You could be a “good enough” [fill in the blank]
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here. I am also a holistic personal development coach. You can learn more about working with me here.
Oh, guys. Life has been hard lately. I’ve been going through some serious bouts of impostor syndrome and perfectionism, my old frenemy, has been rearing its pretty little head. My overactive ruminating mind is in full effect, and sleep — my dear, precious, sleep, about which I am Gollum-esque — is constantly out of my grasp.
There’s a lot going on for me that’s causing this. I’m in the last throes of my coaching certification; work is in hyperdrive; I’m writing more, hosting women’s circles, and generally pushing myself into new spaces.
I mean, it’s awesome. But it sucks. You know what I mean. Personal and professional growth, amirite. What a bitch.
So in some of my coaching research, when I came across an article introducing me to the concept of something called the “good enough parent,” I felt a huge sense of relief. Though it refers to raising children, this concept has value for all of us out here, I think.
Here’s the deal.
The idea of the “good enough parent” came from the work of psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott (though he was only talking about the “good enough mother” at the time, smh) and was expanded on in the 80s by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim argued that the parent-child relationship is not something to be ‘fixed’ in accordance with some idealistic experience or expectation of perfection.
In fact, the race to achieve perfection in parenting and in the child — well, it can lead to a hot mess for everybody involved. And in fact, it is through messiness and mistakes — balanced with love, empathy, security, and stability — that parents can truly help their kids grow up into stable human beings.
As Wikipedia summarizes it:
“A key function of good enough parenting is to provide the essential background to allow for the growing child’s disillusionment with the parents and the world, without destroying their appetite for life and ability to accept (external and internal) reality. By surviving the child’s anger and frustration with the necessary disillusionments of life, the good enough parents would enable it to relate to them on an ongoing and more realistic basis.”
And psychologist Annie Wright writes:
Essentially, Winnicott’s idea of a Good Enough Parent was one in which the parent had sound nurturing instincts, devotion to the child, and ultimately inevitably screwed up and “failed” as parents in a way that allowed their kids to experience disillusionment with them and the world in ways that felt manageable and tolerable. In other words, a Good Enough Parent helped their kids to learn how to cope with and face an imperfect world including themselves as imperfect parents — a key developmental task that children must face in their development and emotional growth towards adulthood.
So by raising a child imperfectly, and with full acceptance of your own limitations and fallibility, you are actually best enabling them to later deal with all the ups, downs, disappointments, glories, and general vagaries of life.
The more I thought about the concept of the “good enough” parent, the more I realized it could be applied to any aspect of our modern lives — especially those of us who deal with perfectionism and inner critics.
In particular, a couple of points from Bettelheim’s book stood out to me that I think will land with you, too.
One. In the preface to his book, Bettelheim wrote: “In order to raise a child well one ought not to try to be a perfect parent, as much as one should not expect one’s child to be, or to become, a perfect individual. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings. Efforts to attain it typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one’s child, which alone make good human relations possible.”
This blew my mind because it made me understand that the original natural human response to the imperfection of others started out as leniency. As grace. As understanding. As compassion.
A ‘lenient response to the imperfections of others’ is a FEATURE of us dumb humans, not a BUG.
Dang. We’ve really been mucking that one up.
Two. Bettelheim wrote, “The erroneous modern conviction is that problems should not occur and that someone has to be at fault when they do.”
Uh, yeah. Who else believes that problems should never occur, and that if they are, something has gone wrong?
But what about accepting the fact that problems occurring are in fact a sign we’re just out here, living our lives, and things are actually going pretty darn good?
To fully ground the concept, psychologist Peter Gray gives a hypothetical example of a “problem” that is handled with a perfectionist approach — and suggests a different way of looking at it.
It’s given through the lens of parenthood, but could be tweaked to any number of areas:
Suppose your child is not doing his homework and is disobeying his teacher in school. The teacher calls you in for a conference, and, if you are a parent aiming for perfection, you are made to feel ashamed of your child’s “bad” behavior and ashamed of yourself for raising such a child.
As one who believes that problems should be avoidable, you take the teachers’ words personally, and this might lead to a defensive berating of your child, which defeats any attempt to understand and truly help.
In contrast, if you are satisfied with being a good enough parent and have no illusions that perfection is possible, you see this problem for what it is, a problem to try to solve, not a tragedy, not an occasion for blame or shame.
The first step in the solution is to try to understand the problem from your child’s point of view. Because you respect your child, you do not immediately assume that his behavior stems from something wrong with him, which needs correcting.
Your child may not be able to state clearly the reasons for his behavior, and may not even be aware of them, but that does not mean that there are no reasons or that the reasons are bad ones.
It is quite possible that your child’s behavior in school represents something admirable. It may stem from a healthy desire to assert independence.
Get it? In short: flaws are delightful; “problems” are inevitable and only opportunities for learning, growth, and collaboration; and literally nothing is wrong with any of us and we’re perfect in our imperfections.
You could be the “good enough” employee; the “good enough” boss; the “good enough” boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or partner; the “good enough” daughter or son; the “good enough” human. The “good enough” body. The “good enough” ________.
So my challenge to you, after reading more about the “good enough” parent, and the impossibility of perfectionism: What are you “good enough” at? And what are some ways that being “good enough” actually creates a fuller, brighter, more human experience in the way you live your life?
Where can you extend that lenient grace to the inevitability of fucking up, in yourself and in others? And can you learn to realize that when things aren’t “perfect,” that’s actually genuinely fabulous, because it means you’re out in the world, making inroads, trying, in the arena, and generally engaging in the messiness that is this world and this life?
It’s a challenge, but I think it’s one we’re all up for. And I’m going to try.
So here’s not to being perfect, or the best, or the finest, or the most expert, or the number one whatever-you-are.
I don’t think you’re perfect. I think you’re good enough. And that’s exactly where you and I are supposed to be.