Are You Good Enough?
Extend your comfort zone by deciding you needn't be perfect
Posted July 15, 2014
Do you feel good enough? Feeling like a good enough person in a good enough body enables you to feel lovable, to love others, to attract the love of others, and to feel safe and competent in the world. Do you also feel like a good enough friend, date, partner, or parent (or, if you're a mental health professional, a good enough couples therapist)?
Psychologist Claire Rabin, in her recently published book Winnicott and 'Good Enough' Couples Therapy, focuses on the important concept of good enough. Rabin revives other key ideas as well from the writings of Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician. Winnitcott's concepts, like the concept of "good enough," have become fundamental to much of our current understanding of what constitutes mental health.
Winnicott posited that the self-accepting state of feeling good enough emerges when parents convey to their children acceptance, appreciation, and affection. They convey "we love you." They convey that children's mistakes are for learning. No need to be perfect. We love you even though we sometimes dislike some of what you do.
Sadly, some parents convey to their children instead the impression that "no matter how good you are, it will never be enough." Ignoring children, excessively criticizing them or being mean to them teaches children that something about them is inherently not good enough—not worthy of love. Feeling not good enough leaves children standing on a shaky emotional foundation for adulthood. It makes them prone to anxiety, depression, and anger and undermines their ability to enjoy emotionally-secure relationships.
Can you be good enough?
To be a good enough parent, partner, or professional conveys the idea that we need to perform our roles skillfully enough to accomplish the challenges of a relationship, parenthood, or counseling. To be good enough, we need to understand and apply the techniques and attitudes that sustain positive relationships. We need these capabilities to be effective in the world.
At the same time, we don’t need to accomplish these challenges perfectly. (Phew!) We don't have to be Number 1 or win a gold medal. We just need to be good enough. From there, we can enjoy our relationships, making mistakes along the way and learning and growing from our errors.
What other psychological phenomena are related to feeling good enough?
Rabin's book revives other concepts from Winnicott's concepts that have become core to psychology's understanding of feeling good enough: attunement, holding, and hiding the true self behind the mask of a false self.
Attunement: Do you tune in or do you tune out?
Besides originating the term good enough, Winnicott clarified multiple traits of good enough parenting, especially the skill of attunement. Rabin explores the ideas of good enough and attunement to the realm of coupling and and also work relationships.
Attunement implies hearing, seeing, caring, and responding. It involves listening, and responding appropriately, when, say, an infant cries or a toddler sounds frustrated. Attunement means listening to a child or teenager who expresses shyness, sadness, joy, or anxiety, and then talking together to find solutions to the triggering situations. Attunement implies noticing positive phenomena as well—delight, capabilities, and pride in accomplishments.
Parents who are insufficiently attuned produce children who grow up with a sense of inner emptiness. If your parent(s) insufficiently saw, heard, and responded to you, you could be prone as an adult to ignore your own quiet voices of concerns, fears and desires, dismissing and denigrating them instead of heeding their guidance.
In relationships, ignoring messages from your partner, child, or client, or sending what they tell you to the Delete box, you will be functioning in a not-good-enough manner. Marriage researcher John Gottman has identified responsivity—attunement followed by responsive action—as the single best indicator of which men will succeed in marriage and which will end up in a partnership at risk for unhappiness or divorce.
How attuned, and responsive, are you to yourself? To your loved ones? To your work associates? Fortunately, if you could be doing better in the realm of attunement, no need for panic. Mistakes are for learning. You do not have to be a perfect partner; just good enough.
Were you held or scolded? Do you hold or scold?
When children feel upset, holding them tightly in a loving hug enables them to relax and reset their emotions at a calmer baseline arousal level. Parents who accomplish holding in a “good enough” fashion not only successfully soothe their child after a specific upset; they also teach the child’s neurological system to self-soothe.
Harlow's famed classic monkey attachment studies 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 who lacked even this good enough parent to hold and be held by grew to be anxious adults ineffective at calming themselves when anxious feelings were triggered.
How well do you hold yourself? Do you have good enough emotional regulation patterns? Do you go to a quiet place, or to a trusted friend or family member, to calm down if something triggers scary or angry feelings? Or do you stay scared or angry, suffering excessively, and maybe, in the process, inadvertently antagonizing the people closest to you?
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 of what he wrote. The family in which he was raised had been prosperous and ostensibly happy. Yet behind the veneer, Winnicott felt oppressed by his depressed mother. He became the caretaker his mother needed, suppressing his spontaneous real self.
Parents who ignore, frighten, criticize or verbally or physically abuse their offspring inadvertently teach the child that it is unsafe to show him or herself to the world. If parents are not good enough at providing a safe and emotionally nourishing environment, the child still needs to survive. For self-protection, the child's solution may be to hide behind a pretend or false-self.
A person with a false self develops an exterior presentation that differs dramatically from the way he or she feels inside. When he feels sad, he acts the clown. Though she feels insufficient and not good enough, she develops an exterior show of charismatic personal charm.
Good enough parents, lovers, and therapists welcome honest expression of feelings and concerns from their children, loved ones, and clients. Open sharing of feelings and concerns, expressed with confidence that they will be received with understanding and caring, lie at the core of a positive relationship with yourself and with positive parenting, couple partnership, and therapist-client and other work relationships.
Do you openly share your true self, tactfully and at the same time frankly, with your children or loved one? At the same time, how safe and welcoming are you toward what you hear when others 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.
(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.
Dr. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist educated at Harvard and NYU, has authored multiple books on relationship skills.
For an indexed listing of Dr. H's Blogposts see her clinical website.
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To learn more about Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills, click here.