On Being Good Enough 2


A Ugandan Tale Retold by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Once upon a time, there lived a boy named Kumba who did not know he was good enough. [1] He was small and couldn’t keep up with the other boys. They beat him in games and teased him.

Feeling humiliated and frightened, Kumba took to playing by himself. This only made things worse, though, because he was still afraid, and now he was also lonely. It got so he didn’t dare try to do anything because he feared people would laugh at him. He couldn’t bring himself to try shaping clay vases and bowls like his father, because he knew his pottery wouldn’t be good enough. When his mother worked in the garden, he didn’t help out, because he knew he’d be slow and awkward. Instead, he wandered aimlessly through the woods and fields, longing to be important and wise, but knowing that was impossible.

Everyone thought there was something wrong with the boy’s mind. The villagers consoled his parents with the thought that one day they would have another child who would be good and smart. But Kumba’s mother wanted Kumba to be good and smart.

Mother hugging her child - love as an antidote to shame and necessary to teach us that we are good enough

Not Feeling Good Enough

One night, when Kumba should have been asleep, he heard his parents talking about him, and he learned much they worried about him. He’d never realized. Now he felt terrible.

That night, he couldn’t sleep. The next morning, he couldn’t look his parents in the eye. Finally, that afternoon, he wandered off into the woods. When he came to a clearing, he sat down on a tree stump, put his face in his hands, and cried.

As the sun started to go down, a lion stepped into the clearing. “What are you doing here?” he asked the boy.

Kumba told him how he longed to be “wise and great,” but he was afraid he was really stupid. The lion told Kumba he should stop thinking about himself all the time and instead consider what he could do for his community.

After the lion left, an antelope showed up. She, too, asked Kumba why he was there. The boy repeated what he’d told the lion. The antelope said he should be more grateful and thank those who were kind to him, such as his mother who served him meals. Next a leopard told Kumba that a wise person tries to get along with others. An elephant said that the boy should find meaningful work.

All the animals’ advice just made Kumba cry harder. He knew he wasn’t good enough, and he felt hopeless about ever being the boy his parents wanted him to be. Kumba felt ashamed.

Feeling Like a Mistake

Although there is such a thing as healthy shame, most shame damages our psyche. Brené Brown has made a career of analyzing how toxic shame effects us and figuring out what we can do to heal from those effects. She notes that shame makes us feel as if we’re not good enough. We think we’re totally alone. We assume no one else feels incompetent or stupid the way we do.

I once had a client who wanted to make friends, but he couldn’t imagine how to even start. Everyone he saw, whether at a party, at work, on the bus, or in the grocery store seemed cheerful and accomplished, as if they knew just what to do and say in every social situation. Why was he so inept that he stammered when he tried to carry on a conversation?

Together, we deconstructed his idea that everyone else had it all together. How did he know that? Had he ever asked anyone how she felt? Hadn’t he ever seen anyone else sitting alone at a party? Surely at twelve-step meetings he’d heard someone say he started drinking so he could feel comfortable in social situations. My client acknowledged that he had.

We Are Not Alone

That’s when he started to realize that, although some people do thrive at social events, he was not alone in feeling awkward, foolish, or not good enough. Like Kumba, he had thought he was the only one who made mistakes, but he discovered that everyone has insecurities. Everyone messes up. No one is perfect; no one has it all together.

Where do we get the idea that everyone else is fine, but we’re not good enough?

Kumba learned he wasn’t good enough when he got teased and bullied. His parents didn’t chastise him or laugh at him, and they met his physical needs. They clearly cared about him or they wouldn’t have worried so. However, they didn’t pay much attention to him, and they didn’t encourage or support him. Nor did they encourage him to question his assumptions about himself or discover his strengths.

Families and Shame

Nonetheless, they were better parents than my client’s were. His parents were active alcoholics. If they weren’t yelling at him, they were ignoring him. They told him he was a failure and said he would never amount to anything. No matter what he did, it was never good enough. It’s hard not to believe that when you hear it over and over again.

We respond in so many ways to such abuse and neglect. Sometimes we internalize the shame. Like Kumba, we refuse to do anything, because the threat of failure is debilitating. Sometimes, we push ourselves to the limit, getting perfect grades, writing perfect reports, working ourselves death to make sure everything we do is perfect. We hold ourselves to impossible standards, and we judge others just as harshly. At other times, we lose ourselves in addictions, trying desperately to numb our pain. Some days we get sick with depression and despair. Or we project our sense of incompetence onto others. We seethe with anger, resentment, and judgment, not realizing that the person we’re really judging is ourselves.

The Rabbit Helps Heal Kumba’s Shame

Kumba certainly judged himself, and the feedback the animals gave him only made himself feel worse. After they all left, he sat down sobbed. Then a rabbit hopped up to him. Like the other animals, she asked Kumba what he was doing there.

The boy explained that he wanted to be wise, but the animals had told him he was foolish.

The rabbit asked what exactly they had said, and Kumba told him. When he’d finished, the rabbit nodded. “I can see why that hurt your feelings,” she said. “But they did tell you the truth. Wise people think about others. They thank them for the favors they do. They work hard, and they make friends.”

Glumly, Kumba nodded his head. That might be true, but he didn’t know how to do any of that.

Internalized Shame

In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes an incident in which she had arranged to speak for free at a conference. Against her wishes, she agreed to share her hotel room with another woman. When she met her roommate, she was appalled. The woman sat on the couch, mud from her boots smearing the seat. Having stuffed a cream puff into her mouth, the woman wiped her frosting-covered hands on the plush fabric of the arms and back. Then she lit a cigarette before sauntering onto the porch to smoke it.

Brown seethed. She hated the woman, judging her as thoughtless, insensitive, and generally horrible. She had felt manipulated into sharing a room in the first place, which made her feel even more put upon and resentful. Struggling with her own internalized shame, Brown didn’t know how to gracefully set boundaries or make requests. Besides, she didn’t think she deserved to ask for what she wanted, so she said nothing to her roommate. That didn’t mean she wasn’t angry, though, and she stayed angry all that day, the next day, during her flight home, and for weeks afterward.

Not until her counselor asked her a startling question was Brown able to release her resentment. Her counselor asked Brown, “Do you think the woman had been doing the best she could?”

Doing the Best We Can

“Absolutely not,” was Brown’s initial response. She was certain that the woman had been unpleasant on purpose. But as the weeks past and she couldn’t get that question out of her mind, she came up with the idea of investigating that question through a research project. She started asking everyone she met if they thought people generally did the best they could.

After she’d heard from twenty people, she noticed a pattern. Some people considered their answer before speaking. These were the ones who, though they knew they might be wrong, suspected people generally did do the best they could given the tools they had. They believed people could grow and change, and that sometimes we need to set limits so people don’t hurt others, but they emphasized that we should still feel empathy and compassion for them.

The Certainty of Our Judgments

Those who thought others did not do their best were adamant about their position. They had strict standards of behavior and angrily blamed or shamed people who didn’t follow those rules. They labeled them as stupid, inconsiderate, abusive, lazy. To prove their conclusion, they often gave themselves as examples, saying they hardly ever did their best. How could they be doing their best if they kept messing up? They felt ashamed and believed they weren’t good enough. Just as they judged themselves, they judged others. They thought anything short of perfection was shameful, and somehow they’d developed this idea that if they chastised or punished themselves, they’d get it right. They’d eventually become good enough.

What a painful and debilitating way to live. Yes, fear and shame can motivate us to do push harder, to do what we’re told, at least for the moment. But they don’t motivate us to be kind or generous. Instead, they encourage judgment, blame, and violence. As Brown explains, “Guilt and empathy are the emotions that lead us to question how our actions affect other people, and both of these are severely diminished by the presence of shame.” [2]

Empathy and Being Good Enough

Empathy helps us recognize that others are doing their best. It allows us to understand that everyone has limitations, weaknesses, that many people are impacted by unfair social systems or have lived extreme suffering or lack education. Of course, many people rise above horrific circumstances to become decent, upstanding members of society. They may also struggle with the judgments and shame that often hide behind power and success.

I’m convinced my client’s parents did the best they could. I imagine their upbringing was as difficult or even harder than their son’s. Did that make their behavior acceptable? No, but if we understand that they did their best given who they were at the moment, we will be able to hold them accountable not with anger or a lust for vengeance, but with compassion. The boundaries and support we offer will come from a place of empathy rather than hatred.

As Brown discovered, just because we accept that people are doing their best doesn’t mean we don’t expect them to grow and change. We do. But instead of evaluating them “based on what we think they should accomplish,” we hold “them accountable for what they’re actually doing.” We don’t love them “for who they could be,” but rather “for who they are.” [3]

We also start to love ourselves for who we are. Right now. With all our faults. We realize that we, too, are doing the best we can. We, too, are good enough.

Learning to Believe in Ourselves

When we last left Kumba, he didn’t believe he was good enough. He felt ashamed. Perhaps the rabbit understood. In any event, she settled down beside the boy and waited patiently.

Finally, when the sky had darkened and the air grown chilly, the rabbit invited Kumba to stay with her for the night. She helped him make a bed outside her burrow, and in the morning, woke him with a big breakfast. Kumba ate gratefully and was careful to thank the rabbit. The rabbit grinned at him, and he smiled back. For once, Kumba felt as if he had succeeded at something, as if he were good enough just the way he was.

Actually, the story doesn’t go exactly that way. Yes, the rabbit gives Kumba a place to sleep, but in the morning Kumba has an awakening all on his own. He decides he will never be a fool again. From then on, he will never give up.

And he doesn’t. He helps his mother in the garden, tries making pots like his father, and plays with the bigger boys. Kumba has learned his lesson and changed. Eventually he grows up and becomes a potter. His bowls are praised in villages miles around. Kumba is no longer a fool.

In reality, we don’t learn so quickly. Of course, Kumba’s parents weren’t alcoholic. They didn’t shame his efforts. Instead, they welcomed his attempts without pretending he’d created masterpieces, and they acknowledged his successes without making success the most important thing. They valued him not just because he hoed the garden and painted pots, but because he was alive, and he was their son.

Our Need for Support

My client didn’t have such support. Few of us do. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t find the support we need to heal the shame that makes us think we aren’t good enough. Oddly enough, the more we berate ourselves for being incompetent or insensitive, the less likely we are to change. Unless we can be kind to ourselves, we will not be kind to others. Unless we take our own needs seriously, we will not care about the needs of others.

On the other hand, when we feel good about ourselves, we tend to look for the good in others. Self-compassion leads to other-compassion. Brown noticed that the people who express compassion for others, who believe everyone does her best, were the kinds of people she calls “wholehearted.” They accepted their own vulnerability. They believed they had value and worth just because they were alive. [4] Their own understanding of themselves, their willingness to forgive their own foibles, made them able to understand and forgive others.

On Being Good Enough

But what if we can’t do this? What if, like Kumba, we don’t like ourselves enough to try? Or what if we find ourselves in a crazy situation where our power is completely taken from us? Some of us experience this a lot. If we experience it often enough, we doubt our worthiness. We live in fear. We may grow depressed from anger turned inward or lash out at any sign of threat. To heal, we must first find safety. To do this, most of us will need help, because even if we have physical freedom, shame and self-judgment may debilitate us.

We are all doing the best we can, and that must be good enough for now. That doesn’t mean it’s good enough for always. It doesn’t mean we don’t have the responsibility to acknowledge our brokenness and seek to grow and change, to become the best person we can be. We will never be perfect, but that isn’t the goal. The goal is simply to be good enough. Which is where we start. Right now, we are doing the best we can. We are good enough. If we can embrace that, if we can feel compassion toward ourselves, we might find that in the future, our “best” and our “good enough” might be a bit more free, happy, and forgiving than before.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

    1. Adapted from Fahs, Sophia, “The Boy Who Was Afraid to Try,” From Long Ago and Many Lands, 2nd ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1995, 25-30.
    2. Brown, Brené, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, New York: Random House, 2015, 235-6.
    3. Ibid 226.
    4. Ibid 211.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

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