When Will I Be Good Enough?
Sep 27, 2016
“I’m on the cover of business publications and I’m worth millions. When is it going to be enough.”
There are many people who achieve all the trappings of success—success being defined as making a lot of money, fame, and power—who are miserable. The client I quoted above had achieved great business success but was a workaholic who didn’t know his kids, had basically no relationship with his wife (he was rarely home), had few friends and was in a constant state of anxiety. In fact, his need to be successful was so great that Saturdays, as he pulled out of his driveway to go to work, he would see his neighbor playing with his kids. He told me that he ached to do that but just couldn’t take the day.
A book on parenting called: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, is getting a lot of attention because the author claims that her approach to parenting will result in your children’s’ “success.” By success she means nothing less than an “A” in every class (she considers an A- a “failing grade”). She states that “if you demand excellence from your kids you’ll get it.”
While there is nothing wrong with achieving excellence (although no one excels at everything) is this really what makes life worth living?
The schools in Northern California were featured in a movie called “The Race To Nowhere.” The movie was produced by a mother who couldn’t understand why her children were getting stomach aches and didn’t want to go to school. She went around the country discovering children all over the country were being driven to achieve more and more, while having three and four hours or homework a night! There was a rash of teen suicides that were the result of kids not getting into a certain college or not doing well on the SAT’s. There was a moving story of one young girl who killed herself because she didn’t get an A.
What happened to childhood—to playing, imagination, having fun, and enjoying life?
When I ask parents what their young children want when they come home at night, virtually every parent says the same thing. Children want affection, attention and acknowledgment. Then I ask, “What is the one-word question every child asks all day long.” They all respond, “Why?” So if a parent is “publicly humiliating” a child and not providing affection, attention and acknowledgment, and the child is asking herself why mom is treating her that way, isn’t it reasonable that a young child would conclude mom’s behavior meant ‘There’s something wrong with me’ and ‘I’m not okay’? Make sense?
Another belief that gets formed when parents force their children to do things against their will and threatening them if they don’t, as Mrs. Chua advocates, is I’m powerless. This belief is more common than you would think and leads to depression, getting into relationships with dominating people, and an inability to stand up for oneself.
For over 20 years I have helped thousands of highly successful people from virtually every country around the globe handle the behavioral and emotional problems that were caused by precisely the kind of parenting that Ms. Chua advocates, many of whom were Asians with “Chinese mothers.”
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Despite tremendous success in their achievements, these people have little joy in their lives. They need to keep proving themselves over and over again because they believe that their worth and value, their internal sense of being “good enough,” is a function of their achievements. And yet, no matter how successful they are, it’s never enough. It’s like a heroin addiction that keeps needing to be fed because the truth is, nothing we can achieve can ever make us good enough. Let me explain.
In the book Re-create Your Life, Morty Lefkoe (yes, my husband) writes “your beliefs about yourself and life, most of which are unconscious, totally determine your behavior, your emotions and ultimately your reality. And most self-esteem-type beliefs are caused by interactions children have with their parents before the age of six.”
Literally thousands of my clients have reported that when parents criticize them or got angry because they didn’t perform well, they concluded, “I’m not good enough.” When their parents got angry and withdrew from them, they concluded, “I’m not worth loving” or “I’m bad.” And when their parents withdrew from them in anger when they didn’t do what their parents demanded, they concluded, “If I don’t do what others want I’ll be unloved and abandoned.” These clients grew up with a fear of rejection and abandonment.
If you then praise them when they do perform well they will conclude “what makes me good enough or worth loving are my achievements”. They never feel whole or valued for being, so they are always driven to achieve.
Here is one case history that illustrates what I have been saying: Fred was second in command of a Wall Street firm. By conventional standards, he had “made it.” Nonetheless, he told me that when he was invited on the corporate jet with the CEO. “I felt like a waiter in a tuxedo.” His childhood beliefs made him feel undeserving of what he had rightfully achieved.
You see, his mother belittled him all the time when he was young and he concluded I’m not good enough. Then when he achieved something she praised him. So, now when he achieves something worthwhile, he feels “good enough” for five minutes, but the belief that he’s not good enough is still underneath. Fred lived in constant anxiety that someone was going to come into the firm and be better than him, or smarter.
The old saying that we are not “human doings,” we are “human beings,” is illustrated by the fact that at a funeral the eulogy never talks about the person getting straight A’s. Rather, they talk about who the person was. He listened, he was kind, he was a good husband or father, he laughed easily, he was warm and friendly and he always tried to help others.
I’m not good enough. Mistakes and failure are bad. If I make a mistake or fail I’ll be rejected. I’m not capable. I’m not competent. I’m inadequate. What makes me good enough is having other people think well of me.
These beliefs come from being criticized and yelled at when not living up to parent’s expectations.
Too many parents don’t acknowledge their children for who they are. How many of us say to our children, “You are such a joy to be with.” “You light up the room when you walk into it.” “I get such joy out of seeing how kind or gentle or caring you are with your sister.” If we only acknowledge kids for what they achieve then that is all they will value themselves for.
Now you might be thinking, “But how will my child be motivated.” When my daughter Brittany was nine years old she became a competitive swimmer. My husband Morty and I were always on the deck as timers, so after one race she came over to us and said disappointedly, “I had a lousy swim.” To which Morty replied ,“I got it honey. You must be so disappointed because I know how hard you worked in practice.” She said, “Yeah.” He then said, “Honey, I know that competitive sports is about winning or personal bests but just remember, you are a good enough, important, competent kid who just had a lousy swim, and your worth and value is not a function of how fast you go across a swimming pool (or whether or not you get an A). I love you. Now go talk to your coach.”
Brittany is now 22 years old and goes to one of the top universities in the country and has done a Half Iron Man (1.3 miles swimming, 66 miles biking, finishing with 12 miles running!). She is highly motivated but her self worth is not a function of what she does or doesn’t do. A poor performance is reason to learn from the experience so she can do better next time, but it is not a reason to feel bad about herself, as is true for people who base their self-esteem on their accomplishments.
Blake, our other daughter, has a passion for surfing. She lives in Hawaii and works on a fishing boat in Alaska during the summer to support her lifestyle. She has traveled all over the world and has always financed her own trips. She is independent and knows her life is her great adventure. Blake is not worried about having to achieve but rather living a passionate life in which her achievements flow from her passion.
I think it is so important for us to look at why so many parents are concerned about how much their children “achieve.” I am as critical of Amy Chua’s equating success with high achievement as I am of the means she recommends to be successful. It’s not that that achievement isn’t desirable. It certainly is. But is it really desirable if our children are high achievers if they have anxiety attacks whenever they don’t achieve what they intended or they are unable to form lasting, nurturing relationships?
I believe that kids can become very successful people (by any standard) by being supported by their parents in an empowering and loving way.
When you leave this earth would you rather say “I got straight A’s in everything I did” or “I lived well, I loved well, I made a contribution, I had fun and am outta here!”