On Being Not Good Enough

“Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.  Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.”                                                                                                                                                               Rainer Maria Rilke

“I’m a failure; I can’t do this work.”  In my office for a consult about a difficult client, Joanna wilted into the chair.  Her client, a single mother with a drug addicted teenager, had expressed her despair and hopelessness and it was contagious. The entire system – mother, social services, nurses, teachers, foster care parents – was collapsing in frantic and disjointed efforts to save the child’s life. All looked to Joanna to fix things: to get the daughter to change, to get the mother to shape up as a parent: to take responsibility, to exert her authority. All had different views of what change might look like and how that change should come about. Joanna, caught in the middle as she tried to manage so many fears and expectations at once, massaged her aching stomach and was near tears. “It’s too hard.”

As psychotherapists, we all know Joanna’s experience: those moments when we feel lost and hopeless and we mentally search our brains and our manuals and our workshops for new ideas about what might “work.” Or, we compare ourselves to others and we contemplate who might be that other therapist who – unlike us – would miraculously and skillfully know just what to do to solve the sufferings of this human life.  We experience at times our limitations, our confusions, our failures, and we become caught in suffering as we mentally calculate that we are “not good enough.”   We see the mind’s tendency to evaluate, judge, criticize, complain and compare. We become, in the Buddha’s words, “enchanted” by the forms and experiences of human life and become identified with them, concluding “This is who I am; this is who you are.” We experience the uneasiness, grief, shame, confusion and despair that can arise when we lose awareness and we dwell in these mind states.

It’s true, you know. In the ordinary ways of this ordinary human life, we are all, indeed, “not enough.” We cannot “fix” life. In the Buddha’s first noble truth, he invites us to know this. He invites us to really know, personally and deeply, in our everyday lived experience – there is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness in life. He compared the “ouch” of dukkha to the experience of driving an oxcart that has a wheel that isn’t turning smoothly because debris has settled in it. With every turn there is a painful lurch, an “ouch.”  Dukkha: getting what one doesn’t want and losing what is wonderful and what one wants. In this sense, none of us is, or can ever be, so “good enough” that we will not be faced with the stress and distress of life on this planet. There is dukkha. There is the unpleasant; there is impermanence.  With everything arising and passing away, moment to moment, with infinite causes and conditions shaping each moment’s experience, there can be no personal self who is separate enough, stable and solid enough, safe enough to not ever know the sensations of our human vulnerability. Conceptually, we can know this to be true and at the same time we can struggle mightily with shame and self judgment as we encounter dukkha directly in our everyday lives and our professional practices.

Joanna, an experienced and wise meditator, knew this. She came for a consult because, in spite of her practice and intention, she found herself caught and overwhelmed, tangled and identified in a view of herself and others that led to rumination, self-judgment, overwhelm and collapse. She understood – conceptually at least – these brain strategies for trying to solve the problem of dukkha and her ego’s efforts to control.  Like all of us much of the time, however, Joanna, both consciously and unconsciously, did not want to experience dukkha. Wisely, she looked to relationship, her community, to offer a space in which she might release her identification with the contents of her mind and rest in awareness: a spaciousness in which she might again simply know her human struggle with compassion and kindness. Wisely, she knew to challenge her mind’s tendency to ruminate on her personality flaws, or her cognitive limitations, or her family history as the reasons for her “failures” as a therapist. She knew not to collapse into what the Buddha called the “second dart” of our suffering. In the Buddha’s words, she was investigating what it means to be a noble disciple:

Now what is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists herein between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling?”When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves; he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart…. He resists (and resents)…that painful feeling, (and) an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he then proceeds to enjoy sensual happiness. And why does he do so? An untaught worldling, O monks, does not know of any other escape from painful feelings except the enjoyment of sensual happinesss…   

“But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only….”This, O monks, is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling.”

As we talked and as she narrated, over and over, the internal and external details, at one point Joanna simply paused for a long moment and reflected:  “Wait; I’m caught on autopilot here.” “Yes.”

geranium buds smallShe spontaneously paused out of the agitated contents of her mind and even out of reflection. She relaxed and opened, directly to her experience. She released her judgments. She let go of insistence that she feel good, that she understand, that she know immediately what to do next. She touched with undemanding awareness the somatic experience of her body. “My stomach is heavy; it’s tangled; it hurts.”  She allowed awareness, quietly and softly, to simply rest there for some time. We were quiet. She released her stories, her criticisms of self and other and simply allowed a knowing: “It’s like this now.” She watched it spontaneously shift and change. “And like this now.” Pausing, relaxing, opening internally, opening externally, trusting, listening. There was virtually no speech, just awareness, a knowing of her direct, fluid, wordless somatic experience. “It’s like this now.”

As we rested together in this silent knowing, she experienced an unfolding: her mind’s and heart’s release. Her whole body softened. She breathed softly: “I get it.”  We both knew that it was true; she “got it.”  In the release of the tension of her body and mind, Joanna simply saw and experienced a new stability, a new and more grounded clarity.  As an extra gift, she understood something new. She saw that she had been reluctant to simply rest in the space of a fully human and “not-good-enough” therapist who was, deeply, truly “good enough.” She saw that she had been caught: paralyzed in some way with concepts of a “defective self,” and “defective others.” As she released her belief in these internal stories, she began to breathe again as she saw that she could know with care and compassion the client’s, the system’s, and even her own pain and chaos and still release the second arrow. In her job as psychotherapist she could be present with the suffering of others’ identifications, constructions, confusions and unskillful actions.  Her own wise presence and wise action was still available.  She could experience the pain of suffering and she could still be a part of it all with more ease, more equanimity. She could open and simply receive deep wisdom. There was more clarity. There was more joy, even, in her mind and in her body. She could again be present.  She could respond. It was all OK. No matter how it worked out, it was all OK.



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