(Third in a series. Previous posts were “Why women feel inadequate” and “Why men feel inadequate”.)
There are three things to remember when considering one’s sense of personal adequacy.
The first is
1. “Adequate” is a relative term
The word adequate means, basically, enough.
So before we apply it we need to ask: enough for what?
A glass of water is enough to slake my thirst after eating potato chips, not sustain me while trekking across the Sahara.
Six feet in height will allow me to grab a can of soup off the top shelf in the supermarket, not snag rebounds in the NBA.
My math skills are adequate for balancing my checkbook, not teaching college calculus.
And so on.
The idea of adequate depends entirely on context.
That’s the first thing to remember.
The second thing is
2. We choose the context
We decide when enough is enough.
I visit a gym and feel horribly unfit and unhealthy. Then I visit an old age home and feel strong and vigorous in comparison.
I self-publish a book that sells 300 copies and feel like a abject failure. Until I learn that most self-published books sell fewer than 50.
I compare myself to my genius father and feel like an idiot. I compare myself to my idiot brother and feel like a genius.
You get the idea.
My sense of my own adequacy, it turns out, depends entirely on my perspective.
The third thing to remember is
3. Context is adjustable
I grow up with abusive parents. I am hit, shamed, criticized and ignored. I grow up seeing myself as unlovable and terminally inadequate — since, I reason (as kids do), if I had any value my parents would have treated me differently.
I join a therapy group where I receive attention, acceptance, approval and affection. At first all this is uncomfortable, since I feel unworthy of it. But in time my perspective shifts. I come to see myself as the group sees me, as worthy of attention, respect and love. I also come to see my parents as limited, unhealthy people. I feel a new sense of okayness. My context for judging my own value has changed.
This process is called reframing — questioning assumptions and conclusions that are inaccurate, unfair or self-defeating.
Much of my work as a therapist is teaching people to do this for themselves.
Sheila grew up in a family like the one described earlier. Her low self-esteem led her into one awful relationship after another. Her first husband was an alcoholic who beat her. Her second was an emotional abuser who cheated and blamed her for everything. She’s now questioning her relationship with a man who treats her well but can be emotionally distant. “What’s wrong with me?” she scowls. “Why do I keep picking losers?” I point out that it took her nine years to divorce the alcoholic, three years to divorce the emotional abuser, and that only six months into this new relationship she’s begun to expect more emotional feeding than she’s been getting. “Six months versus nine years,” I say. “That’s not progress?” Her face clears. “I guess it is,” she says.
“Garbage in, garbage out” goes an old saying about computers. The same is true of children. Teach them a distorted view of themselves and they will live lives based on that lie.
But another old saying is “Where you put your attention is what grows.”
We can shift our view of ourselves by shifting our attention.
(To be continued.)
the next book in the Monkeytraps series: