I once had a colleague named Bethany who, unbeknownst to her, had a profound impact on my life. She was constantly on the go at the therapy clinic where we both treated clients. Not only did she see patients, but she would help manage the daily operations of the agency, supervised interns, provided Spanish translation for other therapists in their sessions, and (most impressively) always had her paperwork done on time. As if that wasn’t enough, this dizzyingly productive woman was also somehow able to sustain a happy marriage and remain highly involved in the lives of her three children—the youngest of which was born with special needs. She always found ways to eat healthy, stay fit, and was unflinchingly pleasant to interact with. In short, if you looked at her birth certificate, you’ll notice the correct pronunciation of her middle name is “Overachiever.”
I recall one afternoon I was eating lunch in the staff kitchen when Bethany, per usual, flew in like the breeze to assemble her salad. She said hello and made small talk, always taking the time to chat and be congenial with everyone despite her perpetually hurried demeanor. It was impossible not to envy her seemingly innate capacity for being, delicately put, on top of her shit, and in that moment I felt compelled to ask her how she does it. How she was capable of getting so much done, pushing forward, finding balance, and not drowning in a sea of overwhelming responsibilities. She chuckled at the question, assured me that behind the scenes she had plenty of her own emotional struggles, and offered a poignant reply that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “It’s hard to say, but I guess you learn to live with things being good enough.”
Over the years since working with Bethany I have given the idea of “good enough” a lot of thought, both as it relates to myself and the people I treat in therapy—specifically those struggling with chronic emotional distress (CED for short). Through my work I began to see how the good enough philosophy could help these individuals that were crumbling under the weight of their intense emotional cycles. They would describe frequent debilitating episodes impeding their ability to live their lives; episodes fuelled by all manner of problematic coping behaviors like: non-stop worry, toxic self criticism, comparison bias, and chronic shame.
For those of us living with CED, existing in a virtually unrelenting state of “not being okay” becomes the norm as we wrestle with the daily, sometimes hourly, guessing game of which emotions will be triggered, how badly, and for how long. The collateral damage that results from the need to constantly put out these emotional fires is often extensive. The biggest casualty by far being time. People spend so much time dealing with their internal challenges that their external interests—maintaining friendships, achieving goals, connecting with family—suffer from severe neglect.
After enduring years of life in chronic turmoil, it’s impossible not to envy those who appear to be above it all—just as I did with Bethany. However, she quickly reminded me that assuming anyone has it all figured out is a fallacy, and that she struggles just like the rest of us. This fact initially bothered me because I grew more envious that she too experienced regular emotional challenges, but had found the secret to beating it—and I hadn’t. But later, during one of those rare moments of mental clarity, I came to a comforting realization: she actually hadn’t beaten it, she merely learned to manage it. Bethany’s emotional challenges never ceased to be a fixture in her life, she just taught herself to function in spite of them.
So how was she able to do it? Was it through some new breathing technique or life-hack? Did she learn to cope with feeling overwhelmed, doubtful, even angry or depressed through sheer tyranny of will? In truth, none of the above. She simply made a choice. Bethany made a conscious decision to adopt a more useful perspective on life: live with good enough—a mantra that served her well because she reinforced it every day. Its power was in the permission it gave her to stop chasing the illusion of perfect, blissful happiness and to embrace what is. Ironically, this idea actually allowed her to find happiness.
Perhaps this was possible because Bethany’s philosophy of good enough focuses on valuing stabilityover achieving happiness. Such a notion is vital to people struggling with chronic emotional distress because of our common belief that those who aren’t emotionally afflicted are living happier lives. We envy the apparent absence of emotional pain, and call it happiness. Yet, working from this assumption consistently leaves us feeling broken and inept, like happiness was something they taught in school and we were all somehow sick that day. It never quite feels achievable. Therefore, I would argue that what the CED afflicted are truly after is a degree of control. In essence, emotional stability—embodied by the confidence of knowing that whatever stressors may come, we can handle it well enough that we don’t completely fall apart. Developing this ability to trust ourselves allows us to push through episodes of emotional distress such that we can live our lives proactively rather than reactively. And it is unquestionably this constant battle with our own emotional reactivity that exhausts and consumes us.
To begin trusting ourselves to appropriately handle our mood states, we must first examine our perspective when we are struggling “in the moment.” In the midst of heightened emotional distress, our body systems flood with stress hormones, our minds clutter themselves with anxious, rageful, and depressive thoughts, and we become acutely aware that we are “not okay.” Self preservation instincts alert us that we must find a way to be okay and bring our systems back to normal functioning quickly. We often heed these internal warnings with urgency and without question, however this cycle feeds our sense of instability and lack of self control. What we consistently don’t realize is that we can partially ignore our internal cues to fix ourselves and find ways to be okay when we’re not okay. The good enough perspective, in moments of acute distress, means accepting our current emotional discomfort rather than scrambling to erase it. Our emotions, however painful, are not inherently lethal, they cannot claim us—though they often feel as if they can. We have to encode the idea that we can endure them.
Building stability when we are not necessarily in moments of distress is primarily a matter of embracing and accepting our limitations rather than catering to personal expectations. It boils down to the level of kindness and patience we show ourselves. When we fail to meet an internalized expectation, whether we are aware we hold ourselves to this standard or not, we get angry, often depressed, and we punish our shortcomings in unspeakable ways. Our intention here is not masochism, but an effort to teach ourselves the consequences of failure. Consider the implications of this system of self-correction. If we were to mentor a child in the same manner, and inflict shame every time she failed to meet an expectation, that child would only know fear and self doubt whenever posed with a challenge. The result would likely be that she avoids risk out of fear of failure, while simultaneously shaming herself for being cowardly. However, if we were to approach the child with patience, understanding, and compassion when a mistake is made, she would be far less likely to fear taking risks, and would emotionally rebound more quickly.
So why do we reserve these appropriate levels of empathy only for others and not ourselves? If only there was a philosophy that could change our perspective…
Good enough teaches us to turn this much needed compassion inward by exercising understanding and allowing us to establish internal boundaries. Without a firm set of internal boundaries—standards for compassionately managing self-imposed expectations—those battling CED can easily fall victim to rampant self-criticism and the resultant emotional despair. With strong internal boundaries we can learn to set limits on our inner critic and identify how much self examination is useful toward personal growth, and when it exceeds these limits and moves into the realm of being toxic or shaming. These boundaries also help us to feel confident in how much effort is “good enough” without succumbing to crippling doubt. We can use them to define what success means to us instead of yielding the definition to the approval of others. And perhaps most importantly, we can begin embracing our messy parts and incorporating them into our own unique self concept rather than trying to achieve an impossible social standard of perfection.
Interestingly, even after a rousing pep-talk about self love, setting boundaries, and embracing limitations, people consistently lament and reject the parts of themselves they consider undesirable: lack of passion, heightened emotionality, physical disabilities, cognitive challenges, etc…It’s not my goal to attempt to put a positive spin on these aspects of humanity. Some things serve no hidden purpose but to torment us. Unfortunately, we tend to highlight these obstacles as the qualities that define our value and our identity. We often pity ourselves or curse fate for marking us as “damaged.” Good enough helps us to shift this imbalance. With it our focus can move away from our flaws and toward what we can achieve despite our flaws. I strongly believe that this is the power Bethany discovered for herself. She cultivated resistance to being preoccupied with her own shortcomings, refused to let them define her capabilities, and the result was transcendent and inspiring.
Today I try to live by Bethany’s philosophy of good enough and to pass it on whenever I can. It has helped me to embrace my own flaws and to re-write my perspective on life. Getting through moments of chronic emotional distress can still pose a challenge, but as I come closer to that hallowed stability, finding happiness becomes gradually easier. And should others choose to give this philosophy a legitimate try I believe they won’t be disappointed. For those struggling to find their own answers, and tired of battling themselves, I offer this bit of advice: Don’t waste your time fighting against what’s within you, find a way to harness it, because what’s within you IS you, and it’s undoubtedly good enough.