Learning that we’re good enough

by | Apr 14, 2021 | Self Esteem

Little Alfie opens the kitchen cupboard and pulls out the contents, squealing with delight at the clatter he has caused. Person-centred counsellors like me believe that this 16-month-old boy is, like all human beings, driven by the ‘actualising tendency’, his internal capacity for healing, maintenance and growth. That tendency seems very much in evidence as he explores his environment with gusto, trying new skills, leaving chaos in his wake.

I can’t help wondering when that look of triumph on his face will darken with the shadow of guilt. At what point will his parents no longer rejoice in his cupboard-opening skills and instead, perceive Alfie as an out of control toddler messing up their tidy home? When will they communicate their displeasure to him, making it clear that their regard for him depends on him being a ‘tidy’ boy? When will he start to equate ‘untidy’ boy with ‘bad’ boy?

Very early on, we learn that being acceptable is contingent upon thinking, feeling and behaving in ways that are actively valued and promoted by others, usually our parents or carers. Our ‘worth’ becomes conditional on our willingness to conform. Think of the ‘shoulds’ that guide how you are in the world.  As a young woman growing up in the West Midlands of the 1970s, I conformed to very many ‘acceptable’ ways of behaving stipulated by loving parents and a wider culture that kept women in check. No climbing trees, smoking fags or staying out late with boys. I was expected to put others before myself. I was never to lose my temper: this was a sign of weakness and lack of self-control. If a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

When our own experiences and feelings collide with these ‘conditions of worth’, we will distort or deny them to retain the regard of others. For many years, I prioritised the needs of others at the expense sometimes of my own health and wellbeing. When I felt anger, I believed it to be a sign of my lack of self-discipline. Dreading a reprimand for mediocre work, I would frequently procrastinate, put in excessive effort or feel shame at a less than immaculate production.

Over time, we incorporate these conditions into how we perceive ourselves. How we regard ourselves depends on the positive evaluation of others. For years, I lived a peevish and fretful life where I denied my own needs, buried my anger in passive aggression and supplanted my own creativity with fear of failure.

It wasn’t until a crisis in my life that I started to ‘own up’ to all my experiences and feelings in the company of a counsellor who didn’t so much as arch an eyebrow at the messiness of my interior world. Her positive regard for me was, unlike most of the relationships in my life, unconditional. My confession of feeling anger didn’t faze her. Her noticing my inability to honour my own needs helped me to put together some pretty urgent self-care.

In time, I was able to tolerate submitting work that was ‘good enough’. My counsellor’s acceptance of my feelings and validation of my experience, helped me to trust myself and my own needs even if, sometimes, these clashed with the expectations of my family, culture and society.

People are not islands, we’re sociable beings who need to connect, to feel loved, appreciated and to belong. For children, that love is essential to survival. So, as he opens the cupboard doors – by the way, a skill that requires a high degree of manual dexterity – Alfie looks towards his parents, awaiting their response. When they meet his proficiency with a cheer, a smile spreads across his face. In a rare, delicious moment. Alfie’s actualising tendency is met with unconditional positive regard, a reminder that given the right conditions, we can all grow, develop and be authentically ourselves.


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