, has your mind ever given you a break?
If your answer is no, consider the possibility that changing your outer circumstances won’t address your mind’s concerns. For whatever reason, your mind has been convinced for most, or all, of your life that you’re not good enough. You don’t “deserve” the criticisms your mind levels at you, and nothing about you needs to be changed or fixed for you to be a complete human being. This realization may make you feel free to release your sense of inadequacy, and to access the peace and wholeness available to all of us.
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