You Are Good Enough
You were not at the top of the class, not the employee of the month, nor are you the "10" you think your partner wants. But you're probably pretty spectacular in some way, and definitely good enough in most areas of life. If ever there were a time to stop beating yourself up for being human, it is now.
By Psychology Today Contributors published March 2, 2021 - last reviewed on March 4, 2021
How Am I Doing in Life?
The perennial question in the religion of success.
By Eric S. Jannazzo, Ph.D.
Peer with even modest depth into the heart of virtually any person within Western culture and you will find a question unmatched in its capacity to motivate, cajole, and shame the human spirit. It is sometimes asked explicitly and daily; it’s more often wholly unconscious for our entire life, directing our affairs like the gravitational pull of an unseen star. It can shove us into a career we loathe; it can convince us to surgically alter our faces; it can induce us to buy a particular car. It can also propel us to cure disease and produce aching works of art and mow our lawn. That question is: “How am I doing at life in the eyes of others?”
The pursuit of success is a religion because, like other religions, it is a robust system of meaning-making that operates at emotional and cognitive levels, guides our decisions, contains its own morality, is buttressed by particular rituals, and is practiced en masse by a group of people sharing a largely unexamined ideology.
The success the religion venerates is not success as self-actualization, self-defined and self-adjudicated, but is instead success as determined by one’s perceived place in the social hierarchy.
The religion of success is a highly dangerous game, and yet many of us are unaware of how much we compulsively lay our lives at the foot of its altar. It is so woven into our way of being, so integrated at the machine layer of our ideology, that we must listen closely in a quiet inner space to hear the ever-buzzing anxiety it produces: “Am I doing all this well enough?”
Of course, it is deeply, inescapably human to yearn to have our basic sufficiency reflected back to us. We long for inclusion and social safety, for true membership at the very least, and perhaps, beyond that, for ascendance to a position so lofty that it lies beyond reproach.
And even more powerful than our yearning for inclusion is our terror of exclusion, or of being tolerated virtually unnoticed at the margins, relegated to picking up the scraps of life left behind by those who are really living. Such yearning is embedded in the software of what it is to be human: Concern with our social standing has for millennia driven our evolution. We are the descendants of innumerable individuals who were appropriately focused on—and successful at navigating—the staggering complexity of social relationships. There’s no other way they could have stayed alive long enough to reproduce and successfully rear their young.
We continue to need each other desperately to meet both our basic needs for food and shelter and our loftiest needs for meaning and love. Healthy interdependence is the gateway to both surviving and thriving, and our capacity to achieve it is entirely contingent on our own social sufficiency, our being “good enough” for cooperation and for love. Much of the work of healing in our lives revolves around this central question of knowing that we are deserving of the belonging, a question that has always been central to Homo sapiens.
And yet Homo sapiens in the West have become organized by a hyper-individualism that demands even more. For so many of us, a sense of one’s sufficiency is, painfully, not enough to quell the inner voice that demands not just belonging but also supremacy.
We keep climbing but what is the actual destination? There’s a vague notion of something that awaits up there that will feel like a sort of arrival, a shimmering Eden perhaps where all feelings are pleasant and all others fawn. Since no reality could possibly match this unarticulated fantasy, it never feels quite right. For so many, this unquenchable longing produces a crisis. The more fortunate ones are aware of the crisis and work to confront it. Many others simply keep climbing until the ladder gives way.
Perhaps there is a middle path: Enjoy the knowledge of one’s own enoughness while also honoring the imperative to possess some degree of social status. Perhaps this middle path would instill an internal sense of sufficiency and the social status that is perhaps most nourishing: the deep regard given to those who know, and value, who they themselves are.
Eric S. Jannazzo, Ph.D., is a writer and clinical psychologist in private practice in Seattle, Washington.
Congratulations, You’re Average
How changing our definition of average can benefit us.
By Grace Blair
In the career world, résumés are the yardstick with which we measure our progress. This metric is one of the few ways we can size up our successes, and there’s something about having that standardized measurement of accomplishment that intimidates even the most exceptional overachiever.
It’s like a mirror that seems to add 20 pounds to your figure. Seeing that every accomplishment, every job, all the internships, and volunteer work that you’ve ever had can be summed up in 12-point Times New Roman type without even filling an entire page is discouraging. Pondering your newfound inadequacy, you ask yourself: Is this all I am? Am I really this average?
Yes. You really are that average. And that’s okay.
It seems we have created a distorted view of being average, and consequently, we try to avoid it at all costs. A study on averageness shows just how skewed our perspective is. Participants overall tended to label their own abilities as above average, but the study also found evidence that people consider average as being synonymous with having below-average abilities rather than interpreting the term with its literal definition.
With each scroll or connection through social media, we're reminded not of our own accomplishments, but of those of others—things you didn’t achieve but everyone else did. We are reminded of the cars we don’t drive and the places we haven’t been. The tech age has opened our eyes to the lives we don’t have.
The achievement culture is at an all-time high. I was told from infancy that those of my generation, Gen Z, are unique, exceptional, and capable of doing whatever we set our minds to, but we have reached territory where these affirmations no longer apply.
Everyone dreams of being that person who does it all—balancing a career, a family, and a social life as if they were fine china. If all we seek is high achievements or being the best, we will find only disappointment. Maybe we should switch our version of success from quantitative to qualitative to help us realize that being average is pretty good. Surrendering to an average existence could be, paradoxically, how we find our better and happier selves. It’s not simply the case that success leads to happiness; happiness itself may lead to greater success. Maybe, it’s time we reprioritize what’s worth striving for.
Grace Blair is a journalism major at the University of Florida.
Getting the Laundry Done Might Be Good Enough
Why you’re underappreciating what you’ve learned during quarantine.
By Michellana Jester, Ph.D.
If you’re on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve likely seen the ambitious accomplishments of friends who’ve used their time during lockdown to learn a foreign language, master French cooking, or become an app designer. A widely circulated “motivational” message, for example, proclaimed: If you didn’t come out of this quarantine with either a new skill or a new business, you never lacked the time, you just lacked the discipline.
While this seems like the kind of “tough love” we all need, it’s a message that’s counterproductive. It denies the kind of dramatic learning we have had to contend with every day just to make it through our pandemic routine—a routine that for many has included homeschooling, endless handwashing, social distancing, Zoom meetings, witnessing an insurrection, and making sense of an avalanche of traumatic news. Even as some of us are now getting vaccinated, we have had to learn what it has meant to navigate and engage in this new normal.
Underlying that “motivational message” is the idea that the many skills we’ve used during lockdown—such as learning to work at the kitchen table or use new collaboration platforms, being without colleagues, friends, and family—are not significant pieces of learning in and of themselves.
We could have challenged ourselves to do more during lockdown or now berate ourselves for not accomplishing more, but is that necessary? The new habits we have integrated may have already pushed us to our emotional and physical limits. Rather than beating ourselves up over a supposed lack of discipline, we should ask the question: Why has it been so difficult to learn something new?
Our struggle to “just do it,” to force ourselves to accomplish something beyond what we have been doing to navigate each day, is at odds with the ways in which our brains have already been at work. We’ve learned a lot of new things this year—some of which feel profoundly meaningful. For many of us, however, the rapid pace has been exhausting.
We’ve been forced to change our behaviors in a significant way, and our brains have been working against us. Because of the effort necessary to create new neural pathways, our brains have gone into self-protection mode and created a kind of unconscious resistance to new habits and ideas.
Neuroscience tells us that adult learning is linked to habit, and 40 percent of behavior is habit. When we try to do something different, our habits get in the way. To get the brain to change, to create new neural pathways, we have to create new actions over and over again. It can take time for the new neural pathways to override the existing ones. Learning within the context of a global pandemic has strained our ability to reflect and take in new insight as we build the proverbial bicycle while riding it.
Learning a new language or starting a business sounds laudable, but let’s give ourselves the space to take in and make sense of the many ways in which we’re learning and adapting to our new reality.
Getting the laundry done just might be good enough.
Michellana Jester, Ed.D., is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
The Passable Parenting Approach
Moving away from perfection allows love in your family to be messy, real, and guilt-free.
Jessica Combs Rohr, Ph.D.
“Don’t you feel guilty leaving her while we go and hang out?” I asked my husband. We had taken the day off to celebrate our anniversary, and our daughter was going to daycare, just as on any other weekday. He replied: “Not one teeny tiny iota. Why, do you?” My automatic thought was: Good moms don’t have fun without their kids around. As a psychologist, I know very well that this thought isn’t true, nor is it helpful.
Where does it come from?
Mom guilt. That pernicious feeling that comes from not doing things a certain way, or doing them too much, or doing them wrong according to some unknowable and ever-changing rule book. We understand that guilt (as well as shame) is considered an emotion of self-assessment and that it disproportionately affects women.
Mom guilt is something that almost all mothers are very familiar with. However, the term hasn’t yet entered the research literature in a way that reflects how pervasive it is. A paper from Finland suggests that five basic situations tend to induce guilt in mothers:
- Actual or imagined aggression
- Wanting to leave in some way
- Being gone in some way
- Favoring one child over another
- Not corresponding to your own or others’ idea of a good mother
Because we tend to believe that we must fully devote ourselves to our children and feel completely responsible for how they develop, as mothers we frequently fail to live up to either our own or society’s expectations for how a mother should be. Guilt then results when we feel something we think the perfect mother wouldn’t feel. We feel angry, resentful, and the desire to escape—all things a normal mother would feel, though it seems as if the perfect mother wouldn’t. The problem is, the standards we set are often unattainable; they set us up for failure, and they’re often not even actually all that beneficial for our children’s development. Guilt is the byproduct of striving for perfect parenting.
Is the goal of perfect parenting to have the perfect child, or a child who’s never lonely, or one who’s always happy? Let’s try this goal: to help a child to develop the trust that she can count on a loved one to try to be there for her. Relationships are where we live. They’re the fiber of our family, our community, our career. Perfect doesn’t work in relationships. What works is flexibility, responsive sensitivity, and availability. What works is not avoiding mistakes but acknowledging them, doing what we can to make up for them and learning from them. When we aim for perfect, mistake-free parenting, we’re sending a message that performance is more important than meeting needs.
A relationship that expects perfection is doomed to fail, while a relationship where two people use their understanding of imperfection to get to know their similarities and differences has limitless potential for growth.
Modeling perfection is usually well-intentioned. When we believe that if we aim for it and fall short, then at least we're trying, right? After all, we understand that our kids aren't perfect. The problem is that the constant pursuit of perfection leads to anxiety about the relationship, one that children can feel. The relationship seems conditional upon everything going perfectly. We are teaching them that there’s no room in a loving relationship for distress or sadness. Moving away from perfection and toward passable parenting allows for the love in your family to be messy and real.
What is good-enough shifts with our environment. What may have been good enough before the pandemic might feel close to impossible now. Parenting now will look different—and it should look different. Not being able to go places with your children, not being able to arrange for them to see friends, not sending them to school—these lead to a completely novel and uncomfortable parenting experience. That isn’t going to change regardless of how guilty you feel. Focusing on what you can control will get you through this, and that means reducing the effort you put towards flawless parenting and letting yourself model how to suffer, be angry, be sad, and be lonely while still loving your family.
Letting go of perfectionism and its unpleasant sidekick guilt can only bring good things. Focus on what’s important right now—identifying ways in which you are being a good-enough parent and finding the satisfaction in that.
Jessica Combs Rohr, Ph.D., is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
The Good-Enough Partner
When your partner is not your romantic ideal.
By Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D.
In romantic love, you often settle for less than your dreamed-about partner. The question is: How much “less” can your partner be and still be a good partner? Telling your partner that he is “good enough” may be insulting. The word enough implies moderation and something that can be tolerated; this is a far cry from the exciting intensity of romance portrayed in Hollywood. Similarly, you cannot tell your partner: “I love you, darling, even though you are a compromise for me.” However, we often feel this way. Having a good-enough partner implies making some compromises that are contrary to romance.
Should we or shouldn’t we, then, seek the good-enough partner?
Enough can be defined as “as much as necessary.” Ideal love, however, seems to be about getting much more than that. In ideal love, enough is not enough, and you can’t get enough of your partner—the better she is, the more you want. Nevertheless, some people are not fortunate enough to have even a good-enough partner—they might have a “just-enough” partner or a “barely enough” partner. Consequently, many people settle for a partner who is no good for them at all.
This becomes more complex, as someone who initially seems barely good enough can end up being the most suitable partner. It is possible that with age and experience, it is somewhat easier to accommodate ourselves to what we have and to be satisfied with it. Confucius said that it was only when he reached age 70 that he “could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”
An acquaintance of mine, who has been married for 30 years, told me: “My husband once said that he rates the quality of our relationship as a seven out of 10. When I first heard this, I was devastated. Today, 10 years later, I am certainly satisfied with our relationship.”
Economist and psychologist Herbert Simon combined the words satisfy and suffice and came up with satisfice, a term used to express an adequate solution rather than one that maximizes utility. A satisficing solution can be the best choice when we take into account the cost of looking for alternatives. In Simon’s view, we would do well to take a realistic approach to seeking optimal solutions, which are not necessarily those that maximize possible gain.
People tend to focus their attention on what others have, rather than on what is valuable for they themselves. For Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, being content is a matter of one’s attitude toward what one has and not toward what others have. A nicer-looking, wealthier woman might not be good for you if her values and attitude don’t jibe with yours.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz distinguishes between people who tend to maximize and those whose tendency is to satisfice. He argues that maximizers are hell-bent on making only the best choices; satisficers seek to make satisfying choices. Applying his view to romance, maximizers are determined to find the “best” romantic partner; satisficers focus on finding the most suitable, or good-enough, partner. Accordingly, maximizers spend more time making comparisons than satisficers do, and maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a romantic “purchase” and to spend time deliberating about hypothetical alternatives. They tend to feel less positive about their decisions than satisficers do.
Psychologist Eli Finkel, of Northwestern University, has argued that there is no shame in pursuing a “good-enough marriage.” We may aim high, but we should have the ability to be satisfied with a less-than-perfect marriage. In short, constant comparison is lethal.
Perhaps your partner isn’t the most perfect one in the world. But when we are content with what we have, the more we are satisfied and the more we tend to be happy with a good-enough partner. We don’t expect Mr. Right to fulfill all our needs, as some of these needs are fulfilled by us, ourselves.
Good relationship compromises include settling for a good-enough relationship, while continuing to improve it. When we think of our partner as good enough, we realize what is most valuable for us. This does not mean that people should not aim to increase the depth of their relationship, but that such improvement will mainly relate to developing the connection with our current, good-enough partner. As in the story of the pot of gold buried in the garden, sometimes the treasure can be found right at home.
Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., the former president of the University of Haifa, is a professor of philosophy.
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