Authenticity in Love & Life
A Blog by Elaine Barron, LCSW
There’s an epidemic going around these days I like to call “not enoughness”—the feeling that “I don’t measure up”. This is often accompanied by its emotional siblings—inadequacy, insignificance, and worthlessness. Early symptoms can be traced back to childhood. Grown men express, “ I never got my father’s approval.”
Women, too, express deficits when it comes to having received parental approval in their growing up years. When I think specifically about this epidemic, I wonder if the underlying unmet need is acceptance rather than approval.
The Good Housekeeping magazine has promoted the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval since 1909. A company given this seal has been evaluated to be a company committed to a trustworthy standard of excellence. Approval thus becomes a product of an evaluation or judgment.
By virtue of diversity, people have varying standards by which they evaluate or judge others, including their own children. One of the problems is that parents often see their offspring as extensions of their adult selves, not recognizing that the offspring are separate individuals who are their own “works in progress”. An adult judges from a more comprehensive mind than a child’s capacity. When performance standards deemed worthy of approval are based on unrealistic parental expectations, a child will develop a sense of inadequacy.
Sometimes this contributing judgment is obvious—physical abuse, name calling, shaming statements, “why can’t you be like…” Other times it is more subtle. A woman once meticulously cleaned and organized her new house in dreaded anticipation for her mother’s arrival, recognizing that time constraints had prevented her from organizing the side of the wrap around porch. Her hope was that maybe her mother would not notice the undone work. The feelings of inadequacy came flooding back with the completion of the tour, when her mom asked a seemingly harmless question, “What are you going to do with all this junk over here?” Isolated questions don’t evoke the same responses as do questions that are patterns of pointing out deficits and imperfections. However, an isolated question from an isolated individual can provoke a similar response when the person has been subjected to a deficit- focused pattern from a significant other.
After Jesus was baptized before beginning His earthly ministry, a voice was heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus had not yet “performed”, but God, the perfect parent, lovingly and verbally affirmed Him. Jesus, in turn, continually sought to be in relationship with His Father.
I’ve heard my pastor, Andy Stanley, say one of he and his wife, Sandra’s goal was to be a home to which their grown children would look forward to returning. What is the key to being this type of home? I believe it’s unconditional acceptance based on who a person is, not approval based on what a person does. It involves recognition that each person is unique and separate and is in the midst of a struggle of growth and maturation.
My teenage son was in drug rehab a few years ago. Because one of my primary goals had been to be a “good” mom, the evaluation of that outcome was deemed by me to be the outward performance of my children. And that performance looked pretty ugly… As part of one of the family groups we were coached to own and express our feelings to our children as a means to facilitate healthy communication. There was one feeling word, which was on the tip of all our tongues, to be excluded: that being the word, “disappointed”. “Disappointed” is one of the few feeling words that comes back to reflect on the performance of another. When one says “I’m disappointed in you”, the person addressed automatically takes the comment personally rather than considering the speaker’s actual feeling. We were instructed that it was better to say, “ I felt sad about the (behavior) because….”
Also, as the more experienced person of the parent-teen dyad, I felt obligated to let my son know my views, and to give him advice. The counselor advised me, “Just be interested.” Interested? What did that mean? It meant I was to be a student of my son. It meant not evaluating, but simply exploring, discovering who he is, what his struggles are, what he likes, what he dislikes, and accepting the answers in acknowledgment that he is his own person, not an extension of me. It means allowing him to make his own choices, realizing that good choices come from wisdom, which comes from experience, and experience comes from learning from bad choices.
When I consider the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, I realize that if I feel more free to be my best self when I am accepted and appreciated for where I am in my unique process of growth rather than evaluated as a “should be” completed adult, then when I accept others in their spot in the maturation process rather than make an evaluation, I also provide them with a sense of freedom in their journey.
Elaine Barron is a psychotherapist in Alpharetta, Georgia who is also a Christ follower. She has experienced much in her life that was necessarily the way she would have chosen, but sees those struggles as opportunities for growth and healing, desiring to share with others what she has learned "so far".