The Best vs. Good Enough

Perfection does not exist, but being good enough does. Perfectionism is a manifestation of anxiety.

"If I’m perfect I can prevent bad things from happening to me”. It's control in disguise. The mind knows this is completely unrealistic (because life happens no matter how perfect we try to be) and the body knows it’s completely exhausting. Therefore, embracing the idea of perfectly imperfect and learning to trust that it’s enough would be a good idea.

Being good enough means that you did what you could with what you had. For example, taking an exam with the knowledge that you have accumulated from going to class and/or taking notes and studying. You might not know everything, but you did what you could with the experience that you had and with the energy that you had at the time. Being good enough doesn’t make you arrogant, it makes you motivated. When you can acknowledge what you did right, and not only what you did wrong, you will want to continue. When we only look at where we were rejected, our mistakes or failures, we want to quit. We want to quit because we feel like we can’t do it or we can’t handle it. Just because you weren’t perfect, doesn’t mean that you failed. People might not feel like they are good enough because, as a child, they were neglected, teased, bullied or abused. Adults might have found themselves in toxic relationships only to realise that their self-worth has dropped with devaluing and shaming.

Overcoming past negative experiences can take effort. It can be challenging to allow yourself the space to feel what you need to feel and to express what you need to communicate. Perhaps you were made to feel that you don’t count and that you don’t matter. This kind of emotional pain can lead to an emptiness that leads to harming behaviours. The thought that you don’t matter or that you are not good enough means that you might not even take your own thoughts and needs seriously. If you don’t take your needs seriously, how can you put them forward to others? How can you seek help if you don’t feel that you deserve it? You might not be where you want to be in your life, but you are capable. You can set manageable goals and reach them. You can handle it, you count, and you matter. We can’t be everything to everyone, and we can’t be successful in everything. We can, however, be successful when we set goals, overcome rejection, understand that we will get there when we get there.

These painful experiences can be processed and worked through. Spend a little time reflecting and perhaps noting down your thoughts and feelings to the following questions:

1. What are the negative things that you believe about yourself, and where have you heard them before?

2. If it isn’t something that anyone has said to you, is it coming from social comparison?

3. How do these negative beliefs about yourself hurt you or prevent you from finding meaning in yourself, in others and in life?

4. If you feel like you aren’t enough, how will you connect with yourself and with others?

One way of undercutting our more reckless ideals and perfectionism was pioneered by a British psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott specialised in relationships between parents and children. In his clinical practice, he often met with parents who felt like failures: perhaps because their children hadn’t got into the best schools, or because there were sometimes arguments around the dinner table or the house wasn’t always completely tidy.

Winnicott’s crucial insight was that the parents’ agony was coming from a particular place: excessive hope. Their despair was a consequences of a cruel and counterproductive perfectionism. So as to help them reduce this, Winnicott developed a phrase: what he called ‘the good enough parent’. No child, he insisted, needs an ideal parent. They just need an OK, pretty decent, usually well intentioned, sometimes grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother. Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second-best, but because he knew the toll exacted by perfectionism – and realised than in order to remain more or less sane (which is a very big ambition already) we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway. The concept of ‘good enough’ was invented as an escape from dangerous ideals. It began in relation to parenthood, but it can be applied across life more generally, especially around work and love.

A relationship may be ‘good enough’ even while it has its challenging moments. It can be good enough. Similarly, a ‘good enough’ job will be very boring at points, it won’t perfectly utilise all our merits; we won’t earn a fortune. But we may make some real friends, have times of genuine excitement and finish many days tired but with a sense of true accomplishment. The concept of “the best” deprives us of many pleasurable moments in life. Maybe you long to be the best at your job, or to be the best parent, child, student, or teacher. Maybe you want to find the best job in your field, or to be the best possible partner, or to top your personal best at a sport or athletic activity. It is not always easy to accept, but the truth is that there will always be someone else who is better than we are; and if they are not better yet, they will be sometime in the future. There will always be a better moment, a better view, a better taste, a better job. The other side of that coin is that there will always be someone who is not as good as we are, or a moment, view, taste or job that is less wonderful. So why not try to notice and enjoy the “good enough” instead of demanding that it be the best?

There is tremendous pleasure to be attained from learning more and getting better. Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler believed that striving to overcome a difficult situation or experience is what helps us to experience not only success but also a feeling of competence. Without such feelings, we cannot truly trust ourselves. If we do not enjoy the process of getting better, we will not have the capacity to enjoy the “best,” if it ever should come. Always demanding the best is not so different from demanding perfection, which is not, as we know, humanly possible. As long as that is what we are looking for, we will never be satisfied with what we have; and that leaves us, often, doing without something, or feeling dissatisfied with what we already have.

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© 2020 by Rozie Pilkington

London Borough of Bromley