Do You Feel Not Good Enough?
Are you carrying the emotional burden of a dysfunctional family?
Posted Oct 13, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Have you wondered where your internalized message of “I’m not good enough” comes from? Do you feel you give life your best, work hard, try hard, but still can’t give yourself credit? Are you constantly beating yourself up and thinking that somehow you should be more, do more, be better, and you don’t measure up in your own mind?
After more than three decades of working as a therapist with dysfunctional family dynamics, particularly those of narcissistic and abusive families, I have seen first-hand where this internalized “not good enough” message comes from. While it seems easy to comprehend intellectually, I have also found that understanding emotionally and freeing oneself from old negative messages is a journey of recovery which takes some serious work. When we make changes, we usually take a cognitive leap of understanding first and then it takes our emotional being some time to catch up so that the head and gut are congruent and saying the same thing.
But how does the message “I’m not good enough” get internalized? Where does this come from? To start with, I want you to think about small children and how impressionable they are, how they are soaking up life and trying to learn and understand the world around them. And, the most important thing to them is gaining love and affection from their caregivers. They do not yet have a worldly or experienced understanding of human behavior or why people behave in certain ways. Their main goal is to be loved, and this is of course, what every child deserves.
Now let’s take some examples of dysfunctional families and start with the alcoholic family. A child does not understand why the alcoholic parent is sometimes there for them and sometimes not depending on the substance usage. In a narcissistic family, the child does not understand that the narcissistic parent is not capable of empathy or real love. In abusive families or families with domestic violence, the child does not understand why the adults are acting in horrible ways and not seeming to tune into how that effects their children. So, given that the child’s goal is to be loved and cared for, the child begins to try to “fix” the adult problems so they can achieve their goal. They don’t do this consciously, of course, but many start this at a very early age: “If only I was a better kid, this would not be happening.” “If I did better in school, my parents wouldn’t fight.” “If I listen to my parent’s problems, maybe they will be less stressed.” “If I do more chores or housework, maybe Mommy won’t be so sad.” “If I become a great soccer player, maybe Daddy won’t drink so much beer because he will want to come to my games.”
Children are like sponges and take in their environment on emotional levels as well as physical and intellectual levels. They learn very early that if Mommy and Daddy are happy then they themselves will be happier too and get more of that love they need: “When Mommy is happy, she will play with me and spend time with me.” “When Daddy is not mad, he will be nicer to all of us.” Kids want peace, love and harmony in their lives and need it to thrive emotionally. So, if it is not there, guess what they do? Try to fix it by trying to be a better and better kid, or they may also try the opposite and act out to get their parents to focus on them. But they are learning and internalizing that no matter what they do, they cannot fix their parent’s problems. They are kids, and of course this is not their problem to fix, but they don’t know that yet. So, they keep trying. Many times parents in dysfunctional families will blame their children or project onto their children the bad feelings the parent is feeling at the moment.
Narcissists do this all the time. They may be internally self-loathing, but project this onto their children rather than embrace and resolve their own feelings. It’s always someone else’s fault. A child knows no different. Of course, they take this on too: “It must be me.” “It must be my fault if my parent is mean to me, or can’t love me.” “I must be unlovable.” So the child ends up carrying the emotional baggage of the family and takes on the burden. “If only I could do more.”
Just because a child grows up and may begin to see the dysfunction in their family of origin, it does not mean that the internalized message is cleared away. We parent ourselves in the same manner we were parented. So the negative message of “I couldn’t fix it, so I am not good enough,” remains strong. The parent does not have to say these words directly to the child, the child is internalizing it as he or she is developing. “I will clean the whole house tonight and then my parents won’t fight.” But, they do fight and they don’t even notice: “It didn’t work.” “I am not good enough, or powerful enough, or worthy.”
In therapy, we work on this by uncovering the deeper place this message of unworthiness is lurking. Usually it goes back to the family of origin. Who says parenting is not a huge responsibility? The negative messages cannot be “undone” by simple techniques of affirmations or telling ourselves we are OK, but rather this work takes uncovering the deeper trauma imbedded in the child or adult brain and body and then releasing it. Trauma resolution is needed.
It is difficult for some people to do this, because we all want to believe that we came from loving and nurturing families. It is normal to try to deny and rationalize and believe it is all in our heads. It is actually easier to take it on yourself than to stand in the courage of your own truth and experience and resolve your own trauma. But, I am writing to testify to the experience of many people in therapy who have had the courage to do this hard work, have recovered, and have been able to release the burden of carrying the emotional baggage of their families of origin. When they do this, they realize the message was wrong. It is not their fault. It is a distorted reality that they had to buy into to survive in a dysfunctional environment. It is only then, that the tightly wound negative message of “I am not good enough,” begins to unravel and there is relief. This doesn’t mean I encourage blame, anger, rage, or carrying resentment towards family of origin. But it does need to be understood before one can heal. It is also more possible then to be accountable and realize that you can change yourself as an adult and be who you want to be and not continue to be defined by your family of origin or others.
Imagine yourself carrying a big net-like basketball bag over your shoulder that holds a lot of balls that don’t even belong to you. As you recover, you are taking one ball at a time, throwing them out of the bag and off your own back, realizing that they belong to someone else. “This is not my stuff, I am carrying my mother’s sadness, or my father’s insecurities.” Get rid of those old balls so you can see your own reality and can define who you really are. Deep down, you know that even though you have made mistakes in life as we all do, you are a good person. You are “good enough.” You deserve better. I can say that in all my years of conducting psychotherapy, the biggest break-through I have seen in my clients is when they realize that they are carrying someone else’s baggage on their own back. When this happens it opens a door of freedom. It provides a path to hope, healing, and understanding. It opens more and more windows of opportunities to create the life you want and deserve. If you are reading this because it struck a nerve, I wish that for you too! That bag of balls on your back is heavy. You too can begin to release trauma by ridding yourself of the burden and weight, one ball at a time. You realize you are good enough.