In his article “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” Psychologist Barry Schwartz notes that “maximizers,” or people who insist on “finding the very best” when making a decision, whether it be about attending college or buying a laptop, are more likely to be dis-satisfied with their lives and at a greater risk of clinical depression than those who settle for “good enough” when making these decisions. This principle of optimization, which the dictionary defines as “being as fully perfect, functional or effective as possible” thrives in an atmosphere of consumerism and discontent driven by our insecurity that we will ever do enough, have enough or be enough to satisfy the critics, both internal and external.
The curse of perfectionism may be learned from overly critical parents, teachers, coaches or other caregiving and authority figures who failed to validate effort and only focused on results. It is further reinforced by a billion dollar advertising industry geared at exploiting our shame and insecurity about our appearance, abilities and accomplishments with the message that we will never achieve success without whatever product or program they are peddling. Sadly, we may also learn in Sunday School or church that God, being perfect, expects perfection from His followers as well, causing our religion to become another source of pressure rather than relief.The voices that tell us we are not enough are usually rooted in our most basic fears: that if we make a mistake, we are bad, and our need for love and acceptance will never be met. We take a perceived failure from the category of behavior and turn it into identity. The self talk goes something like this: I did something bad, so I must BE bad, or I made a mistake, so I AM a mistake. The shaming, scolding voices of significant adults, siblings, and/or peers in our childhood become internalized as constant critics waiting for an opportunity to point out all the ways we could done better. Feeling not good enough can lead some to over-achieving, and others to the flip side of the coin of perfectionism: procrastination. If a result has to be perfect, it feels too daunting to even start working on it.
How do we even define “good enough?” D.W. Winnicott, in an attempt to defend parents from what he saw as a growing intrusion into “ordinary parenting” of idealized standards created by the professional field of psychology, coined the term “good enough mother,” which he defined as mothers (or parents) who loved and cared for their children adequately without attempting to shield them from the inevitable disappointments of life. In his view, attempting to be a perfect parent created a “fantasy bond’ between the child and parent that eventually would collapse under the idealized expectations of being perfectly loved. This pursuit of perfection left the child completely unprepared to enter an imperfect world and the disillusionment he felt everyone must go through in order to successfully navigate the challenges of adolescence and adulthood. He states, “The good enough mother . . .attends to her child in an ordinary, everyday way that does not require perfection, seamless attunement, or constant availability. Good enough parents are able to take in stride the rapidly shifting states of the infant, providing consistency and security across a wide array of experience. However, even good enough parents match and attune to their children only about one third of the time.” One third of the time! We only have to get it exactly right less than half of the time. I wish I had known this information as a mother who struggled with feelings of failure throughout my parenting years. Now as both a friend and therapist to many other mothers who are similarly struggling, I share this information in hopes that they will release themselves from the perfection trap continuing to be perpetuated by well-meaning “experts” and of course, the advertising industry.
We curate, trim and hide what we perceive to be our unacceptable bits in order to be accepted by others, certain that our true selves could never be good enough, all the while feeling the loneliness of not being truly known.The black scientist George Washington Carver stressed that “how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.” Sounds like good enough to me . . .