When the Best You Can Be is Not Good Enough
And how to break the cycle
Posted Oct 28, 2015
There are certain essential factors that nurture healthy growth and development within a child: a feeling of safety and protection, a genuine sense of warmth and caring from parents and significant caregivers, an appreciation of the child as a unique individual, and a real commitment to encourage and support that child’s developing potential. If the way a child perceives him/herself is based on the notion of “real self,” then the child’s ability to explore and live up to his/her full potential can be realized.
However, if these basic factors are lacking, the child may develop certain defenses that are recruited to compensate for the anxiety produced by feeling unsafe, unappreciated, and unloved. In other words, alienation from the “real self” may prevent the child from knowing and expressing his/her own authentic feelings.
Self-realization is the healthy desired goal. A less healthy alternative exists when identity is dictated by self-idealization, when the idealized self tries to compensate for a sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem. As psychoanalyst Karen Horney puts it, self-idealization inevitably manifests in the search for glory where the individual creates a persona for him/herself that exemplifies all that is right and perfect; this in spite of the fact that the individual unconsciously feels that he/she is flawed, deficient, and imperfect; in other words, “not good enough.” So the individual may try to live up to an ideal that may have nothing to do with who they really are.
So where do these internalized messages about “not being good enough” come from? Well, early programming/conditioning covers a lot of that territory. Expectations that are placed on a child by parents is another likely candidate. A child’s behavior is often driven by the messaging of significant others about what is expected. There are even times when this directive from a significant other is non-verbal; there’s a tacit understanding that this is just the way things should be—this is what is expected and nothing less.
The most important goal for very young children is to be loved and cared for by their parents and other significant caregivers. The way children see it, their life depends upon it. Children have no way to compare what they see and experience within their own home with another’s experience of what it means to be in a family. Children don’t understand much about why people are the way they are, why they behave the way they do, until much later when they’ve had a chance to have some outside life experiences and can make comparisons.
The disappointment of not feeling good enough is something we will all experience at some point in our lives. There will just be times when we’re doing the best we can but it’s just not enough to get us to where we want to be or think we should be. But generally, feeling that way about ourselves doesn’t last, especially if our caretakers have mostly encouraged our self-realization, and whose expectations of us and for us remain within reasonable limits.
Compare that to trying to gain love, affection, and approval in families where there is a fair degree of dysfunction (abuse, violence, addiction, or narcissicism). Children probably won’t understand that dysfunctional adults often don’t take responsibility for their own behavior, or for the effect their behavior will have upon their children.
As a result, children may unconsciously attempt to “fix” the problems of the adults around them in order to “correct” the dysfunction. To a child’s way of thinking, if they are “the best they can be” won’t that make everyone happy? And if everyone is happy won’t that make the adults want to love and care for that child. But fixing adult problems is not a child’s job, and it's a futile and impossible task at that. And ultimately, a child may read this failure to fix the problem as an indication — as proof — that they really aren’t good enough because the problem still exists and they can never fix it.
Another category of dysfunction exists and is the subject of my latest book, co-authored by Rita Battat Silverman, Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script (now available on Kindle and in paperback in December 2015). If parents remain invested emotionally and psychologically in a deceased child, the hopes and expectations for that child may be transferred to the “replacement” child who may be, or feel, coerced to fill the shoes of the deceased sibling. The replacement child often responds to the enormous demands placed upon them with the constant need to be the best they can be, which is usually generated, fostered, and often tacitly demanded, from outside sources, namely parents.
But it doesn’t stop there. Often there are unrealistic and idealistic comparisons to the deceased that a replacement child can never adequately fill. Interestingly, the idealization of the deceased child is a fantasy brought to life by bereaved parents, while the idealized self of the replacement child is a response to the fantasy of the ‘larger than life’ deceased sibling. The striving for perfection is a way of competing with the idealized deceased. Replacement children may be frequently reminded that they can’t match up to the excellence of the deceased and that they never will. And even if they could excel in reality, their efforts would still be seen as lacking and inferior.
For some replacement children the need to be the best they can be, and not just good enough, finds its expression in the desire and goal to make up for their parent’s devastating loss. Many replacement children believe that it’s up to them to achieve and to excel, to be the best at whatever they do, so that their parents will have a reason to feel life is worth living; in essence, they create a role for themselves within the family—to be the savior of their parents. Sometimes a replacement child will even do double duty, taking it upon themselves to achieve not only for themselves but for their deceased (or incapacitated) sibling as well.
The fact is that while there is unresolved parental grief, the replacement child cannot be seen for who they are outside of the parent’s fantasy of what they should be. What follows for many replacement children is an erosion of self-esteem and confidence, at times accompanied by anxiety and depression. And yet, the need to overachieve, to handle everything and every situation in perfect order, and to be “the best,” may continue.
The goal for anyone caught in the dilemma of “not being good enough” is the movement away from the idealized self-image and the self-hatred it generates. The goal is to relinquish the need to control life through always striving to be the best, to give up being “the good one” all of the time, to stop pleasing others at the expense of one’s own true feelings, and to stop trying to “save” the family from past and future pain.
So what can you do to stop the self-sabotage of “not being good enough?”
Recognize that you are not your conditioning. You have a choice. You can continue to buy into the early conditioning and suffer over and over, or you can question what you’ve been taught and programmed to believe, especially if it brings you ongoing unhappiness and offers nothing for your self-realization.
Question the validity of the expectations that have been placed upon you. Is the expectation realistic, practical; does the expectation make sense to you; does it match who you are; is it within the scope of what you can and want to do? Because someone creates an expectation for you doesn’t mean it’s correct.
Because you think or believe you aren’t good enough doesn’t mean that you aren’t good enough just as you are. That’s just what others may think or believe, and want you to believe that, too. To counter that negative thought, create an inventory of the things you are and areas in which you excel, do well, or at least, are good enough. You can ask yourself why those positive aspects of yourself haven’t been recognized and acknowledged by significant others.
Practice not “feeding” your negative thoughts and feelings. If you refuse to add fuel to the fire they’ll eventually die down and burn out. It’s by the constant feeding and ruminating that we make ourselves suffer.
Recognize and unload the burden you’ve been carrying for your family (one person or all). It’s their baggage, not yours. Golden Rule: Don’t do for others what they won’t do for themselves.
In any moment, do your best. No one else can or should question the intention you set for yourself. When you begin to define what is important to you personally you move away from pre-conceived ideas about who you are which have been created and fostered by others, and you begin to create the person you want to be.