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Redefining “Good Enough”

A shift away from perfectionism and toward authenticity.

Perfectionism is a personality trait exemplified by immaculate personal standards and an overarching need to be (or seem) perfect: just right, flawless. If you identify as a perfectionist, you may already have a sense that this trait can come at the bitter cost of an unnecessarily punitive inner critic, a lack of openness to new and vulnerable experiences, and a pervasive feeling of stuckness.

Perfectionism is what makes the medical school resident expect herself to be as proficient as her attending physician. It is the thing that makes someone pour a lot of unnecessary time and energy into insignificant tasks while their relationships suffer, and the thing that prevents someone from getting started on the big project, from trying the new exciting hobby, or from speaking up about something they really care about for fear of getting the words wrong.

The pressure of perfectionism can be suffocating. But what if perfect is not actually the point?

D.W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, was instrumental in shaping how contemporary psychotherapists think about human relationships, child development, and parenting. One of his most pivotal contributions is the notion of the “good enough mother”—the kind of caregiver that a child needs in order to feel safe, develop an authentic sense of self, form healthy relationships, and tolerate life’s commonplace disappointments.

Especially in the beginning, the infant is entirely dependent on someone else for absolutely everything. And this other person—a parent or other kind of caregiver—needs to adapt to meet the infant’s needs. But the crucial thing here is that if the caregiver is too attuned too often, too perfect, then the child never learns to cope with the limits of external reality. And this is why the good enough mother is only supposed to be good enough. Real people and things are not perfect. Perfection is a thing of dreams and fantasies—an illusion.

When I was in graduate school, my fellow cohort mates and I were quick to weave the new concepts we were learning into conversation, sometimes in silly and creative ways. (So many phallic cigar jokes after those Freud lectures…) After we were introduced to Winnicott’s thinking, it became clear that the “good enough” philosophy has applications beyond the parent-infant relationship. In our fast-paced program, we talked about writing the "good enough paper." At our clinical placements, we hoped we would have a "good enough supervisor" to support us. Sitting across from patients for the very first time after a mere ten weeks of instruction, with so much more left to learn, we hoped we could be "good enough therapists" for the people who were trusting us with their pain.

Being imperfect is very human while striving toward perfection only takes us further away from what is authentic, true, and real. Unfortunately, our cultural context is not doing us any favors in this department. That feeling of not being ________ enough (successful, rich, intelligent, young, beautiful, thin—you name it) is so rampant in our capitalist culture, which privileges productivity, competition, constant progress, and quick fixes for complex problems. The pressure for perfection is so high that there is not always room for what Winnicott called "going on being," simply existing and living an authentic life.

We have to create our own room. We can reclaim “good enough” and give ourselves permission to be a little more human: to show up exactly as we are and let that be enough. At this point, you may be thinking something along the lines of, "Easier said than done," or "Okay, but what does that actually look like?" It means setting boundaries and saying no. It means letting yourself take that nap, or that mental health day—blanket permission to rest while viewing rest as wholly valid in and of itself, as opposed to as time stolen away from all of the shoulds and have-tos.

The process of carving out space for our authentic selves can be a difficult and scary one. For some, seeking out some good enough therapy can be a worthwhile step toward loosening the grip of perfectionism.

Suggestions for Further Reading

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