Am I Good Enough Yet?

When I was teaching secondary school students, if I asked a class, “how often do you torture yourself by thinking ‘I’m not good enough’?” Students would laugh, smile with both embarrassment and familiarity, and then most would raise their hands in recognition. It was a good question to break open a group. But why is that?

 

Psychology gives us many reasons. We carry at least some degree of our past in our present. If people have said or done negative things to us often enough, we become conditioned to carry the hurt. If our parents and families have been dysfunctional, we can carry dysfunctional habits, guilt or blame. We hear other people in our heads—parents, friends, lovers, teachers, sometimes even strangers we meet on the street.

 

Evolutionary psychologists say we are born with a predisposition to look for faults. It is called a negativity bias. We are sensitized to look for any form of a threat as a way to actually protect ourselves from them. But this can lead to imagining we can ward off an attack by attacking ourselves first.

 

Our economic system teaches us to think of ourselves as our resume, as a list of achievements with a title above it, and as a marketable entity. Only those with a good resume are valuable—and we gain value by comparing ourselves to others and appearing better than them. So we think of ourselves as a continuing entity, as an independent being separate, distinct, and in competition with others.

 

But there’s even more going on here. Our mind plays a curious game with our sense of self. We see ourselves one minute as we imagine someone else might see us. And in the next minute, we see ourselves as this subjective, conscious experience. When we look at other people, they often seem consistent and stable in identity. From the outside, other people can appear as clearly defined, distinguishable, separate beings. They have the same basic face and figure, with a recognizable personality, tone of voice, and gestures. They, and we, respond to a name, a label.

 

But when we look at our selves, it is not so clear. We know we have different moods and emotions and that our thoughts about the world and ourselves can change rapidly. We know that we sometimes don’t know what to do and we can feel completely adrift. We know that when people ask us “How are you?” and we say, “I’m good,” that the reality is much more complicated and indefinable.

 

So we want to know how others think of us. We try to imagine how we look, how we seem to others. We expect our whole being to be as relatively unchanging to ourselves as other people usually look to us. We think we should be as clear on the inside as we imagine we are on the outside. As the Buddha and other thinkers have pointed out, we expect something from ourselves or from our notion of self that it can’t deliver, namely surety. This expectation masks who we are and makes us vulnerable to feeling something is wrong in ourselves, when nothing is wrong except the expectation. The view from the inside is obviously different from that of the outside. On the inside, it has to be at least somewhat mysterious, unknown, or we would always try to reproduce on the inside what has already been produced outside. To be alive and conscious is to face the unknown. To know what will happen is to mean it already happened.

 

Being conscious is a mystery, maybe the biggest mystery there is. ‘Con’ means ‘with.’ ‘Scio’ is from ‘sci’ or the Latin ‘scire’ meaning ‘to know,’ as in the word ‘science.’ ‘Conscious’ is thus ‘to know with.’ It is both an instance of knowing, and a knowing awareness knowing something. The philosopher J. P. Sartre said consciousness is always consciousness of something. Sartre makes the distinction between being-in-itself, being as an object, material, in a specific place and time, and being-for-itself, a constantly changing stream of awareness constantly new, as a relating or point of view.

 

And since to ourselves we are always partly unknown and indistinct, we try to do the impossible and fill the unknown with the already known, or fill the unknown with what we think others think. This is another reason why we might be so ready to judge ourselves negatively. It is easier to accept a negative image of ourselves than to live with no clear identity at all.

 

We are always both a whole, distinguishable being in ourselves, as well as a part in an inseparable, larger whole. It is the role of our senses to make us aware of the world, to show us the whole of which we are part. Yet, our sense of who we are shifts according to where we are and whom we are with. We rarely speak baby talk to an adult or sit unmoved when everyone around us is shouting. When we feel isolated, there is someone or something we feel isolated from. No other, no self.

 

We are constantly trying to place ourselves both in the position of the other and of our distinct self. We need at least these two contrasting viewpoints to allow the world to come alive. In order to speak sincerely and clearly, we need to hear and feel what is going on inside us, as well as understand how others feel—and hear and see us. At the deepest level, we feel most ourselves when we can be sincere. Yet, we feel most sincere when words come seemingly of themselves, spontaneously, unedited by ego concerns. In other words, we feel most ourselves when we aren’t concerned or worried about our self.

 

So, when we feel somehow not good enough, the first thing to examine is our understanding of what we mean by a self. Our sense of self is adaptable and ever changing. It allows us to harmonize with others and act appropriately in any situation we are in, to the degree that we recognize and value its shifting nature. We feel most ourselves, and feel good about ourselves, when its not “me” who speaks, but the world, the truth of the situation, the truth of “me” with “you.” And this is a verifiable type of truth.

Joy

Joy—What is it? Such a short and simple word. Sit quietly for a moment and let a moment of joy come to you. Maybe it will be a memory from the past. Maybe just a touch of the emotion itself will fill your heart. What do you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening? You might feel you’ve discovered a secret and want to share it. Your hands might want to rise up, your body want to dance, your face smile, as if you were embracing the world, and your self.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails before, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends or family came to visit. Or snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. A burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the borders. Love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with joy and love? Because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can do this, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

When afraid, what do you do? Fear is a turning away from a threat or the possibility of pain, of hurt. It can be running away from others, from life, or a walling off, a way of hiding. It is the flight-freeze response. When afraid, you want safety and control. One way you gain a sense of safety is by rigidly controlling the moments of your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. Fear is of the unknown or what might happen to the known.

 

You can do the same with your mind, filling it with thoughts and worries. Worries can seem like little magical mental devices you use to ward off what you worry about or fear. You deep down think “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, to ward off the possibly dangerous and unknown with the safe and known, or with what you have already lived through. You use these worries and thoughts even though they might not be fun, because you’re focused on safety first, not joy.

 

The problem is you can go too far and create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you might wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.

 

You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take some chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, as much as you can at the time, and even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.