What Lies Beneath “I’m not good enough”

It’s that familiar thought, feeling, and gut wrenching experience. That “I’m not good enough” experience. It’s when a teacher humiliates you in front of the whole class. When every one else makes progress and you aren’t. When you feel criticized, isolated, unimportant, and flawed.

Some people call this shame. Some call it “bullshit.” I call it a keyword. You see, being a licensed counselor in private practice, this phrase comes up with at least one client every week. It’s a phrase I listen for and, once I hear it, I go “down the rabbit whole” as I like to call it. The door opens for me to explore what is contributing to the persons presenting circumstance. The door that helps me better understand the history of the person and how it contributes to their present circumstance.

So, what lies behind “I’m not good enough?” That answer tends to change depending on the person. For some, the answer may be as simple as fear. Fear of feeling inadequate, isolated, unimportant, and flawed. Fear of a certain consequence happening, such as not receiving a job promotion. These situations can likely be solved simply by bringing into the persons awareness expectations. I may ask “whose expectation is this?” Frequently, the person will respond with “my mom’s” or another person in their life. Once they identify who they expectation is from, further exploration of the situation can commence. If the expectation comes from a family member, I would want to know what the surrounding family dynamics are. Is your mom pushy or aggressive, are there healthy boundaries, etc? If the person is the boss, I would want to know what the dynamics of the organization are. Is there healthy values such as openness, honesty, support, positivity, and seeing weakness as a chance for growth, What is the expectation and where are you struggling? This can be what lies behind situational stressors that bring about “I’m not good enough.” However, this simple, situational stressor tends to be the exception.

For most of the individuals who present in my office with chronic and generalized “I’m not good enough” feelings, there is a pervasive issue where they have this belief about themselves that comes up at least every so often and stems from a variety of situations. Sometimes, the situation can be recurrent, such as a critical parent. Other times, the situation changes, but the resulting feelings are the same. For these individuals, the presenting issue is both the current situation and past experiences. To better illustrate this, I invite you to follow me down the rabbit hole.

Picture this: a person who experiences significant adverse experiences growing up. They experience physical and emotional abuse, along with neglect in the first few critical years of life. The parents lose custody of the child. The child goes to a family that is more stable–they have family, friends, and jobs. But, their new family is overly critical–operating under the belief that “tough love is best.” They are not aware that “tough love” typically does not work–especially for traumatized children. They continue to criticize the child over many things–grades, behaviors, and mistakes. Not knowing that child has already internalized a belief that they lost their parents, their home, and their happiness and stability because they were not good enough. Not knowing that the child, without the ability to understand what contributes to adults negative behaviors, believe that if they were a better child, if they were perfect, their parents would have wanted them. This criticism is further confirmation they are not good enough.

So, what does the child do as they age? At best, they seek out feeling good enough through outside resources–meaning people and things outside of themselves. They over achieve, they hop from relationship to relationship, they become ultra-independent. At worst, they try to numb these painful feelings through food, alcohol, drugs, or other “over achieving” behaviors such as exercising and being a workaholic. This is a temporary solution. It makes the person feel better for a short time, but when the relationship ends or there are problems in the other area, the “not good enough” feelings come back.

Typically, these clients present in counseling when the problems become unavoidable for them. They get tired of the “not good enough” feelings haunting them. They have DWI charges. They have addiction. They are on their fourth divorce. This is when I get the privilege to intervene. I say privilege, because working with clients on these types of long term, childhood issues is a passion of mine. I get the opportunity to not only help them truly heal and move forward in their life, but to understand that their experiences is not a reflection of their worthiness.

So, all this to say, I believe that “not good enough” feelings stems from an impactful, often traumatic, experience in childhood, adolescence, or early adult time period. The best way to work through this is with a licensed mental health professional. While it may be tempting to dive in to work on it yourself, working with a history of trauma, or other impactful experiences, can be painful and complicated. Working through it with a professional, who knows how to assess the situation, knows what treatment models are out there, and knows the least harmful way to go about your situation is best.

Healing is possible.

If you happen to live within Texas and would like a professional to help you through this process, feel free to reach out to me! I provide in person counseling in my city and telehealth to anyone within Texas (even if you are just visiting).

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