What to Do When You Don’t Feel Good Enough
“No matter what I do, I’m not good enough.”
That’s a thought that plagues many. For some, it’s an occasional thought focused on a particular situation. For others, the thought is global and is always present. It attaches to any situation or interaction, and it almost always generates feelings of shame.
Why do some of us struggle so much with this? And what can we do about it?
Let’s start with causes and a description of how it manifests, then go on to strategies you can use to deal with it.
Where It Comes From
Although there are many possible causes, it helps to look at them in two broad categories:
- Personal history (an internal bias)
- Cultural factors (an external bias)
The feeling of not being good enough is often deep-seated, meaning it’s been developed and internalized over years. It begins in our families of origin through early interactions with our parents before we have self-awareness or the language to codify it. It continues to grow and take more definitive shape as we navigate our school years and relationships with peers and the outside world.
By the time we reach adulthood, it’s a full-fledged belief system that’s so embedded in our psyches that it colors most of our experiences, and is the primary basis for how we view ourselves.
It’s like a category 5 hurricane that starts as a small storm and generates into a more organized system rotating around the eye, gaining strength as it moves across the ocean.
Here’s some familial circumstances that can initiate and nurture it:
- Having a critical, exacting parent who requires perfection.
- Receiving praise primarily for accomplishments and achievements, and conversely disapproval for a lack of them.
- Being expected to function as an adult early on, and having responsibilities way beyond your years.
- Getting positive reinforcement for pleasing others, and negative reinforcement when you deviate from that or try to take time for yourself or have your own ideas.
- Growing up with a volatile parent who readily projects his or her anger and rage on you, and doesn’t take responsibility for the harm it causes.
- Being consistently emotionally neglected or ignored.
- Living in the shadow of an adored sibling who’s a high performer and parental favorite.
- Developing an insecure or avoidant attachment style due to having parents who were inconsistent in their emotional availability, or unreliable, or unstable and chaotic.
- Enduring traumatic experiences such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
Everyone in each of these situations might not react in exactly the same way, but it’s likely that most will come out of them with doubts about their worth, and have a strong need to gain the approval of others just to rise to the status of “okay.”
We’re a culture of achievement and performance, and we place great value on outcomes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can become destructive when “approval” is tacked onto it.
The “achievement = approval” idea is instilled in children early on, and filters into our awareness once we acquire language and a rudimentary ego (around age 2). We’re positively reinforced when we do something well, and negatively when we don’t.
Then we approach school and the ante goes up. Our education system applauds performance at every turn. Making good grades, performing well in class, excelling on the sports field, playing a musical instrument, dancing in recitals – these become the measures of who we are.
When our sense of self is narrowed to what we do and how well we do it, we become anxious and doubtful. It’s and either/or proposition, and we either cave and feel unworthy or get on a perpetual treadmill to be perfect. Usually both.
This cultural bias towards performance follows us into adulthood as we enter the workplace, and throughout our lives until finally we collapse under the weight of it and can’t wait to retire and sit around and drink Margaritas. That’s an exaggeration perhaps, but not much!
Being the best also pervades other areas of our lives. The prettiest, the most fit, the most athletic, having the perfect body – these are standards imposed on us that we measure ourselves against.
Adults get into even more costly types of performance like having the best houses, jobs, credentials, professions, cars, and on it goes.
All of this is pushed on us and repetitively hammered into our brains through the media and advertising.
The crowning blow comes from social media where we hang ourselves out to be judged. We’re constantly plagued by comparing ourselves to the photoshopped lives of others.
If we didn’t feel good enough already, social media is the acid in the open wound. It pounds us, addicts us, and provides constant fake notions of how things are, and how we aren’t. It’s no wonder that our youth feel so overwhelmed with anxiety.
Have I thoroughly depressed you yet? I hope not, but let’s keep going. It will have a good ending, I promise.
The next question is how does all of this manifest in us, and what behaviors do we adopt.
The Behaviors and Habits
The following list are the more common behaviors that surface when someone chronically feels they don’t measure up.
When you don’t feel good enough, you also don’t feel like you belong. You’re different. You don’t fit in. Even if you fake it, you know you’re not like everyone else. You feel inferior.
Your isolation can be both emotional and physical meaning you keep to yourself, don’t have many friends, and avoid intimate contact. You might play videos games across computers, or text, or interact on social media, but face to face contact is painful.
Conversely, you might spend a lot of time with friends, but have a running conversation in your head about how others don’t like you, or find you annoying, or disapprove of you, or feel sorry for you because your socially inept.
It’s like standing outside the clubhouse and not having the right ticket to gain entrance.
Either way, the isolation is painful and keeps you at a distance. You dread anyone knowing who you really are or what you’re really like. You hide out.
Comparing yourself with others is a chronic activity that occurs involuntarily. You’re deep into it before you recognize that you’re doing it. No matter what the comparison or with whom, you come out on the bottom.
You subconsciously or even unconsciously select people to compare yourself with that you already believe are superior to you.
You look for the evidence that you’re not good enough, and then use it against yourself. It’s a set up, and you do it repetitively.
You’ve learned the power of negative reinforcement and use it against yourself. You exaggerate others’ superlatives while ignoring your own.
Your Inner Critic
The “inner critic” is that voice in your head that constantly criticizes and reminds you you’re not what you could be or should be. It guilts you when you don’t make improvements or you deviate from the plan.
The problem with this voice besides the obvious, is that you court it by giving it power because you listen to it, and at the same time rebel against it by avoiding your responsibilities which in turn is followed by a guilt rant that decimates you. This cycle is on repeat mode, and you find yourself feeling both battered and resentful at the same time.
Self-talk is the tool the inner critic uses. It’s the repetitive characterizations and mantras that describe your “inadequacies.” It’s the megaphone of self-hatred, and the leader of the “not got enough” chant. It outlines in detail what’s wrong with you and why you can’t move forward. It keeps you imprisoned and affirms you’re negative beliefs.
Denial and Numbing
Perpetually feeling unworthy is exhausting, so you look for ways to tune out. Denying your real needs is easier than the pain of rejection and condemnation.
Numbing is a way to make yourself feel less of that pain. It can be done with addictive habits like over-eating or drinking, recreational drugs, binge-watching TV or Youtube, sleeping, isolating, avoiding work, and not taking care of yourself.
These habits feel like a temporary respite from your pain, but the pain eventually comes back in greater force and you feel even worse.
Perfectionism is the black hole that opens up when you want to fight the “not good enough” feeling. If you can just be perfect in everything you do, how you look, how you please others, what you say – in other words, be the perfect performer – then you can outrun that feeling. Other people will say, “She’s fabulous! Don’t you just love her!”
You’ll belong and you’ll get that ticket to enter the club.
It’s a mirage. It can’t happen no matter how hard you try. Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.
You’re chasing something that’s not real. And the harder you chase it, the farther you get away from your authentic self. You become more anxious and obsessive. It’s exhausting, and it’s a terrible and painful way to live. You can never relax or enjoy a moment. You can never be you.
Pleasing others is perfectionism’s cousin. Not everyone takes this route, but many do.
You become the person who can take care of everything – the one who can solve the problems and the one who can manage and orchestrate.
You also become the one taken advantage of, dumped on, used, and held prisoner to the beck and call of others. Your natural helping tendencies turn into 24 hour on-call, and you answer religiously.
You do this because you need approval, and if you help everyone, maybe you’ll get it. Maybe you’ll feel loved.
Sometimes that happens, but more often than not you feel used and worn out. You don’t set boundaries because if you do, someone might disapprove, and you so desperately need to avoid that.
What keeps us here?
Before we get into what you can do to make changes, it’s worth mentioning an obstacle you need to be aware of as you get started. It’s called your “emotional home.” I’ve written a whole article on this subject you can read to get the full explanation, but for our purposes here, let me sum it up in a couple of paragraphs and alert you to how it can get in the way of your good intentions.
Your emotional home is your comfort zone. It’s what you’re used to, familiar with, and what you know. It’s the sum of all you’ve been through, how you were raised, and what mindsets and habits are ingrained in your psyche, especially your emotional psyche.
If you’ve been depressed most of your life, then depression has put down roots in your emotional home. If you haven’t felt good enough most of your life, that feeling has also put roots down in your emotional home.
What we know, we cling too, even if it’s not good for us.
Your emotional home can be a shack with no running water, busted out windows, and infested with rats, but it’s what you know, and even though you’d like to move out, there’s part of you that resists that idea, and stays put because it’s where you live.
Human beings adapt to what comes at them, and if what comes at them is repetitive, is present throughout their early developmental years, and is reinforced as they grow up, they take it on as their own. They live there, and any attempt to move out is met with resistance.
All you need to know about this right now is that as you practice seeing yourself differently, acting differently, thinking differently and feeling differently, a part of you will resist making these changes and will drag you back to old habits. You just have to keep going in the face of that resistance and not let it take hold. It will eventually step down.
The other thing to know is that as you change, those with whom you are intimate or have a lot of contact with may also resist those changes. Some will not. Some will support you and cheer you on, but there are those that benefit from you not feeling good enough, and they may purposefully or unknowingly pull you back. Just stay vigilant and be aware.
Now for the changes.
9 Things You Can Do to Start Feeling Better
#1 Join the human race.
When you don’t feel good enough, you feel separate. The first step to changing that is to recognize that you’re part of the human race. You’re no different than anyone else, not in essence. You think that everyone else is fine, and that they have a firm grip on things, but that’s not true.
Everyone has issues and experiences pain. None of us are immune. We all suffer. It’s the human condition.
Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion, calls this “common humanity.” She says this about shared pain:
When we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by all. This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. Whereas self-pity says “poor me,” self-compassion remembers that everyone suffers, and it offers comfort because everyone is human. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain that you feel in difficult times.
We all work on the same stuff, maybe with different experiences or triggers, but our feeling is the same. We see ourselves through each other’s eyes and hearts and minds. We’re alike. We’re part of a whole. Each of us is one shade in the whole rainbow, yet we’re still part of the rainbow and every color is bound together by light, and every color is beautiful.
Not being good enough or being better than everyone else are two sides of the same coin. Neither are true. So join up and move in.
#2 Be your authentic self.
This idea comes from Brené Brown in the first chapter of The Gifts of Imperfection. It contains one of my favorite ideas in the book which is that being who you truly are won’t keep you from getting your feelings hurt sometimes, but it will prevent you from feeling shame.
That’s because being who you are and not hiding out in some caricature of who you think you should be, makes you feel vulnerable. But it also feels good! It allows you to begin appreciating different facets of yourself without judgment. There’s no strain, you don’t have to pretend, and ultimately that gives you peace.
The added gift is that people like you more when you’re authentic.
There’s something extremely attractive about authenticity. It’s straight up and breeds trust, because it’s real.
If you’re not used to doing this, then start slowly. In daily situations where you interact with other people, try being more honest, saying what you really think, relaxing, and allowing others to see you. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to make a splash. It’s a subtle shift. You’re already good enough. Just let it show. Slowly, slowly, slowly . . .and soon you won’t need to work at it.
#3 Make comparisons to yourself only.
Use yourself as your measuring stick.
If you go to a party and small talk is hard for you, instead of comparing yourself to the extrovert who can talk to the wall and everyone within sight of it, set a goal that’s a step up for you. Talk to just one person for five minutes. And at your next social event, add on a second person for 5 minutes, and keep going from there.
Measure your progress based on goals you set for yourself rather than on someone else’s performance. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Just work on your own stuff and go for consistent small improvements.
Athletes who become really good at what they do constantly up the bar for themselves, and then work to reach it. They don’t focus on someone else’s bar. They don’t even allow themselves to look at someone else’s bar when they’re practicing. The goal is progress, your progress.
Secondly, rethink social media.
If you have a tendency to get caught up in comparing yourself to others, social media is the perfect vehicle to ramp it up. Take a vacation from it for a while. Remove the apps from your phone. That helps to cut off access and frees you up from the constant itch to take a look. It also frees you up from the chronic anxiety of comparison.
Once you make a habit of working on your own goals, and creating a bar that fits you, you’ll gain momentum. You’ll feel good about making progress, and at the same time stop sabotaging yourself by comparing yourself to other people. This process will have the added benefit of teaching you to appreciate your own unique talents, drives, and personality characteristics which will improve your sense of self-worth.
#4 Challenge faulty thinking.
People who don’t feel good enough have exaggerated ideas about themselves, as well as others. To work on this, it’s necessary to:
- Become more aware of the repetitive negative ideas you have about yourself.
- Become more aware of the skewed perceptions you have about other people.
These two things intersect most of the time in your mind. You engage in a thought train about something that’s wrong with you or that you lack, and confirm it by comparing yourself to other people who you imagine are better than you.
Both ideas are likely exaggerated or simply not true.
Try this exercise:
Make a list of some of the repetitive negative perceptions you have about yourself. Write them out in full statements. For example,
“I’m so stupid. I can’t think of anything to say in meetings when I’m at work. Even if I did say something, everyone would laugh or get quiet. Everyone else talks and gets heard.”
Now ask yourself these questions about each of your statements.
- Is this statement absolutely true?
- What am I basing it on? What information?
- What am I exaggerating?
- What have I left out when thinking about this idea?
- Am I being overly harsh and critical?
- What’s my measuring stick for this idea?
- Who or what am I comparing myself to?
- How realistic is my assessment of these others?
Answer each question as objectively as you can by keeping your emotions at arm’s length. Write out your answers, and then formulate a corrective statement that’s more realistic and true.
“I have things to say that contribute. I’m just shy about asserting myself. Some of the other people in our meetings talk easily, but not everyone. I’m not alone. I’ve never really seen anyone get laughed at. I’m imagining that. If I tried talking more, it would get easier.”
You can do this exercise any time. You can use it for a single thought, or as a more in-depth look at patterns of thinking. It helps to make a habit of it because the more you do it, the more it becomes automatic and you catch your distorted thoughts as soon as they arise and make corrections on the spot. You’ll be able to get through the whole process in a couple of minutes and you can do it in your head as opposed to writing it out.
A note about self-fulfilling prophecy
It’s important to recognize that if you chronically engage in negative thought patterns about yourself, and behave in ways that reflect those thoughts, other people will notice. If you then look to those same people for confirmation that you’re right, you may often get it.
You set it up, even if you didn’t start it or want it. You keep it going by feeding it, and others give it back to you.
These negative thoughts may have been instilled in you early on, but at this point you’ve bought in and now you’re creating and embracing them.
You can stop this if you:
- Consistently challenge and correct these thoughts,
- And follow-up with different behavior.
When you see yourself differently, other people will too.
Isolation increases the feeling of being different, and can also lead to depression.
When you make an attempt to connect and be with other people, you feel more a part of things. Having a support system, friends you can hang with and talk to, and people in your space helps you see yourself in a different light.
The key is to maintain your authenticity while interacting with others. This means allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
Just remember that showing some openness and willingness to reveal who you are lets others in, and allows them to appreciate and get close to you.
The caveat here is to make sure that those you open up to are people who value you and who you can trust. Trying to connect with people who take advantage of or abuse you, or who don’t appreciate you, is not in your best interest.
You deserve to be respected and treated well.
#6 Make friends with your inner critic and quiet her down.
If you’re in the habit of not feeling good enough, your inner voice is likely critical, harsh, and unrelenting. It pounds you and nags at you and is the first in line to tell you what’s wrong with you. It’s tempting to just try and ignore it when it gets too noisy, but that really isn’t possible. It persists, and it’s loud!
So what’s the solution?
Instead of fighting with your inner critic, you need to transform it. Soften it. Embrace it, and make friends with it.
Here’s a little story about a woman I saw in therapy, and how she tamed her inner critic. I’ll call her Mary.
Mary created a character in her mind to represent her inner voice. It was a know-it-all, tattletale little girl who was constantly finding fault with everyone, especially Mary.
Mary practiced talking to this cranky little child and soothing her. She imagined hugging her and playing with her, and at times shushed her when she got out of hand.
This technique had a fabulous effect! By making her inner critic an unruly child, she gained some authority over her. And then she gave that child the love and guidance she (Mary herself) needed, and modeled how that should be delivered. The transformation was complete. Her inner critic became a soft, supportive voice that was on her side, yet also kept her in check when need be.
This worked wonderfully for Mary. Someone else might transform her inner voice into a supportive life coach. Or maybe an ideal mother or parent.
Whatever you choose, the main two criteria that characterize an effective inner voice are:
- It must be soothing, nurturing, loving, respectful and speak to you with compassion and empathy.
- It also must hold you accountable for your behavior and responsibilities, while also focusing on your strengths, character, positive qualities, and assets.
You can help transform you inner voice by improving your self-talk. Try these ideas out:
- When you notice you’re engaged in a negative rant about yourself, check it and change directions by substituting positive alternative thoughts. These shouldn’t be fake thoughts. They should reflect real positives you see in yourself, and if you can’t come up with any, ask someone who cares about you what they see and use those.
- Create some mantras you can use that will balance your thinking and give you an emotional boost. A simple one is “I can solve my problems,” or “It’s fine to ask for help when I need it,” or “I’m worthy of being loved.” Use whatever applies to you that will lift you up when you’re not doing well. Say them repeatedly. Some people find it helpful to post them around the house, or on their phone with a reminder to read them. Keep adding to them.
- Review your successes, especially small ones, out loud and in writing. Saying them helps you remember them, especially when you’re overwhelmed or struggling.
- Make a rule never to personalize your review of mistakes or behaviors. Instead of saying, “I’m so lazy. I let another day go by without . . . I fail at everything!“, you can say, “I didn’t do . . . today. What can I do right now to get it started, so I can finish it tomorrow?” It’s good to recognize when you let something slip, but engaging in a rant of how awful you are won’t make it better. You can’t beat yourself into being good enough. Take some small action and hold yourself to it. That will make it better. Then continue on.
#7 Focus on effort instead of outcomes.
We’ve talked some already about the “achievement = approval” standard, and figured out that this is not only harmful to your sense of worth, but it keeps you emotionally paralyzed.
This standard is what’s at the heart of what Carol Dweck calls the “fixed mindset” which she outlines in her book Mindset.
The fixed mindset approaches success as an all-or-nothing proposition. You either come in first and are a winner, or you come in second and are a failure. There’s no in between. It’s a sum zero game. Your performance is what defines you.
The opposite of this approach is described by Dr. Dweck as the “growth mindset.” Here success is aligned with effort, improvements, learning, curiosity, and ongoing process. You see yourself as a work in progress and have successes along the way, but are not defined by them. You’re defined by your efforts to grow and evolve, not arrive.
When you adopt the growth mindset, you can breathe again. You can take pleasure in small steps, small improvements, and enjoyment in learning something new or taking a side trip along the way to satisfy your curiosity about something. You can restore your sense of wonder, pursue your interests, and engage in new challenges with excitement. You can set goals that are of use to you and make you happy – not goals that prove to someone else that you’re worthy.
You’re already worthy.
#8 Take care of yourself physically.
When you get depressed, or feel less than, you can easily let go of taking care of yourself.
It’s important, especially when you’re feeling down or inadequate, to pay attention to your body. As best you can,
- Do regular exercise.
- Stick to a healthy diet. Not a starvation diet. One that includes complex carbs. You need good serotonin production to steady your mood. Fresh fruit is very helpful.
- Keep yourself dressed and groomed. Get out of your PJs during the day.
- Get medical or dental care if you need it.
Treat yourself as you would your child and make sure you get adequate sleep, stick to routines, and value your health and welfare.
Exercise by the way is particularly helpful because it can stabilize your mood by raising both serotonin and dopamine levels. Try something that doesn’t require too much time, but do it consistently. Walking is great, especially outside. If you do that, you’ll find yourself automatically eating and sleeping better.
#9 Establish boundaries.
Seeking approval by pleasing others is a double-edged sword. You might get that immediate lift up, but it’s not long lasting. You find yourself engaging in pleasing activities more and more to get the same feeling. It’s addictive.
Alternately, you narrow yourself to someone who helps others, yet has no demands or expectations for themselves. People take that message in subconsciously and before you know it, you find yourself being taken advantage of, even by people who wouldn’t necessarily do that.
Setting boundaries is saying “I value myself and my time, as well as yours.”
It’s fine to be a helping person, but not at your expense. You have a right to expect that others will be considerate of you and your time, and if they aren’t, it’s impingement upon you to make it known that it’s not okay.
When you do that consistently, you gain the respect you deserve, and people will sense those boundaries even before they’re spoken. You’ll find that they appreciate you and your helping tendencies, but are also considerate of you and value you for who you are rather than solely what you can do for them.
Helping should feel good, and leave you without anguish or resentment.
How to get started.
Setting boundaries is hard at first if you’re in the habit of letting people run roughshod over you. Start with just one situation. Opt out of something you really don’t want to do, or that leaves you feeling taken advantage of. If you lose a friend because of it, she wasn’t a friend.
People who value you feel badly if they hurt you or cross a line.
A good rule I use is the 24 hour rule. I don’t say yes to something asked of me right away. I wait 24 hours and then ask myself if I still think it’s a good idea. For small easy things, an immediate yes might be fine, but for things that are going to require more time and engagement, I wait before giving a yes.
Other boundaries that are important are speaking up for yourself when someone is abusive or disrespectful to you. You don’t need to counter-attack, but let it be known that those behaviors will not be tolerated.
That may mean stepping back from a situation, taking some time out, leaving a toxic relationship, or simply stating how you feel. Whatever the situation, it’s important for you to feel you have the right to be treated respectfully and make it known.
The more you practice setting boundaries, the easier it gets and the less confusing. You become sure of where those lines are and you have no problem enforcing them. Better yet, people get a sense from you where those lines are and don’t tend to try and cross them. For those that do, you have the power and the right to stop them.
Feeling good enough and valuing yourself are habits like anything else. It’s easy to think that you’re stuck in this mode, especially if you have a background that helped develop and reinforce it, but that’s not really true. You can change it. It does require being honest with yourself, changing and softening your inner voice, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and practicing. All good habits require consistent, repetitive practice. It’s within your power. You can do it!
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing.
Dweck, Carol S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion. William Morrow Publishing.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown Spark.