by Kim Vargas, LCSW
The way that we feel about ourselves drives most parts of our existence. It determines who our friends are, the jobs we choose, the way we parent, and the life experiences we allow ourselves to have. And it turns out that it is actually our perception of self, and not factual information about self, that is the real driver of how we feel. In other words, research shows that what we say to ourselves about our actions and accomplishments determines how we feel about those actions and accomplishments.
In 1953, DW Winnicott, a well-known pediatrician and psychoanalyst, posited the theory that there is a “good enough mother”. He explained this type of mother as someone who is consistently meeting the basic needs of her baby, and is providing a loving and nurturing environment. However, he is clear that this mother is far from perfect; she has anger, ambivalence, and exhaustion in addition to the positive engagement with her baby. Thus, if a mother judges herself on being a “perfect” mom, she will constantly feel that she is failing. If, however, she is able to recognize that her parenting is “good enough” for her child to thrive, she can frequently feel successful as a mother.
I work with a lot of new moms, and I absolutely love this concept of the good enough mother. I began to ask myself whether this same thinking might apply to other life issues. It seemed like if people could define what was truly good enough, and then give themselves permission to meet that expectation, there might be much more room for success, leading to an overall increase in self esteem. I started to ask clients to try out the idea of being “good enough” rather than perfect, with respect to their roles as spouse, adult child, employee, friend, and homemaker.
Almost without exception, clients are initially loath to consider the concept of “good enough”. At the outset, people hear this as an invitation to mediocrity and settling for less. I am quick to explain that “good enough” does not mean striving for a substandard level of accomplishment – it means setting realistic expectations of self in any given situation, on any given day, and striving to meet those particular expectations. In addition, “good enough” may change depending on the day or situation. As people try out this notion of “good enough”, they generally find they are sending themselves increasingly positive messages about their actions and behaviors. In other words, their perception of self in a particular situation is positive if they are truly able to meet their own realistic goals. These experiences of perceiving self differently can contribute to a rise in self worth.
There are two tricks to making “good enough” truly good enough. The first is to give yourself actual permission to do something in a different way than you might ordinarily plan to do it. The second is to speak to yourself positively and kindly after the fact, rewarding the accomplishments.
For example, let’s say you’ve made it a goal to exercise 4 times per week. In the upcoming week, you have several projects due at work, and many family commitments. You might decide that “good enough” means that you will only exercise two times, or that you’ll exercise all four times, but for a much shorter than normal amount of time. Either way, “good enough” is different that week than it might be last week or next week. However, exercising two times will only actually be good enough if you tell yourself in advance that it is really okay, and if you give yourself positive feedback for your accomplishment afterwards.
The idea of “good enough” can feel complicated and may take some experimentation to determine what is truly good enough for you in a given situation. But I challenge you – consider giving yourself permission today to be good enough at something, rather than perfect.
Kimberly Vargas, LCSW is a psychotherapist working with adults and teens who want to address self esteem, anger, depression (including postpartum issues), and anxiety. She can be reached at 267-568-7846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.