Mike believed he had a good life and felt lucky for all the things he had. He was married to a loving wife, had a good job, owned a nice house and had three healthy kids.
Despite all his good fortune, Mike could not shake the nagging feeling that he wasn’t enough: “I should be more successful. I should make more money. I should be where my boss is. I should have a graduate degree. I should have a bigger house. I should have more friends.” These were some of the “shoulds” that plagued him daily.
“Could I get you curious about this part of you that feels inadequate?” I asked Mike during our first meeting. “Let yourself travel back in time. How old were you when you first felt ‘not enough?’”
He paused to reflect. “It’s definitely been with me a long time,” he said. “Maybe six or eight years old?”
Mike’s father had become extremely successful when Mike was six years old. Because of his father’s new job, his family moved to an exotic country where no one spoke English. Mike was scared and felt like a stranger. Even though he attended an international school, he had no friends for a long time.
His parents pushed him; they meant well and were trying to encourage him. But feeling scared and overwhelmed by the many changes in his life, he misinterpreted their words as disappointment that he wasn’t enough—it was the familiar feeling he still had today.
We are not born feeling inadequate. Life experiences and emotions create that sense within us in a variety of ways. For example, when we were little, and we felt afraid or anxious, our mind told us something was wrong with us, not our environment. A child’s mind, not yet rational, concludes, “There must be something wrong with me if I feel so bad.” That’s why children who were abused or neglected grow up to be adults who carry so much shame. They likely spent years telling themselves: “I must be bad if I’m being treated badly.”
As adults, armed with education on emotions and how childhood adversity affects the brain, we can understand that feeling “not enough” is a byproduct of an environment that was insufficient. We are in fact enough! Yet to feel more solid, we must work to transform that “not enough” feeling.
One way to transform old beliefs is to work with them as separate parts of ourselves. With some mental energy, we can externalize ailing parts of us and then relate to them in ways that heal old wounds.
For example, I asked Mike, “Can you imagine that the 6-year-old boy inside you, who feels ‘not enough,’ is sitting on my sofa over there so we can be with him and try to help him?”
With practice, Mike learned to connect, listen and communicate with that part of himself. Offering compassion to the child inside himself helped him feel much better, even though he had struggled with the concept initially.
Since emotions are physical sensations, another way to work with wounded parts is through the body. Mike learned to recognize how “not enough” physically felt. “It’s like an emptiness—like a hole inside. I know I’ve been successful at times, and I believe my family loves me. Emotionally, it doesn’t feel that way at all. Good stuff comes in, but it goes right through me like a bucket with a hole. I’m never filled.”
To help patch the hole in his bucket, I helped Mike develop his capacity to hold onto good feelings by noticing them. “If you recognize and validate your accomplishments, what does that feel like inside?”
“I feel taller,” said Mike.
“Can you stay with the feeling of being taller for just ten seconds?”
Like a form of training, he built his capacity to experience positive feelings. Going slowly, we practiced noticing sensations associated with pride, love, gratitude and joy—getting used to them a little at a time.
What Else Can We Do To Help The Parts Of Us That Feel “Not Enough?”
- We can remind ourselves again and again that our feelings of “not enough” were learned. It’s not objective fact, even when it feels so instinctually true.
- We can connect to the part of us that feels bad and offer it compassion, like we would for our child, partner, colleague, friend or pet.
- We can practice deeply belly breathing, five or six times in a row, to calm our nervous system.
- We can exercise to get adrenaline flowing and create a sense of empowerment.
- We can remember this very helpful phrase: “Compare and Despair!” When you catch yourself making comparisons to others, STOP! It only hurts, by fueling feelings and thoughts of “not enough.”
In the long run, we heal the parts of us that feel inadequate by first becoming aware of them. Once aware, we can listen to them and try to fully understand the story of how they came to believe they were “not enough.” Over time, by naming, validating and processing the associated emotions both from the past and present, “not enough” can become enough.
(Patient details are always changed to protect privacy)
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is the author of It’s Not Always Depression (Random House & Penguin UK), a book which teaches both the general public and psychotherapists about emotions and how to work with them to feel better. She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel was also the Mental Health Consultant on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/