The Universal Feeling of Being Not Enough

Mike believed he had a good life and felt lucky for the things he had. He was married to a loving wife, had a good job, owned a nice house, and had 3 healthy kids.

Despite all his good fortune, Mike could not shake the nagging feeling that he wasn’t enough. “I should be more successful. I should make more money. I should be where my boss is. I should have gotten a graduate degree. I should have a bigger house. I should have more friends.” These were some of the “shoulds” that plagued him on a daily basis.

“Could I get you curious about this part of you that feels inadequate?” I asked Mike at our initial meeting. After he consented, I suggested, “Let yourself travel back in time…back and … back and … back. How old were you when you first felt not enough?” I asked him.

He paused to reflect, “It’s definitely been with me a long time,” He said. “Maybe 6 or 8? Around there.”

Mike’s father became extremely successful and publicly exalted when he was 6 years old. Because of his father’s new job, his family moved to an exotic country where they didn’t speak English and where the culture was completely different. Mike was scared and felt like a stranger. Even though he attended an international school, he had no friends for a long time. His parents pushed him hard. They meant well and we’re trying to encourage him. But feeling scared and overwhelmed by the many changes in his life, he misinterpreted their words as disappointment that he wasn’t enough — it was the familiar feeling he still had today.

We are not born feeling inadequate. Life experiences and emotions create that sense within us in a variety of creative ways. For example, when we were little and we felt afraid or anxious, our mind told us something was wrong with us, not with our environment. That’s why children who are abused or neglected grow up to be adults that carry so much shame. A child’s mind says, “There must be something wrong with me if I feel so bad and I must deserve to be treated badly.”

As adults, armed with education on emotions and how childhood adversity affects the brain, we can understand that feeling not enough is a byproduct of an environment that was insufficient. We are in fact enough! Yet to feel more solid in our Self, we must work to transform that not enough feeling.

One way to transform old beliefs is to work with them as separate child parts. With some mental energy, we can externalize them. I asked Mike, “Can you move that part of you that feels not enough on the sofa over there so we can see him and get to know him? What does that 6-year-old part of you look like? What do you see him wearing? Where do you see him? Is he in a specific memory?”

I also suggested to Mike that feeling not enough might be a defense against his deeper emotions towards others who had hurt him or not been there for him when he needed support. Thinking about The Change Triangle, we slowed down to notice his feelings towards himself and his parents. Without judging his core emotions as right or wrong, I helped him accept that he was angry at his father for uprooting him, a move that cost him his confidence.

Since emotions are physical sensations, another way to work with wounded parts is through the body. Mike learned to recognize how not enough felt physically. “It is like an emptiness — like a hole inside. I know I have been successful at times and I believe my family loves me. Emotionally, it doesn’t feel that way at all. Good stuff comes in but it goes right through me like a bucket with a hole. I’m never filled.”

To help patch the hole in his bucket, I helped Mike build his capacity to hold onto good feelings by noticing them. “If you validate your accomplishments what does that feel like inside?”

“I feel taller,” said Mike.

“Can you stay with the feeling of being taller for just 10 seconds?” I asked.

Like a form of training, we can build our capacity to experience positive feelings. Going slowly, we practiced noticing sensations associated with pride, love, gratitude and joy, getting used to them a little at a time.

What else can Mike and all of us do in the short run to help the parts of us that feel not enough?

  • We can remind our self again and again that the feeling of not enough is subjective and not objective, even when it feels so viscerally true.
  • We can connect to that part of us that feels bad and offer it compassion, like we would do for our child, partner, colleague, friend, or pet.
  • We can stand in a power pose 2–3 times daily to feel stronger and more confident. (See Ted Talk on Power Poses by Amy Cuddy)
  • We can practice deeply belly breathing, 5 or 6 times in a row, to calm our nervous system.
  • We can exercise to get adrenaline flowing and create a sense of empowerment.
  • We can remember this very helpful phrase: Compare and Despair! When you catch yourself making comparisons to others, STOP!

In the long run we heal the parts of us that feel inadequate by first becoming aware of them. Then we need to listen and fully understand their unique story of how they came to believe they were not enough. Over time, by naming, validating and processing the associated emotions both from the past and present, the frequency and intensity of our not enough parts diminish.

Mike learned to feel and move through the buried anger he had towards his parents for moving and for not noticing how much he struggled. He validated the pain and sadness for what he went through without judging whether he was entitled to his feelings. When his wife hugged him and praised him for being such a great dad, he took in her love and praise as deeply as possible. He accepted himself during the times when he was too tired to fight against the feelings of not enough. By educating himself on emotions and how the brain deals with adversity in childhood, Mike truly knows now that everyone struggles. No one is perfect, not even his father. When all else fails, just this thought brings him peace and reminds him he’s enough.

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