I’m not good enough. You don’t ever say it out loud, but maybe you feel it when you look at your saggy morning face in the mirror, see no one has liked or shared your most recent post, receive your end of season sale-frenzy credit card statement, or finally yield to the triple chocolate brownie with salted caramel sauce and ice cream.
I used to believe that I wasn’t good enough. My job felt like an unjust death sentence, I was single and lonely but only seemed to attract married men who wanted a young play thing, and even my body seemed to pronounce its dislike of me through angry rashes and digestive distress. I had a mind full of worthy aspirations and good intentions, but my reality was full of sharp edges that I constantly snagged myself on. At my darkest moments I played the secret game of gorge and purge with family sized packets of afghan biscuits. It felt as though I was failing at being me, and what is more soul destroying than that?
How did I become good enough?
There was no epiphany moment where the skies suddenly parted and I was bathed in heavenly rays of eternal good-enoughness. I never discovered a magical formula for inner contentment despite all the self-help books I read and positive affirmations I chanted. However, I started with a stubborn conviction that I deserved to be happy and successful as a human being, and a promise to myself that I would make that a reality even if it took a lifetime. I turned my back on climbing the corporate career ladder and followed my passion for health and wellbeing. I swore off dating for the sake of avoiding being on my own and flirted with yoga instead. Life was still a lot of daily ‘wax on, wax off’ but I no longer needed afghan biscuits to get me through the bad feelings, because those feelings didn’t scare me anymore. At a glacial pace I was becoming good enough to have hope and confidence in myself again. How did that happen?
I have found these four practices to be the most helpful. They have been part of my life for many years, and I continue to apply them every day as best I can.
1. Move your body to move your mind
The science that links positive feelings with physical exercise continues to accumulate. Exercise has been proven to boost mood, not only due to the endorphins (feel good) hormones released in response to aerobic activity, but also because it can stimulate brain activity and even the growth of new brain cells. When we get stuck in habitual thoughts and feelings about our experiences, it can be very hard to change these patterns.
I have journaled my whole life, but I have never found writing about my thoughts and feelings to be the best way to constructively deal with the difficulties that crop up both in daily life and as larger traumas. Conversely, I learnt that physical exercise has a very cathartic effect for me. I was never a sporty kid growing up – I preferred to spend hours lost in the wonder of books – but in my early twenties a triathlete boyfriend encouraged me to have a go and I quickly discovered that vigorous exercise gave me huge emotional release. Taking up competitive sport at a time when I was struggling with almost daily workplace verbal/emotional abuse helped me to overcome my self-destructive coping mechanisms.
Now, when something is troubling me and I have a strong emotional response, moving my body helps me to release that energy in a positive way, so that I don’t immediately redirect it back on myself or anyone else. I can puff and sweat out my anxieties in a run, and there’s nothing like a hard workout to give me deep and restful sleep. I have never suffered any lack of sleep from worry insomnia.
Yoga has been the single most effective therapy I have used for self-healing and overall life enrichment. It’s taught me how to channel my hyperactivity into graceful movement and through it I have developed a self-awareness and confidence that I could never have gained from intellectual self-analysis. Emerging studies into the effects of yoga on mental health are showing that it has a beneficial effect on stress, anxiety and depression. Regular practice can positively influence how the body responds to stress by reducing physiological arousal (eg. increased heart rate, palpitations, gut disturbances) and by improving your overall ability to cope with stress (eg. tolerance to pain).
Exercise won’t dissolve your distress, but it can build inner tolerance, resilience and endurance which are important traits when things become uncomfortable, as no-one has a life free of turmoil and pain.
What are you doing every day to get your body and mind moving freely? If your answer is nothing much, then challenge yourself to do some form of physical activity every day for a month and see if it makes any difference to how you feel about yourself. Have a mind of water – let it move freely so that your thoughts don’t become stagnant and noxious.
2. Take refuge
Daily life is fraught with opportunities to berate yourself because it’s the minutiae that are most likely sustaining your ‘not good enough’ angst with their constant presence. Perhaps it’s the bank balance that you check every day, the scales you stand on every morning, or the fussy school lunches that return home unwrapped. Your everyday mind becomes drawn towards seeking out reasons for your distress because these vindicate your reality – that you aren’t good enough, no matter what you do. However, every time that you reinforce the thoughts and feelings that make up your idea of ‘not good enough’, you’re harming yourself. So it’s critical to learn how to disarm the destructive force of your internal narrative, otherwise it will grow stronger and more persuasive.
I didn’t find common strategies like journaling or affirmations effective in giving me the strength to climb out of my deep funk – they felt nice and uplifting in the moment, but packed no real grunt. Change only happened when I learnt how to give myself head-space from my relentless internal chatter. I call this space my refuge, and I make sure that I spend some time there most days.
By this I don’t mean a physical place of safe refuge. I am referring to a sanctuary within your own everyday mind where you do not harm yourself – whether through self-inflicted criticisms or recycling the opinions and judgments of others. You can’t stop yourself from having thoughts, so the purpose of taking refuge is to rest quietly, hearing your thoughts and sensing your feelings in glorious technicolour without reacting towards them. Sometimes this is extremely difficult when the emotional content is raw and oozing, but it’s kind of like getting a tattoo. If you don’t fixate on it, the pain lessens as the minutes tick by. You aren’t avoiding your thoughts and feelings, but you are also not giving them your attention. The aim is to sit with your ‘not good enough-ness’ and to neither try to make it go away, nor conversely try to make it better.
I like to start by doing at least five minutes of easy breath control exercises, as these help my natural restlessness to be directed into a rhythmic flow which calms my nervous system sufficiently that I can sit in quietude. (Of course there are always the days when my mind is as mad as rush hour in spaghetti junction – all chaos going nowhere with a lot of manic honking and unpredictable lane changes.)
In creating this space, the most important prerequisites are:
- being in a quiet place where you are as free from external distractions as possible,
- having the sincere intention to do no harm to yourself during this time, and
- giving yourself at least 15-20 minutes time out in refuge every day.
In essence this could be considered a form of meditation, with the emphasis on practicing non-harming and kindness, however my primary intention here is to share with you a way of just being with yourself in a simple, unstructured and gentle way.
How can you take refuge every day? You may find sitting still too difficult. It can be just as effective to go for a walk by yourself in a park or at the beach but don’t take your smart phone and chat, text or listen to music. The aim of the practice is to be alone with your thoughts and feelings without trying to avoid them, pander to them or make excuses for them. This is the same patient kindness you would extend to a good friend, by just being there to listen and not to pass judgement.
3. Have a sense of purpose
Having a sense of purpose has always been essential to my sanity. The times in my life when I have felt the most lost and low in spirit have been when I’ve suffered from a lack of meaningfulness and motivation on a daily basis.
Purpose is greater than a goal. Goals have handy acronyms like SMART and weekly planners to help you to achieve them. Sometimes you get a decorative piece of embossed bling to hang around your neck when you reach a goal and people tell you ‘well done’ and your ego is happy for a day or two.
Purpose is squirmier and unlikely to take you on a direct journey from intention to outcome. Purpose can be inquisitive, adventurous and surprising. Purpose is less interested in getting you there any time soon because there are so many interesting ways to arrive – why take a plane when you can travel by yak and explore the cavernous passes instead of simply jetting across them? Purpose recognises your innate potential and encourages you to explore possibilities in your life. It gives your day meaning and your actions real worth, even if your purpose has no value to anyone else. Cultivating your purpose may be gritty work at times but it will bring out the best in you.
Some people refer to your purpose as your “calling” however that term is generally used with reference to vocation, and it also implies that you only have one real path in life. I believe that we all have a reservoir of potential within ourselves and as our lives progress we have continual opportunities to dive in and look for treasure. It took me a long time to accept that my purposes had intrinsic value purely because they inspired me to do things which challenged me and tested my limits – even though they didn’t bring about world peace, create income or get anyone else particularly excited. My current purposes include becoming a writer and exploring my potential as an older athlete by taking on the challenge of doing an Ironman event after 20 years of a yoga rich lifestyle.
Meaningful purpose makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Living your purpose is an intimate personal experience – you don’t always need to have an end in sight, because you’re not always trying to get anywhere. Rather, you’re just being you, doing your thing in your own unique way, without expectation or comparison, because each finish line offers the possibility of another. You are fulfilling your purpose purely by taking constructive actions which nurture and support it.
I consider a purpose to be a journey of discovery about what’s possible for me, rather than a haloed destination. What purposes do you have that lie dormant and unexplored? Why are these purposes of value to you? What can you do every day to nourish your purposes more richly?
4. ‘Other’ focus
The journey of self-help does require a certain amount of navel gazing, and there is a fine line between enthusiastic self-improvement and fervent self-absorption. Having an ‘other’ focus keeps you from spending every waking moment fixated on what you want (striving) and what you don’t want (avoiding). Giving without expectation of anything in return is an ideal that might seem impossible when you are stressed, over-committed and time-starved, but there are some real rewards to be found in going out of your way to be helpful and kind to others. I do weekly voluntary work with a cat rescue sanctuary and a local colony of stray cats. I love every moment of it from the whiffy litter boxes to the bountiful purrs. I don’t need to be good enough at these times; all I need is to be there to do the work required of me, and to care about the wellbeing of the cats.
There are many ways that you can offer genuine helpfulness to others because you care enough about their problem or suffering, and you have the means to assist in some tangible way. Your time and effort are priceless resources.
Who or what do you care about enough to want to help – what can you do now to give a little of yourself where it can help lot?