Everyone wants to feel good enough
. Feeling like you are a good enough person enables you to feel lovable, to love others, and to feel safe and competent in the world. Yet, are you a good enough parent
, partner, and, if you are a mental health professional, a good enough couples therapist
In her new book Winnicott and 'Good Enough' Couples Therapy, Psychologist Claire Rabin focuses on this important concept of good enough, reviving this and related key ideas from the writings of Donald Winnicot.
Winnicott was a British pediatrician whose ideas, like the notion of good enough, have become fundamental to much of our current understanding of what constitutes mental health. Feeling good enough, Winnicot posited, comes from parents who conveyed acceptance, appreciation, and affection. Some parents, alas, convey instead the impression to their child that "no matter how good you are it will never be enough." Ignoring children, excessively criticizing them, or parental meanness teach a child that something about them is inherently not good, not worthy of love.
Good-enough conveys the idea that we do need to do our roles skillfullly enough to accomplish the challenges of parenthood, partnering or counseling. To be good enough, we need to understand and apply the techniques and attitudes that lead to loving and growth-oriented relationshps. We need to have these capabilities in order to enjoy the doing of it, and to be effective.
At the same time, we don’t need to accomplish the challenges of parenting, partnering or counseling perfectly. Phew! We don't have to become Number 1 or win a gold medal. We just need to be good enough. Then from there we can enjoy our relationships, making mistakes along the way and learning and growing from our errors.
Rabin's book also revives a number of additional Winnicott concepts that have become core to psychology's understanding of good-enough relationships: attunement, holding, and hiding the true self behind the mask of a false self.
Are you good enough at attunement? Do you tune in or do you tune out?
Winnitcott, besides originating the term "good enough," clarified multiple traits of good-enough parenting including the skill of attunement. Rabin's book, which extends Winnicott's ideas of good enough parenting to good enough coupling and couples' counseling, explores attunement in all three realms.
Attunement implies hearing, seeing, caring and responding. Attunement involves listening and responding appropriately when the infant cries and when the toddler sounds frustrated. Attunement involves noticing positive emotions as well, for instance, by looking into the baby, toddler or child’s eyes with mutually satisfying eye-hugs. Attunement in parenthood also means listening to a teenager who expresses feeling shy or sad or joyful or anxious and then talking with him or her to find solutions to the triggering situations.
Parents who are not sufficiently attuned produce children who grow up with a sense of inner emptiness. If your parent(s) insufficiently saw, heard and responded to you, you would be prone as an adult to ignore your own feelings, dismissing and denigrating them.
If you send the messages from your children, loved one, or therapy clients to the delete box, you will be functioning in a not-good-enough manner. Marriage researcher John Gottman, for instance, identified responsivity, that is, attunement followed by responsive action, as the single best indicator of which husbands will succeed in marriage and which will end up in a marriage at risk for unhappiness or divorce.
No need though for panic. You do not have to be a perfect parent, partner or counseling. Just good enough.
Are you good enough at holding? Do you hold or do you scold?
When children feel upset, holding them tightly in a loving hug enables them to relax, to reset their emotions back at a calmer baseline arousal level. Parents who accomplish holding in a “good enough” fashion not only successfully soothe their child vis a vis specifics upsets. They also are teaching the child’s neurological system to self-soothe.
The famed Harlow classic studies with monkeys clarified what happens when mammals grow up without someone to hold them, or for them to hold on to. Monkeys who grew up with at least a terry-cloth-covered wire barrel to hug when they were upset grew up neurologically normal. Those without at least this “good enough parent” to hold and be held by grew to be anxious adults who were ineffective at calming themselves down when anxious feelings had been triggered.
How well do you “hold” yourself as an adult? Do you have “good enough” emotional regulation patterns? Can you go to a quiet place, or to a trusted friend or family member, to calm down if something triggered scared or angry feelings? Or do you stay scared or angry on and on, suffering excessively, and maybe in the process also antagonizing loved ones close to you.
Do you have a false self? Do you pretend to be who you think you should be, or are you for real?
Rabin’s book also highlights Winnicott’s concept that children raised by a not-good-enough parent may develop a “false self.” Winnicott himself knew well of what he wrote. The family in which he was raised had been prosperous and ostensibly happy, but behind the veneer, Winnicott saw himself as oppressed by his mother, who tended toward depression, and therefore having to be the caretaker his mother needed him to be rather than his spontaneous real self.
Parents who are scary, critical or non-attuned inadvertently teach a child that it is unsafe to show itself to the world. If parents are not good-enough at providing a safe and emotionally nourishing environment the child still needs to survive and to protect himself. A common solution is to hide, to hide behind a pretend or false-self.
Instead of openly greeting the world, “Look out, world! Here I come!” this child may develop an exterior presentation to the world that differs dramatically from the way s/he feels inside. When he feels sad, he acts the fun clown. Though she feels insufficient and not good enough, she develops an exterior show of charismatic personal charm. Or an external appearance of great generosity may cover an inner tendency to be profoundly selfish.
Good enough parents, lovers and therapists, by contrast, welcome honest expression of feelings and concerns from their children, loved ones and therapy clients. Open sharing of feelings and concerns, expressed with confidence that they will be received with understanding and caring, lie at the core of positive parenting, couple partnership, and therapist-client relationship.
Do you openly share your true self, tactfully and at the same time frankly, with your children, loved one and, if you are a therapist, with your clients?
And at the same time, how safe and welcoming are you toward what you hear if they openly share their true thoughts with you?
Thank you, Dr. Rabin, for giving new life to Winnicott’s important and ever-relevant ideas, giving us all renewed permission be good enough: to aim high enough that we do things well and at the same time to let ourselves accept our imperfections. Good enough is good enough for a highly satisfying life.
Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is author of Power of Two, a book, workbook, and website that teach the skills for good enough couples communication.