That “I’m Not Good Enough” Feeling and the Compassionate Mindset

I am not good enough: This is a feeling that most of us experience at some point in our lives. Sometimes the feeling is brief and passing. Sometimes, however, we are consistently plagued by the worry that we are not good enough, and this worry causes anxiety, self-loathing, and chronic low self-confidence. The feeling that we are not good enough is an especially painful feeling, and I think it is more prevalent than we might imagine. It is a result of a certain mindset I refer to as the Be More, Do More Mindset, a mindset that I believe is encouraged by certain values in our culture emphasized to the exclusion of other values. The Be More, Do More Mindset actually gets in the way of us doing and being who we are, and this causes great suffering in our lives.

The feeling that we are not good enough probably has a variety of causes which vary from person to person. However, I think there are three values especially prevalent in United States culture that  contribute to the “I’m not good enough” feeling. These are the values of (1) productivity (2) impossible beauty standards and (3) competition. While there is nothing wrong with these values per se [1], they are often emphasized to the exclusion of other values that would encourage love and acceptance of ourselves. I want to examine each of these three values in turn and why they cause us to feel as though we are not good enough.

Image result for Pre raphaelite paintings pictures [2]

Productivity is one of the most praised and promoted values in our culture. While productivity can certainly bring some benefits to our lives, it can also be harmful, especially when productivity is emphasized to the exclusion of other values such as self-care and emotional and spiritual nurturing. For example, while we often hear people praised for how much they accomplish, we rarely hear people praised for taking time to rest and do absolutely nothing to allow their minds and bodies to heal. As another example, we rarely hear people praised for doing less and cutting back on work in order to devote more time to intellectual pursuits, spiritual practices, and quiet reflection. Because there is often an emphasis on productivity to the exclusion of other values, it is easy to feel that we aren’t good enough if we aren’t consistently producing new and better things. However, we need times of rest and spiritual nurture to function well as human beings and will often break down or become ill if we don’t have this time. So, this tension can lead us to feel perpetually as though we are not enough.

In addition to the value of productivity, the media also regularly bombards us with the value of impossible beauty standards. On a daily basis, we are exposed to media images of beautiful bodies, faces, wardrobes, homes, cars, families, and lives. Certainly one reason for the prevalence of these images is that the media entertains us is by creating a fantasy world in which we can explore human potential. Fantasy can be helpful for entertainment and imagination, but if it is consistently promoted as normal as beauty standards often are in the media, it can leave us without tools for navigating our normal lives. Without these tools, we feel as though our normal lives are not enough. Of course, the media also bombards us with impossible beauty standards in order to motivate us to buy products to achieve these standards. Advertising can be especially insidious when it does this because it both promises we will achieve the beautiful life when we purchase a certain product, and it also ensures that will never achieve this life—because there is always something new we could buy to make our lives better. Whether the media’s goal is fantasy entertainment or consumer motivation, we often feel pressure to achieve beauty standards which we can never fully achieve. This certainly cultivates chronic feelings of not being good enough.

Thirdly, I believe that the value of competition in our culture is another cause of our feeling of not being good enough. Competition in some forms can be a helpful influence. However, through our obsession with cutthroat reality shows, elite institutions, high-stakes athletics, beauty contests, billionaires, and bumper sticker slogans like “He who dies with the most toys wins”, we consistently receive the message that the most important person is the winner (or the folks at the top), and that everyone else is unimportant (and probably inferior). Given that most of us will not be the winners or the best at what we do in our lives, the emphasis on competing for the top place inevitably leaves us feeling regularly as though we aren’t good enough.

This over-emphasis on the values of productivity, impossible beauty standards, and competition leads to a mindset I call the Be More, Do More Mindset. When we have this mindset, we continually feel like who we are and what we are doing now is never enough. When we feel this way, it can make it hard for us to try new things, to set new goals, and to accomplish meaningful projects. So, ironically, by making us feel consistently like we aren’t good enough the Be More, Do More Mindset actually prevents us from being and doing things that would make our lives and the world better. I would like to explore two specific reasons why the Be More, Do More Mindset is so harmful. I would also like to explore how we can replace this mindset with the Compassionate Mindset, a mindset that honors who we are in our human condition. This mindset allows us to bring more beauty and excellence into the world in a way that is gentle and authentic.

The first reason that the Be More, Do More mindset is so harmful to us is that it ignores our finitude, and it doesn’t allow for mistakes and failure, realities which are inextricably connected to our human condition I think most of us realize intellectually that human beings aren’t perfect and that we make mistakes. Unfortunately, in practice, we often live as though making mistakes and failing is the most horrible thing we could ever do. Many of us, in fact, live in terror of making mistakes, and we try to control all aspects of our lives to avoid them. It is essential to realize, however, that being a finite human being means that error, mistakes, and failure is a normal part of life, even when we are doing our best to do the right thing. For example, consider the person who helps a friend out of a sincere desire to do good and in doing so accidentally hurts another friend. Or consider the boss who implements a plan to save his company money but because of unforeseen changes in the company structure, the plan actually ends up costing his company a great deal of money, despite his best intentions. Or consider the government official who believes she is enacting good policies but ends up causing great harm to people in the city because she cannot foresee all of the consequences these policies will have on peoples’ lives.[3] On a daily basis, we face the difficulty of making important decisions with a finite understanding. This finite understanding inevitably leads to mistakes and failure, even when we are trying our best, and this is one of the most normal aspects of human existence. But the Be More, Do More mindset allows very little (if any) room for our finitude and expects us to be on top of our game, experts, and flawless at all times. In doing so, it denies our humanity, and this is extremely painful to us because we can’t help but be human.

Another reason that the Be More, Do More Mindset is harmful to us is that this mindset shuts down our unique individuality. While productivity, stringent beauty standards, and competition are helpful values in some contexts, they are not good emphases for a human life. Each of us lives a unique, one-of-a-kind life. No one has ever been us before. No one has ever faced our exact situation with its challenges and limitations. There is no blueprint for living our life. While there are certainly sources we can turn to for advice, no one can tell us exactly how to live. In fact, no one can tell us exactly what productivity, beauty, and excellence looks like for us. When we focus solely on standards that other people have set for us, we are letting somebody else dictate to us what our extremely unique and original life should look like. Rather than focusing on achieving external standards people set for us, we need to focus instead on living our own unique lives well. When we do this, we will naturally accomplish productive things, as well as express beauty and excellence. But, this productivity, beauty, and excellence will flow out of our own authentic uniqueness rather than as a forced response to external demands.

To illustrate the importance of living our own unique lives authentically, I think it is helpful to think of a flower garden. Flower gardens do not need somebody to tell them to be more and do more. Flower gardens need soil, water, and sunshine, and when they have these things, the flowers do their thing, and it is amazing. Flowers are naturally productive, beautiful, and excellent on their own because that is what flowers do. People are the same way. People don’t need to do more and be more. People need support and care, and when they have this they naturally do their thing, which is to express beautiful productivity and excellence according to their unique individuality. So what is this appropriate support and care that allows human beings to do their thing? The Compassionate Mindset is an essential component of it.

The Compassionate Mindset is the exact opposite of the Be More, Do More Mindset. Rather than pushing us to be and do more, the Compassionate Mindset honors where we are at the moment, whether we are suffering or joyful. It recognizes that we are finite and that making mistakes and suffering through those failures is a natural part of life. It also recognizes that we are unique, and it supports us in our individuality. In doing this, the Compassionate Mindset allows us to be a consistent ally and friend to ourselves in all moments of our lives. This creates a safe space where we can work through sadness and suffering and also explore joy and potential. As a result, the Compassionate Mindset naturally encourages us to be and to do more but to do so in a way that is natural, gentle and authentic.

It is important that we practice the Compassionate Mindset with ourselves when we fail and are suffering. It may seem that the Compassionate Mindset encourages us to wallow in our suffering, but this mindset actually allows us to move past our sadness eventually and begin again. It does this by creating a space for us to rest, grieve, gain clarity, and recharge. Here is an example of this. At one point in my life, I was having an especially difficult time at work. In this particular work situation, people had extremely high expectations of me, some of which were misguided, and others of which were indeed appropriate but I had no idea how to meet. I found myself failing regularly. This situation was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t discuss my failure with the people around me because they all seemed to assume that I shouldn’t have the problems I was having. I felt trapped. One day I was talking with a friend at lunch and crying in frustration over my failure.  She took my hand and with tears in her eyes said, “That must have been so hard for you. I can see why it was so overwhelming.” She wasn’t shocked. She didn’t disapprove of me or reject me for my failure. She suffered with me. In that moment, my friend gave me permission to be human, and I relaxed. I also realized that even though what I was going through was hard, it was a normal part of human existence and that I would get through it.

Sometimes we practice the Compassionate Mindset with ourselves merely by internally acknowledging and accepting our pain. Sometimes, though, external actions are helpful for cultivating the Compassionate Mindset. For instance, to practice the Compassionate Mindset, we might say out loud to ourselves (as an affirmation or mantra), “I see your pain, and I honor you in your sadness.” We might place our hands over our heart and say to ourselves, “I love you, I accept you, and I am always here for you.” We may clear our schedule for an afternoon or day and give ourselves time to process difficult things we are going through.

We will certainly experience suffering as we go about our daily lives, but as we fully inhabit our unique experience, we also experience joy, excitement, hope, creative stirrings, and dreams. This is a part of the full human experience. The Compassionate Mindset honors these moments and encourages them to unfold naturally. When we have the Compassionate Mindset, we act like the ideal friend to ourselves. The ideal friend certainly suffers with us when we experience pain, but she also gets excited with us when we are excited. If we have a particular dream or goal, she recognizes this, discusses it with us, and even perhaps supports us in achieving it. We practice a Compassionate Mindset with ourselves in moments of joy when listen to our dreams, goals, and passions and give ourselves time to pursue them. We also practice the Compassionate Mindset when we express faith in ourselves that we can accomplish our dreams and goals, even if we are not exactly sure how we will do it.

As we practice the Compassionate Mindset with ourselves, we allow ourselves to inhabit our lives fully and express our unique individuality. As we do this, we naturally begin to do beautiful and excellent things. In this way, we become much like the flowers mentioned earlier that naturally express their flower-like beauty and excellence. This suggests that your job in life is not to be more or do more. Your job is to be you and to live your human life with all of its successes, failure, uniqueness, grief, and joy. When you do this, you will live your life fully, and that is what makes your life and the world a more beautiful place.

[1] The exception might be the impossible beauty images which do seem to be harmful in themselves.

[2] This painting is titled “Fair Rosamund” and is by John William Waterhouse.

[3] Our finitude can lead to failures in our relationships with others and our work conditions, but it can also lead to failures with ourselves. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we want to do the right thing desperately, but we are caught in destructive cycles or habits, and despite our best efforts, we don’t know how to escape.

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