So many of the intense anxieties we struggle with in our lives center around feeling pressured to live up to perceived expectations, many of which are not even genuinely our own. Lists of ‘should’s and ‘supposed-to’s we inherit from our families, friends, and society at large which paint pictures of what a successful person, a successful life, supposedly looks like. Those pictures can provide us with targets to strive for but can also set us up to feel deficient and undeserving unless we achieve them.
These idealized images can make sound logical sense and have powerful emotional appeal but the should/supposed-to mentality brings with it a double edged tone of requirement and obligation. You can only be happy if you achieve certain things and if you do manage to achieve them then you must be happy. Both are false and both are dangerous because they are purely external definitions seeking to dictate our internal experiences and perceptions.
Happiness gets placed outside of our immediate reach like a carrot dangled from a stick the length of which is controlled by other people. We become pressed into a habit of always looking outward for ‘more’. There is never any encouragement to look inward for sources of fulfilment and the concept of ‘enough’ gets villainized as a form of complacency and mediocrity.
The trouble is we don’t attain the carrot through our efforts of pursuit but rather through changing our relationship with the stick.
If happiness becomes pinned to ‘more’ we become doomed to a life of fruitless chasing. ‘More’, like ‘tomorrow’, is an ever extending concept which never actually arrives. For happiness to take any meaningful root there must be some definition and possibility of ‘enough’. We can always use ‘more’ as motivation to aspire beyond that but for further happiness to take root we will need another definition of ‘enough’. And the simple, difficult, truth is the only person who can form that definition for us is ourselves.
Being my own source and arbiter of ‘enough’ is a feeling I have striven for as long as I can remember. I have always felt it has to come from inside myself first before I can feel it anywhere else but I didn’t have the exact phrasing for it until a friend in university, who was doing his master’s thesis on models of healthy relationships, uttered it as part of explaining the venn diagram at the center of his thesis.
“If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”
That was it. That was the truth I had felt but didn’t have the words for. Spending most of my childhood, and all of my adolescence, living behind the closet door likely had a large influence in forming that mentality. Choosing to keep that door closed meant when trying to figure things out I only had me, myself, and I to turn to. Accepting that no matter how I felt about myself there were aspects of me my surrounding environment would not like or approve of meant I had to choose which set of feelings and opinions would matter more, mine or theirs.
I chose mine.
It wasn’t about either side being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It was simply a matter of facing the fact that the only feelings and opinions which will always be with me, from which there is no escaping or hiding, are my own. So all the more important I try my best to be in harmony and content with them.
I also came to find, after stepping out from behind that closet door and having to deal with the struggles of being ‘other’ out there amongst the world, how crucial that harmony and contentment can be. Not only as a secure fall back in case of criticism or resistance, I wouldn’t trade the confidence and trust in myself it has brought me for anything, but also as a necessary tool in seeking understanding and acceptance from others.
If I’m not okay with myself, how or why would anyone else be?
So the mission became, and continues to be, trying to understand myself as fully as I can, accepting the truth of myself, and appreciating myself for who I am as I am. At times it requires a lot of work, holding myself accountable, and reminding myself that accepting the parts of me I don’t like is just as if not more important than embracing the parts I do.
No one is perfect, nor should we expect them to be. Nor should we expect it from ourselves. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses can be worked on but their existence isn’t a deficiency, a crime, or a sin. There will always be aspects of ourselves we would like to strengthen or improve, things we will envy others for possessing in ways we do not. Neither those aspects nor those envies make us broken or deficient or wrong or undeserving of love and happiness. They simply make us human.
Once we accept that truth we can build a solid place to stand, a place from which to push forward and on which to fall back whenever we need to retreat. A place that is purely and entirely ours which no one can take away from us, which is contingent on nothing but our own truth. We can’t be all things to all people in all situations. We can only be ourselves and if we aren’t able to feel any contentment or satisfaction with ourselves then how can anyone else?
This doesn’t mean we can’t want things, want to grow and improve, want more for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with a little ‘divine dissatisfaction’. It can be a helpful, healthy thing inspiring us to keep striving to better ourselves and the circumstances of our lives. There is always room for growth and improvement. However, how often do we fall into the trap of saying “I’ll be happy when….”?
I’ll be happy when I get what I want for Christmas. I’ll be happy when I weigh X amount. I’ll be happy when I get the promotion. I’ll be happy when I get the new car. When I get married. When the living room is redecorated. When the kids do well in school. When I get my tattoo. When we get to the resort. When it’s Friday night. When, when, when….
Feeling a sense of joy and affirmation in the achieving of a goal is normal and healthy. It’s a big part of why we set them in the first place. But in that kind of thinking the ‘when’ actually behaves like an ‘if’ quietly and pervasively doing far more to tear us down than to build us up.
There is always room for growth and improvement but if we fall into the trap of making our happiness and satisfaction with ourselves contingent on something after a ‘when’ one of the first things this does is reshape our view of ourselves into being deficient, lacking, broken. Who we are, as we are, at this current moment becomes branded as incapable and unworthy.
We all want things for ourselves but do we want them for what they will add to our lives or are we viewing them as a way to make up for some perceived deficiency?
Adding relationships, resources, and opportunities to our lives can be immensely beneficial in countless ways but if we are adding them in order to ‘fill in’ a deficiency we wind up clutch at them in desperation rather than embracing them in gratitude and appreciation. We cast ourselves as powerless without some ‘extra’ component and that desperation can become irrevocably toxic to our relationships and to ourselves.
The companion to that sense of being incomplete without ‘X’ is the notion our sense of worth can only be obtained from something outside of us.
We view ourselves as incapable and insufficient on our own.
Again, we all have our weaknesses and there will always be times when we need external help to overcome obstacles but seeking help is not the same as seeking to be ‘completed’. Help is the process of assisting an existing capacity within us. The capacity is there it just isn’t strong or developed enough to defeat the challenge it is facing. Looking for something to ‘complete’ us might seem like a romantic notion but it gives us no credit, power, or worth beyond what that something else provides us with.
This type of thinking also has the extremely dangerous tendency to paint a scenario in which our happiness and self-worth can be determined by one single factor. Not only does this bring along with it that double-edged requirement/obligation tone but it heaps all the weight and consequences of our emotional well-being onto one single target.
Our lives are extremely complicated things with infinite numbers of moving parts. Some can have more powerful impact than others but no one single aspect is ever the answer to everything.
The simplicity of the idea is extremely appealing but that’s just not how life works.
No one single factor is ever built or meant to support the entire weight of our self-worth, nor should it. Making something singly responsible for our psychological and emotional well-being not only explodes the associated anxieties to an exponential degree it does the same to the desperation with which we cling to it. And it sets up the false expectation that obtaining it will guarantee our happiness both instantly and permanently.
Happiness As The Metric
There is also a dangerous misconception that achieving a sense of contentment, confidence, self-acceptance, and inner worth means being happy. As a society we have a pervasive tendency to equate happiness with achievement and worse use happiness as the only way of measuring success.
Happiness is an emotional and situational reaction we experience in the moment, not a state we achieve.
At any given moment there are an infinite number of things which could inspire feelings of happiness in us, just as there are an infinite number which could inspire contradictory emotions. There is no guarantee or permanence. Achieving a difficult goal may inspire feelings of accomplishment but not necessarily happiness and the same things which inspire happiness in us once won’t always continue to spark the same responses throughout our lives.
Setting happiness as the metric for success not only pins that definition to an ephemeral by-product rather than achievement itself, much like trying to nail steam to a tree, but it also sets us up to grapple with further self-doubt and anxiety whenever that ephemeral reaction doesn’t behave like the foundation stone we’ve portrayed it to be.
Whether or not we are the best possible versions of ourselves, whether or not the circumstances of our lives are the best they possibly can be, there will always be room for growth and improvement. Sustaining a bit of ‘divine dissatisfaction’ to keep us striving to better ourselves is a healthy and empowering thing. But to take any genuine step forward we must first have a place to stand.
There is no ‘more’ without ‘enough’ and the blunt truth is ‘enough’ can only ever truly be decided within. At any given moment we will be ‘not enough’ for some people, ‘too much’ for others, and ‘exactly right’ for still others. If we cannot look at ourselves and feel ‘enough’ as we are right now nothing outside of us will ever be able to add it in for us. Other people can certainly help us to see it but any sense of ‘enough’ added from outside of us isn’t really ours. It doesn’t belong to us, we’re only borrowing it and it will leave whenever that external factor does.
You are enough. Who you are, as you are, right this moment.
Our quests for growth and improvement are not for seeking things outside of us to complete us but to enhance what is already inside us, to possibly awaken parts of ourselves we haven’t yet discovered, and to help us learn to see the full and unique wonder that exists in all of us.
We can be ‘more, it is true. But first and foremost we are ‘enough’.