Probably the BIGGEST struggle I encounter in my practice, whether it is with individuals, couples, or families, is the question of whether or not someone is good enough. At the heart of so, so many problems are questions of: Am I a “good” child? Am I a “good” spouse? Am I a “good” parent? Am I good “enough”? All too often, people fear that they are not.
While I’m not here to judge you as bad or good, I can tell you that there are many common issues that unnecessarily contribute to people feeling “less than.” If you are feeling less than amazing yourself, please take a look to see if any of these apply to you:
1. You Compare Your Skills or Characteristics to Others
We all compare ourselves to others in various ways, but most of the ways we do this are not very helpful. And the more that making comparisons is a habit for you, the more likely you are to not feel as great as you could.
Although at times we might see ourselves as “better than” someone else, those types of comparisons usually stem from feeling inadequate in some way in the first place. Generally, we compare ourselves to those we think are “better than” us. We wish we could have the social skills of Brad, or the brains of Jessica, or the looks of Brittany.
I have this quote from Jen Sincero on my website, and I think it deserves repeating here: “Can you imagine what our world would be like if our biggest heroes succumbed to the perils of comparison? If Marilyn Monroe compared herself to Kate Moss and decided she needed to lose her curves? Or if the guys in Led Zeppelin compared themselves to Mozart?… You are more than enough. Avoid comparison like the plague.”
While it can be beneficial to appreciate and learn from the skills and qualities of others, the world would miss out greatly if people started sacrificing their own uniqueness in order to replicate someone else.
So, when you think about yourself in relation to others, it’s important to recognize the strengths of others and of yourself. Like others, you are unique and have something special to contribute to the world. And like others, what you contribute will be unique, because only you are YOU.
2. You Show More Compassion for Others than For Yourself
Consider another way that you might also compare yourself to others: “I really shouldn’t feel bad about my own situation; just look at how much worse others have things right now.” Of course there is value in having compassion and empathy for others, and in being grateful for what we do have. However, just because someone else is in a bad situation, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be sad for the difficulties you are experiencing too.
A Side Note
Let’s look at what happens when we follow the train of logic that says it’s selfish to be sad about our situations when so many others have it worse. Person A couldn’t feel sad because person B has things worse, Person B couldn’t feel sad for themselves because person C has things worse, and so forth. That means that of all the people on this planet, the only person allowed to feel sad for themselves at any particular moment is the one that has it the absolute worst. Is this a realistic expectation?
Back to the This Main Point
Many people are also taught, through families and cultural experiences, to reject certain feelings because of what those feelings may indicate about the person. Demonstrating sadness, for instance, is sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness, especially for men. Again, is this a realistic expectation? Being a person, living on this planet, means that you will experience sadness. The character of any person does not change based on whether or not those experiences are visible to others.
Bad things and negative emotions do happen to good people. Just because bad things have happened to you does not mean you are a bad person. Likewise, having compassion for yourself does not make you a weak person or a selfish person. The importance of having compassion for others is widely accepted; why wouldn’t we have just as much compassion for ourselves?
3. You Use a Lot of “Should”s and “Shouldn’t”s in Your Vocabulary
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? We all do this at times. If you tend to do this regularly, though, you may be creating some unrealistic standards for yourself that you cannot possibly measure up to all of the time.
The main problem with thoughts that include words like “should” and “must” is that such black-and-white evaluations don’t allow for the variability of most situations, not to mention the variability of individual differences.
Suppose for instance, that you see your friend cheating on a test. What “should” you do? One person might say you should tell the teacher, while another might say that you should confront the person. Yet another person might say that it is none of your business, and another might note that it might not be safe to tell.
To say that someone “should” or “shouldn’t” act a certain way oversimplifies the dynamic factors that we have to consider when making our decisions. Most people are making the best decisions they can based on their current situations and learning experiences. And that is as true for you as it is for anyone else.
4. You were Raised in an Abusive or Overly Permissive Environment
This one may surprise you. Or not.
This is a complicated dynamic, but the short of it is this:
In healthy environments, children are regularly taught that behaviors and actions may be acceptable or unacceptable, but that they, as a person, are always loved and accepted. In unhealthy environments, the separation between behavior and person doesn’t happen and, as a result, the person’s self worth suffers.
When caregivers are verbally or physically abusive, punishments are directed just as much at the child as they are at the behaviors. From this, the child gets the message that the consequences are not so much because of doing bad, but rather because of being bad. As they grow into adulthood, these children often continue to tie their actions to their self worth.
Overly Permissive Environments
Conversely, in overly permissive environments, bad behavior is generally ignored or overlooked, and the child is shielded from any consequences. These children often get the message that they must be superior to others because, essentially, they learn to associate the lack of consequences for their behaviors with their self worth. As they grow older, it is inevitable that they will face consequences for one mistake or another. However, they often struggle with accountability, due to the underlying fear that accepting consequences for negative behaviors would mean admitting to being bad.
While each of these upbringings are strikingly different, the consequences of these dynamics are similar; in both cases children learn to tie their self worth to the consequences of their actions. Whereas in healthy environments, children experience a sense of guilt about actions that had less than desirable outcomes, the children in abusive or overly permissive environments struggle with a sense of shame. Rather than fearing potential outcomes of their actions, they fear failing as a person.
Understandably, people who grow up in these environments can have some pretty perfectionistic or narcissistic tendencies. Although the presentation of these might look quite different, the constant struggle for self worth is the same.
If you are someone who was unfortunate enough to grow up in an abusive or overly permissive environment, please try to consider that people’s actions do not necessarily reflect who they are. People’s actions generally reflect effective or ineffective attempts to get their needs met. Please have compassion for your needs and your efforts to meet them.
5. You are a Perfectionist
Many people aren’t aware of their own perfectionistic tendencies. Often people routinely try to do more, be better, be nicer, etc., so they can feel like they are more ‘worthy,” without even realizing they’re doing so.
As discussed above, this typically follows from learning to tie one’s self-concept to one’s actions. For people who struggle with this (usually because of their upbringing) every action has the potential to impact a person’s self-worth. Let that sink in: every-action-has-the-potential-to-impact-a-person’s-self-worth. Wow. Of course someone with this learned connection is going to do everything possible to make sure their actions are as perfect as possible.
Take note of your reasons for doing things, and the messages you tell yourself in relation to your outcomes. If you find yourself attaching your self-worth to your outcomes, try to make the shift to reflect back on your intentions. Intentions more consistently reflect our values (our core selves) than do outcomes, which are based on a variety of factors.
Putting it All Together
I strongly believe that at the core of so many of our struggles, is an attempt to meet our very real NEED for self-worth. At the bottom of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is the level of physiological needs, which include food, shelter, and water; Abraham Maslow said that we will not strive for other personal needs to be met until these survival needs are resolved. But people will not even fight to survive if they don’t feel worthy of surviving. I believe that this is actually the greatest need of all.
Luckily we seem to be internally set up to fight for this need to be met – you can see it by watching all kinds of defense mechanisms that are not too effective in meeting any other need BUT the need for self worth.
Unfortunately, we have some skewed beliefs that keep us from meeting our need for self worth in easier ways. We believe that some people, due to their characteristics or skills, are somehow better than others, and we believe that we don’t deserve as much compassion as others. We believe that we “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” or “mustn’t” do certain things and we think that one or another decision can practically define us. We believe that our behaviors and their associated outcomes are accurate representations of who we are at our cores, and that if we do not behave in particular ways that we are not “good enough”.