Voices of Anxiety: I’m Not Enough

Yesterday I took my sons to observe a Parkour class. I had never heard of Parkour until my husband pointed out that Everest has been doing it naturally around our house. I watched a few videos on it and thought, “Why not? Let’s give it a try.” It’s a street art that combines gymnastics, running, and leaping to create a Ninja-like, monkey-esque crazy amazing physical experience. My boys love watching it, are compelled to do it, and so it seemed like it could be a natural fit.

My current parenting motto is, “Go where the yes is.” I know there’s value in pushing even when there’s a “no”, and I do that as well at times, but for the most part I’m interested in supporting the stream of “yes” when I see it flowing in either of my boys. Sometimes it takes me a while to let go of my personal agenda enough to listen to a clear and loud “no”, but I do get there eventually.

For example, I’ve wanted Everest to start taking martial arts for a while. I’ve carried a strong belief that martial arts helps create a stronger inner boundary. For a kid like Everest, who absorbs the world’s pain like a sponge, I’ve longed to find healthy ways for him to strengthen his inner boundary. So we’ve gone from studio to studio all around Boulder trying to find a place that felt like a fit. At the last studio, as the kids were yelling, “Yes, sir!” and the instructor was yelling, “Louder!”, I looked over at Everest to find him slumped under the chair.

In a single moment, I finally got it: For my son, who’s heart breaks if someone steps on an ant, who declared at 5 1/2 that he’s a vegetarian (in a meat-eating family), who tears up at any intimation of any form of violence, martial arts is simply not going to work for him. What have I been thinking? My son is a pacifist to his bones. A system that involves punching, kicking, and pushing is anathema to his soul.

So on we went to the Parkour class today. At first it looked like fun. The kids were smiling and happy as they jumped onto fake buildings and bounced around on the trampoline. Everest was intrigued. But then something switched. The teacher asked the kids to practice pulling themselves up onto a stack of mats. The kids took turns struggling and everyone was able to make it to the top. It was clearly hard work, but the kids seemed satisfied in their efforts. The teacher had them do it again, and this time, after the biggest boy in the class achieved it “correctly”, the teacher stopped the class and said, “Everyone, listen up! Aaron just did a Level 3.”

After that, the entire tone of the class shifted. The kids, who just moments ago were practicing for the pure joy of learning something new, were now hell-bent on achieving the sought-after Level 3. “Did I do it? Did I do it?” one kid asked repeatedly. “No, that was Level 2,” the teacher repeatedly responded. “I already did Level 3,” another kid said. “No, you didn’t,” said another. And so the competition began.

From that exact moment on, Everest tuned out. He’s not interested in doing things better than anyone else. Part of this is his temperament and part of it, I believe, is that, being home schooled, he’s buffered from the competitive, achievement-oriented environment that most schools foster. He learns because he’s passionate about learning, not to attract positive attention from the teacher. He creates because he’s creative, not to receive a good grade. He knows he’s smart, but it’s not something he lords over others or attaches his self-worth onto. It’s just part of who he is, like being kind and caring and compassionate. He’s loved because we love him. We don’t love him because he’s smart or inventive or creative. We love him because we love him and that’s just the way it is.

You’re probably wondering what the title of this blog has to do with what I’ve written so far. Here it is: For most of my clients, the number one negative voice that keeps them in a near-perpetual state of self-loathing and anxiety is: I’m not enough. I’m not good enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not smart enough. If I were enough, I would be happy. If I were enough, I would be loved.

Where does this come from? For some people, it comes from an overt message from their parents who directly communicated that they were only enough if they received good grades, picked the right friends and later girlfriends/boyfriends, the right job, the right house, the right life. But for the vast majority of people, it comes from a covert cultural message that says: “Your self-worth is dependent on what you do, not on who you are.” We live in a doing culture, not a being culture. Our educational model says, “If you get good grades, you’re worthy. If you do what the teacher says, you’re a good student.” And we grow up to absorb a cultural message that says, “If you look right and act right and make enough money and achieve enough, you’re worthy. Otherwise, you have no value.” It’s all about the externals.

And so we grow up believing we’re not enough. We grow up having no idea that we were born enough. We think being enough is something you have to work at. We chase after the “Good job!” then the gold star and then the A and then the accolades and raises without any awareness about the intrinsic joy of learning and working. We become so externally referenced, in fact, that we completely forget what it means to enjoy something for the sake of the act itself, without receiving praise for our efforts.

And then, usually at a transitional breaking point like graduating from college, getting married, or becoming a parent, the question of self-worth comes searing to the surface. The college graduate wonders, “Who am I if I’m not a student working to receive good grades?” The engaged person frets, “Am I worthy of love just for who I am? If my marriage fails, does that mean that I’m a failure?” (It’s at this point that the perfectionist, a painfully familiar character to all of my clients, rears is head because the perfectionist attaches its self-worth entirely to externals.) And the new mother can sink into a black hole of despair as all of her familiar structures of work, exercise, and the non-mother identity fall away and she’s left face-to-face with the core essence of her being, wondering who she is if she’s not achieving in the world. It’s at these points that people realize, much to their own shock, that they have no idea who they are separate from their externals.

We may think we’re inspiring and encouraging kids to achieve their potential when we say things like, “Good job!” and “Go for the gold,” but most times all we’re doing is creating a system of self-love based on an external achievement. Like the moment in the Parkour class, it only takes a subtle shift to transmit the message of, “It’s not enough to put in strong effort for the intrinsic joy of learning and the authentic satisfaction of working hard for its own sake; you must go for the Level 3 (or the A or the raise) in order to do really well.”

It takes most people a long time to turn this conditioning on its head and start to redefine their worth based on their intrinsic goodness and core qualities. For many people, what is required is no less than a spiritual infusion, a grace-given moment of getting, deep in the core of their being, that they were born irrevocably and inarguably good and worthy. For others, it’s a daily practice of replacing the negative beliefs about self-worth with the truth. It’s not easy to excavate years of false messaging, but not only is it possible, it’s necessary. Our well-being, our genuine knowledge of self-love, depends on it. And without that, all of the externals – the job, the house, the marriage, the kids – are incapable of bringing us the happiness and fulfillment that we all long for.

14 comments to Voices of Anxiety: I’m Not Enough

  • Bettina

    Sheryl, I LOVE that. Thank you so much. Your little boy seems to be very wise and intuitive. what a luck he has parents who give him the room for it and honour it.
    Thank you for this post!
    Bettina

  • Leisha

    Thank you as always for sharing your wisdom! Oddly,
    I was part of a discussion on this very topic just last night! I definitely believe in the journey, but admittedly enjoy the recognition when I have achieved something I have worked hard at, although that’s not why I do things in the first place. Hmmm, so many thoughts on this matter for so many different facets of
    life.

    • It’s wonderful to receive recognition for your achievements. The problem arises when your self-worth is linked to receiving the recognition instead of connected to your intrinsic worthiness. It sounds like your motivation to achieve is arising from a natural and authentic place inside of you!

  • Emily

    I just want to say thank you for this article. It was a blessing to me. Sometimes we need someone like you to remind us of our worthiness. Thifhelimbilu

  • alysonk

    Love this. Grace is key! We need to stop being so hard on others and on ourselves. It’s an endless cycle.

    Sheryl, your wisdom is inspiring and so helpful. Thank you for these posts!

  • Katie Abalos

    Thank you Sheryl for your wonderful post, it made my day reminding me of something that’s usually forgotten! 🙂

  • Thanks for this post, Sheryl! I can relate to the feeling of now what after graduation and marriage. Learning that I am worthy just as I am is a growing theme in my life lately. Thanks for this!

  • Sopotito

    Thank you for these wise words. I hope I could learn how to put them into practice in my life.

    You descibe very accurately the situation in which I find myself at the moment, not having any idea who I am separate from my externals after graduation, in my thirties (after the official “identity searching” years should already be over), having entered a serious relationship which is getting more serious all the time… I realize I have been concerned just about “what I do” and have no clue whatsoever about “what I am”. And it’s also been very much about “what I should or have to do” and not about “what I want to do or feel like doing”.

    I’ve lost track of who I am so completely I don’t even know where to start looking. I’ve been to a counselor all these years but could never really connect with her. As I felt it did not help me at all I stopped going there about two years ago. Now I’m on my own, endlessly questioning everything I’ve done so far and everything I do or plan doing next, which doesn’t help me at all to find out who I really am, instead it just makes me more anxious.

    I hope I had someone around like your son has you, someone who understands and supports. Still I feel lucky that I’ve found your blog and your writings, which give me comfort and new ideas. Thank you.

    • I’m so glad you found your way here. Most people grow up and have no idea who they are because their core essence was never reflected back to them. While it’s important to grieve this lack of reflection and guidance, the good news is that it’s entirely possible to discover who you are and learn how to make decisions when you develop the Loving Adult that you never had as a child. This is what I teach in my counseling practice through Inner Bonding, and if you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to head over to innerbonding.com to check out this powerful and highly effective self-healing process.

  • Sopotito

    Thank you very much for your reply. Fortunately I’ve found my way to the innerbonding.com website through your blog and am slowly trying to start working on this.

    Reading your blog and the articles in the innerbonding.com website have been a great start, thank you. Unfrotunately there’s so much more going on in life all the time, that it’s difficult to find the time to dig deep in these issues, but I’m struggling because I know I really need to work on this.

  • I know that life is busy, but saying “I don’t have time to connect inward” is like saying to a young child, “I know you need me, but I will only carve out time when it’s convenient.” Life doesn’t work that way, and if you think of your Inner Child like an actual child, it may inspire you to make more time for her even when life takes over!

  • Liz

    I’ve just discovered your website this morning, & am extremely grateful for your writings Sheryl.
    I’m 66, & have for most of my life believed I wasn’t good enough – thanks to a control-freak mother who constantly told me I wasn’t! I now know I’ve also always been depressed – you can see the scowl on my face in all my own baby photos!!!! Can you believe that?
    Finding my inner self is becoming vital to me, the older I get, so I’m searching & searching, & slowly “finding,” thanks to people like you Sheryl!
    I’ve had the “I don’t have time” attitude for years, re all sorts of situations, but I’m starting to realise that my “not having time” actually translates to “I’m not worthy of being a “good” person!!!”
    As I’ve wanted to pay more attention to my search, I’ve worked out that for me to be successful, I now go to bed at 8-8.30 p.m., so that I’ll wake up really early, as that’s the very best time of the day for my brain to be free & very absorbent of what I’m reading. And when I find an article like this one, as well as absorbing it well right now, I also put it in my “Mental Poison” folder to be referred to in the future (& yes, I’m getting closer to changing the Mental Poison title!).
    I hope Sopotito can also find, & then utilise, her best “me” time, for this reason.
    I very much regret not finding my answers years ago. Until now I’ve felt controlled, in every way, and I’ve really wasted many opportunities, many years in wrong relationships, not becoming the person I’ve actually deep-down known was a very worth-while one (but I suspect I didn’t want to appear to be worthwhile in front of my family, can you believe????)
    But thankyou again Sheryl, keep up your great work.
    Love,
    Liz

    • Thank you, Liz. I’m so glad that my words have helped you find that soft place of self-love inside and are encouraging you to continue on your journey of healing. It’s never too last to heal!