An Inside Job

“what about this theory. the fear of not being enough. and the fear of being ‘too much.’ are exactly the same fear. the fear of being you.”

– Nayyirah Waheed

Ever felt not enough? Not good enough, not smart enough, not liked enough. It could even sound like this: I don’t work out enough; I’m not productive enough; I’m not happy enough. It shows up at work, or everytime you turn on the internet or find yourself on the island of social media, or while using the latest dating app. Ultimately any scenario that equates our sense of self-worth with our output. When the results don’t match up (and they rarely do), we doubt our inherent lovability, and spiral into some semblance of anxiety, maybe even shame, and certainly self-loathing at our self-perceived inadequacy. All of which makes us feel pretty bad instead of feeling pretty bad-ass.

This pervasive feeling can be an indicator of impostor syndrome, but also stands alone as its own phenomenon of wallowing in an impaired sense of our own worth. When we’re stuck there, we forget that “I am” is a complete sentence, and our boundaries become weak. We fall prey to the corrosive effects of letting the external world bolster the places where we’re unsupportive in our own selves.

Often tied to a harsh inner critic, the feeling of “not enough” drives us to unattainable goals of perfection. We can push ourselves hard, to exhaustion, to depression, if we heed the unrelenting inner voices that motivate us in these directions. But if we listen closely to these voices, what do they say? What happens if we don’t deliver, produce, work hard, etc? What are the consequences? What would be enough? Who’s doing the measuring here?

As Jerry notes in this podcast conversation with Leonie Akhidenor, who battles with a sharp inner critic telling her she’s not productive enough, when we seek validation for our worth from external forces, we’re often searching for love, safety, or belonging–a reassuring sense that we are okay. If we can parse our self-critical mind, we can hone in on unconscious factors that may be driving our behaviors. By listening closely, as if with a glass to the wall of our brain, we may begin to ascertain some voices that sound familiar. Spending some time there may give us understanding as to what meaning is tangled up in there for us.

It’s the search for reassurance from a outside our self that can be problematic for those of us aspiring to become mature adults.

As kids, we’re not always given the quintessential message that we are okay as we are. Instead, we may have grown up in a world where we internalized that we needed to perform, or do, or be a certain way, in order to be loved, be safe, or belong. This shifts the locus of our self-worth meter away from our inner knowing, and as we become adults, those voices can feel less like the call to safety as was intended, and more like a torture chamber of emotional and verbal self-flagellation.

In his book Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, Mark Epstein writes: “How we talk to ourselves is as important as how we speak to others. The way we think is as crucial as what we say out loud. Both Buddhism and psychotherapy ask us to pay careful attention to the stories we repeat under our breaths. We tend to take them for granted but they do not always accurately reflect the truth.”

It’s safe to say that a case of the “not good enoughs” is an inside job, one we must tend to if we want to emerge into adulthood with the freedom that comes from knowing you’re loved just as you are. Sometimes that deeply internalized, highly judgemental voice sounds like mom, dad, or another caregiver. It’s as if these tapes get lodged in our brain’s database in a defragmented way, perhaps with faulty information. What gets stuck in a memory, plays out on repeat within us, like a bug in the system. Due to the nature of memory and the deletion, distortion, and generalization that happens, what replays can be more like a misheard lyric. Once we learn where our inner critic came from and what it meant for us, we can modify the amplification and bring it down to appropriate size.

Regardless of how our body logged the information, the constellation of emotions and meaning tied to that imprinted memory can shape our whole life. Sometimes, our sense of worth can be determined by beliefs we determine for ourselves before we can even talk. These get lodged into our wiring in a slightly deeper way such that they become core to our forming identity and something that can play out throughout our life.

Author Sera Beak sums the nature of core wounds in this excerpt from her new book Redvelations. “Psychologists know that core wounds can happen at any time, but tend to occur when we are between zero to two years old, which means we can be wounded while in the womb,” she writes. “We become wounded from many different things, such as not being picked up one time when we are crying in our crib, ongoing neglect, abuse, the absence of a parent, preferential treatment of a sibling during a fight, or overhearing a family member say something unkind about us, and so on.”

She continues:

“Because most of us are wounded at such a young age, it’s not biologically safe for us to blame our caregivers (yet) because they are our only means of survival and appear like gods to us… So we blame ourselves instead. We come up with reasons for why this happened to us, which usually results in the belief that it happened because something is (very) wrong with us. We create these false beliefs about ourselves often when we are preverbal.

“However, as adults it’s important to become conscious of, and try to verbalize, the beliefs that formed in reaction to the wound because they influence our decisions, generate our behaviors, and stimulate our strategies. Most commonly, we try to prove that we are the opposite of our wound based beliefs, which often propels us to do what we do in our life (or lives). So for example, if we unconsciously believe we are worthless, we will try to prove that we are valuable and strive to be the best financier, mother, spiritual teacher, surgeon, or coach.”

There’s a lot going on inside of us. The road to loving ourselves requires finding and tending to all the things we’re not even consciously aware of that are keeping us from resourcing the love that we seek from within our own self (versus from our friends, partners, employers, or anyone we project our wounded caregiver relationships on to).

When the external defines whether or not you are okay that’s a broken system. It keeps you at the whim and whimsy of anything but your own anchor within yourself. We live in a world where our value is measured by our output, versus who we are. Fred Rogers notes, “When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”

Learning to love yourself is a broad stroke of self-compassion–the cornerstone to self-care. Living from that place affords us to resources our security from a different place, an internal place, where we know that we’re okay.  From here, we can give ourselves what we are looking out to the world to give us. And, in that sense, we are healed. Perhaps, from here, instead of striving to prove ourselves to the world, we can begin to internalize that it’s not our output, but our well-being that is our great contribution to life.