If I asked you to go to your local hospital maternity ward and spend a few minutes looking through the window at the babies born today, then come back and tell me which one is not enough…could you do it?
This is a question I heard posed by Vancouver trauma therapist Marshall Willensky, with whom I was fortunate to study with several years ago.
How is it we are able to see brand-new humans who’ve done nothing except arrive and need …well…EVERYTHING, as enough, yet we live in a chronic state of insecurity about our own enough-ness? Especially when we consider that no human is BORN neurotic, which strongly suggests that those babies you just imagined feel pretty sure they’re enough.
This begs the obvious question. What goes wrong between our arrival as infants who instinctively know we’re enough, and the children, adolescents, and grown-ups we become who believe we’re not?
And why does this result in us going to ridiculous lengths to prove we ARE enough, becoming anxious, exhausted, depressed and sick in the process? This includes our most recent digital obsession with editing our realities into a carefully constructed ‘social self’ we fervently hope will comply with whatever we believe is enough.
What is going on here?
It’s probable the answer is connected to what scientists call our ‘attachment drive,’ which appears to be one of the most profound drivers of human behaviour.
From a biological perspective, our drive to ‘attach’ to each other is so fundamental that we’re essentially herd mammals. We know instinctively from birth we won’t survive without the herd. (Remember those newborns who still need EVERYTHING supplied for them?)
This means we come into the world with DNA encoded to do two things as soon as we are able. One, whatever we can to stay on the radar of our families’ attention to increase the chances they will meet our survival needs. And two, (especially if we have siblings) ensure our family needs us for something uniquely, so they don’t just forget about us and leave us at a gas station on a family trip.
The first of these instincts means that eye contact, touch, voice, Cheerios, and everyday interaction with members of our family was EVERYTHING to us as little ones. We would have taken 100% of the attention of those around us, every second of the day if it had been available.
In fact, we experienced a feeling of disconnection from our caregivers as a potential threat to our survival, which made us extremely anxious.
Some scientists suspect that’s why tiny humans are so damn cute — it makes people want to look at us more often.
But the reality every parent knows is that there’s NO WAY we can give face-to-face attention to a baby or toddler every minute of the day. Especially when we don’t raise children in villages with lots of caregivers anymore, but isolated in single-family homes where we’re also required to do everything else for the survival of our little tribe.
This need for survival attachment is where things get interesting to our central question about losing our original sense of enough-ness.
It seems when small humans experience those inevitable moments of inattention from our caregivers, we assume it is WE who are suddenly not enough to close the attention-gap, and we try harder to get it back.
This is not only part of an exhausting tendency to believe that everything is about us, but that we must work as hard as possible to be worthy of other people’s care.
It’s an adaptive strategy left over from trying to get help when we were quite literally helpless.
It’s actually not a bad system from a survival perspective. What if infants and toddlers responded to parental absences like this: Mom & Dad seem to have forgotten I’m here, screw them, I’ll just ignore them too. We would have died of starvation while our parents finally slept long enough to recover from the excruciating 49-hour labor-ordeal we rode in on.
Instead, we did what we had to; squirm, cry, laugh, point, screech, bang, and once we had a few words, grab objects and yell, “Ma! Da! Yook! Yook!” with increasing volume until they HAD to look.
Only then could we momentarily relax again, knowing we were back on their radar and therefore had a reasonable chance of survival.
The second instinct, the imperative that we must belong ‘uniquely’ may be connected to the fact that our ancestors survived some pretty terrible situations. At least the successful ones did. These included floods, war, migration, famines and so on. They also didn’t have access to reliable birth control, which means they had to make some terrible choices. Imagine you have four children and there’s a severe food shortage. If you try to feed all four kids through the winter, they’ll ALL die. So, who do you pick?
It’s an awful thought, and no one likes to talk about it, but the truth is that we are the descendants of the children who were chosen.
Which means it may be written right into in our DNA-diary that we must not only BELONG to our families - but also distinguish ourselves as SPECIAL to them in some way.
It’s no wonder that sibling rivalry can be so intense. This helps explain why your ‘rebel’ brother and your ‘competitive high achieving’ sister left you no choice but to become the ‘peacemaking caregiver.’ It was all part of the unconscious ‘no child left behind’ imperative to stay on the radar.
So, if we all had to run the same high-stakes Attachment Gauntlet to survive our long childhood dependence, it stands to reason we have a leftover tendency to feel, deep down in our wordless bellies, that we are not enough.
This is actually fine if it doesn’t create problems for you. Maybe you even believe continuous self-improvement by someone who never feels good-enough is a positive thing. Your parents and teachers may have even taught you to believe this, because they believed it too.
But one of the most problematic behaviours leading to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression is a tiring tendency to try too hard for too long at what we think we SHOULD do instead of trusting the flow of our own life.
But trusting yourself is vital since once you are doing things that matter to YOU, you will work hard, really hard, and be happy doing it. Because of this, it might be an idea to consider what’s needed to resuscitate your own organic sense of enough-ness before you start your next Must-Try-Harder List.
To find our way back to our innate sense of being enough, it helps to focus on one obvious fact we may have overlooked once childhood was over, which is this: childhood is over.
We survived. We did it. We grew up. We have our own resources, a driver’s license, a bank account, we know how to read maps, shop, make scrambled eggs, write, Google things, vote, pay bills and do our own laundry. We have grown-up friends who also have resources and will sometimes even help us move our stuff in exchange for pizza. We have neighbours and co-workers we can ask for advice. We can buy our own Cheerios and drive ourselves to soccer practice. We likely don’t even live with Mom and Dad anymore or won’t for much longer. We successfully made it out of childhood alive.
I also credit Marshall Willensky, for reminding me that island-based Japanese soldiers who lost radio contact with headquarters at the at the end of World War II dutifully kept watching for enemy aircraft for several years, not realizing that Japan had surrendered. That is until they were finally remembered, re-engaged, brought home and given great honour by the Japanese government and the Japanese people. The younger parts of ourselves are rather like these soldiers, remaining vigilant, stuck in the past, forgotten, believing they can only survive by doing whatever they did to successfully ‘stay on the radar’ while we were utterly dependent on our families.
But what if the war is over?
What might it mean to re-establish radio contact with your younger self, provide an update, bring them home to where you live NOW?
What if you thanked them for the incredible service they gave to help you get out of childhood alive, and then let them have some fun helping you experience your life TODAY — bringing your authentic longings and gifts to to the world. Doing whatever is needed to ensure that you don’t die disappointed.
A Google search for the definition of ‘enough’ brings up 845,000,000 results. (Is that enough ‘enoughs’ for us?) However, a quick scan revealed a particularly succinct definition which I loved. Sufficient for the purpose.
What is your purpose right this minute? To get to the end of this article? To decide what to make for dinner? To prep for a meeting? To get your shoes and drive to the gym? To tell someone you love them? To paint a room? To jot down that idea you had yesterday? To clean the bathtub? To study for an exam? To write an apology? To make a difficult decision? To take the next step of a long journey?
Now think back to those newborns you imagined. Do what they do for a moment. Just breathe. Feel your heart beating. Look at your hands. Feel the bend of your elbows. Sense your internal organs working together to support your completely unrepeatable existence. Feel the heat generated by their silent collaborative dance radiating from the centre of your body, out past your skin and into the space around you, like a circle of light around a candle flame.
Be! Be yourself.
You are sufficient for the purpose. You are enough.
How do you know?
You know, because you were born knowing.