In 2012, I was a Finalist for the local YWCA Tribute to Women awards...it was kind of a big deal. Well, at least it was in the circles in which I lived and worked. But I was completely ambivalent. Part of me wanted to be recognized, but on the other hand, I was certain that if I won the award, something wasn't really going to feel right.
My brain was turning this over in my mind one day, while I was putting things away in my closet, when I realized what was underneath my ambivalence. I didn't believe I was "good enough." Good enough to receive such a recognition. Good enough to deserve it. I didn't feel like I had earned it. And at the same time, I wasn't sure what I would have had to have "accomplished" in order to feel like I was worthy of the award.
I realized that the sense of not being good enough wasn't limited to whether or not I received the award.
I was afraid I wasn't good enough. Period.
But good enough for whom? Who was I trying to impress? I didn't know.
By this time, both of my parents had passed away. I wasn't trying to impress a boss. As a general rule, I wasn't particularly motivated by what other people thought of me--except for a very select few. I wasn't knowingly looking to others for validation. In many respects, I intentionally chose not to worry about what other people thought.
So where was this uneasy sense of not being "good enough" coming from? Then, I wasn't sure. Now, I have more clarity.
When I was young, I was emotionally and physically abused by a third party caregiver. My parents were generally physically and emotionally absent. If I wasn't getting what I needed--love, protection, care--the message was clear. It was MY fault. If I was "good enough," I would be loved. If I was "good enough," I would be safe. If I was "good enough," I would be valued. If I was "good enough," my needs would be met.
I remember showing my Dad a test one time. I made a 96. He wanted to know where the other 4 points were.
Many of us, if not all of us, receive messages over our lives that tell us that if we just do more, behave more, achieve more, things will be okay. Others receive the opposite messages--if we are less demanding, less trouble, smaller and quiet, if we don't question or demand things from authority figures--things would be okay.
These messages can be explicitly spoken or implicit in the subtle and not-so-subtle signals we receive from our caregivers. And the message is clear, if we are just "more" or "less" or perhaps a mixture of "more this" and "less that," WE will be okay. WE will be loved and valued. WE will be cared for and protected and celebrated and loved in just the way that our heart and biology crave.
In both cases, the standard is "perfection." But perfection is subjective,and in being subjective, it is, by its very nature, an unattainable standard.
If we are looking outside of ourselves for validation of our worth, how do we know if we have "arrived?" How do we reach the standard of perfection that someone else has set? How do we know if we have satisfied the checklist of requirements? Who gets to decide what is on that list anyway?
Will we know we are worthy when we receive the love or care or validation we crave? Will we know we are worthy when we become a CEO? Or a parent? Or a partner? Will we know we are worthy when we finish the Ironman? Will we know we are worthy if we earn the gold medal? If we never miss a day of work even when we are sick? Will we know we are worthy when we "change the world?" Will we know we are worthy when we have the perfect relationship and the perfect kids? Will we know we are worthy when we have the big house and the nice cars and the private schools and the designer clothes?
And then, what if that relationship or role or accomplishment escapes our grasp? What if our partner doesn't love us anymore? What if that person we depend upon freezes us out? Gives us the silent treatment? Walks away? What if our boss that we are desperately trying to impress isn't impressed, or yells at us, or tells us we are lucky we get to work there? What if we get passed over for the promotion? Or laid off? What if we no longer have a "title" to tell us who we are? What if our company fails? What if we get injured? What if we don't win the medal or even finish the race? What if we never get to change the world? What if our marriage fails? What if we lose everything?
Did things go "wrong" because everything is in a constant state of change? Because people change and leaders change and markets change and relationships change and bodies change?
Or did things go "wrong" because WE were too hard, too broken, too demanding, not worthy, not worth the investment of time and energy and care, not worthy of whatever good outcome we were striving to realize?
In my own life, overwhelmingly it wasn't "other people's" definitions I was trying to live up to, at least not knowingly. I had set my own internal bar for establishing my own value at an unsustainable height. Granted, the bar had initially been set there when I was a child, but as an adult, I was the one who held on to those standards as the barometer for my worth and "lovable-ness" in the world. Those standards were so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that I didn't even realize they were there. But they propelled me forward to the point of collapse.
Here is the problem...when we live our lives in such a way that is rooted in fear of never being enough, it is like pouring water in a bucket that has a bunch of holes in the bottom. We keep trying to fill the bucket. We make progress. We start to feel "okay" about ourselves and our lives and our accomplishments.
But the water leaks out. Maybe slowly. Maybe as fast as you pour it in. But instead of patching the holes--which you may or may not even be aware are there--you keep pouring water into the bucket. You get that next degree or certification; you sign up for that next race; you work longer hours so you will be noticed and possibly rewarded; you say "yes" to every commitment, every "ask" of your time; you make more money; you buy more stuff; you numb your fears; you stay in relationships that perhaps are no longer healthy for you (or never were) because you have lost sight of who you are outside of them; you are constantly seeking affirmation and confirmation from other people; you live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with your own accomplishments.
You. Cannot. Fill. The. Bucket. When. It. Has. Holes. In. It.
But you keep striving and working and achieving and giving and likely maintaining a disconnect between who you are and what you need in your very core--in your heart of hearts; in your soul--physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
That striving for worth and validation can leave us Running on Empty. It can also leave us feeling lost and hopeless when the things in our lives that were our barometer for our value shift, change or disappear.
Before you can patch the holes, you have to know they are there. The holes are those places where our beliefs about our own value are disconnected from our inherent value and worth as human beings. Those areas in our lives where we are still trying to "earn" our way to enough. Those areas where the messages that we learned--when we were young and extroardinarily vulnerable to the influence of our caregivers, about who we had to be and who we couldn't be were connected to our survival--are still fueling our choices.
When I first sought therapy, the therapist asked me what my goal was for the engagement. I told her that I wanted to stop "running" from the fear of not being enough in my life. I wanted to learn to live my life drawn forward by light and hope and belief. Called forward so to speak, instead of propelled forward from behind.
Do you know why you do what you do? Why you make the choices you make? Why you give what you give? Where your measuring stick for value and worth comes from?
I encourage you to spend some time this week considering the sources of your motivation. I don't mean the obvious sources (money, cars, houses, and paying for kids). I mean the sources that live deep down inside you, hidden from view.
Are you fully present in each day with a sense of peace, contentment and hope? Do you move forward because you are called to do so? Are you drawn by passion and hope?
Or do you move forward because you are chasing an unattainable standard? Do you crave approval from someone in your life who may or may not ever be able to give it to you? Are you "making up" for something that happened a long time ago? Do you feel like you will never arrive? Do you worry that other people think you aren't earning your keep? Do you rely on others for your sense of value and worth?
We cannot fix the holes in the bucket if we don't know where they are, and living our lives pouring water into a leaky bucket is unsustainable and can take us to the precipice.
Where are the holes in your bucket?
If this message resonates with you, I hope you will reach out. I would love to hear from you.