Jan. 19, 2021

The Impossible Race to Be Good Enough

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Have you ever felt that you had to be _________ enough (fill in the blank) in order to be loveable? In this episode I share my experience of chasing an 'ideal self' that I could never quite catch up with. The closer I seemed to come to my ideal self, the more fearful I became of failure because I believed I would be loved only if I was "good enough."

I talk about why even noble ideals can get distorted unintentionally when we use them as a means to get the love we need, and how you can begin to identify the nature of the "impossible race" that you may be running in your life.

Share this episode via this episode page.

(00:00:10) - Introduction
(00:01:33) - Chasing An Ideal Image
(00:05:49) - Imitation vs. The Real Deal
(00:08:20) - Abundance vs. Poverty of Heart
(00:15:43) - PRAXIS. Listen. Ponder. Act.
(00:17:37) - Conclusion
Available here.

Available here.

 - As you listened to today's episode, what struck you? Does something resonate particularly strongly with you? What emotions or thoughts came up in response as you listened?

- What impossible race are you running? What are the rules you feel you have to abide by? Or the things that you have to do in order to be seen, affirmed and loved? What has been your experience of running this race so far? What words would you use to describe it? 

 - Try and remember a time, a place in which you did not have to run your impossible race, where you could relax and be yourself and be loved and accepted as you were.
- Where were you? Who were with you if there was anyone? What was near you? What were you doing? 

 For full details of this reflection prompt, please see transcript.

Blog: Can I Ever Be 'Good Enough' For You?

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Have you ever felt that no matter what you did, you could never be good enough?

Welcome to Becoming Me, your podcast companion and coach in your journey to a more integrated and authentic self. I am your host Ann Yeong, and I'm here to help you grow in self-discovery and wholeness. If you long to live a more authentic and integrated life, and would like to hear honest insights about the rewards and challenges of this journey, then take a deep breath, relax and listen on to Becoming Me.

Hello again, dear listeners! Let me tell you something ironic. I hate running and I've never been able to run for long. But for over 30 years of my life, I was running a marathon away from my true self. That is for most of my life, I was running in the opposite direction of the journey of becoming authentic.

And yet at the same time, there was always this deep desire in me to be authentic. You can imagine how much internal tension I lived in and how torn I often felt, which is why I have titled today's episode, "The Impossible Race to Be Good Enough". It is a race because I felt like I was constantly running to catch up to something. And it is impossible because the nature of such a race is that you will never be able to win.

Somewhere in my growing up years, I began to feel that the way that I was somehow was just not good enough. I listened to a lot of adult conversations going around me when I was growing up and I listened to the way people were talked about - who was praised, who was criticized. I remember at times thinking that I would never want to be like the people who are being criticized. I wanted to be like the people who were liked and praised and spoken well of. Inadvertently an ideal began to form in my young mind of the ideal woman: beautiful, tender yet strong, capable of being independent and successful professionally. And at the same time, brilliant domestically, able to cook, host and be a competent parent. 

I spent many of my formative years in an all girls school, which reinforced this image of a feminine ideal. It was such an ideal of perfection that many of my schoolmates, me included, would make jokes about not measuring up to our school's image of the ideal student.

We were either not elegant enough or too loud and boisterous, or not skilled enough in the domestic arts or social graces. Others would joke that they were not capable or intelligent enough to measure up. On top of all these traits, I somehow also came to believe that I had to strive to be both confident and demure at the same time, to be able to speak up and impress when called upon, but at the same time to know my place and not be too bold or forward.

I'm not going to go into a discussion here about how appropriate or inappropriate these expectations are in the context of educating young girls. Although that would certainly be an interesting and important discussion for people to have. In the context of this podcast, I just wanted to paint for you a picture of the bind I felt when I was growing up. 

On top of all these, there was also the expectation to excel academically, in leadership, in sports, as well as in moral character. I received the same nurturing towards this both at home and in school, out of the best intentions of my formators. And of course it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with this ideal that they were promoting. After all who wouldn't want to be so wonderful and accomplished and all rounded and attractive.

It was for a long time, indeed, what I aspired to. What nobody knew was that it left me a deep fear of never being able to measure up. But of course I was not self-aware about this fear, even though I was often feeling anxious about failing. That fear and anxiety was the motivational force which pushed me to excel and achieve for so long.

And for so long, I kept chasing new trophies and accolades that would make me feel more worthy of love. But somewhere inside me, I always wondered would I still be loved if I failed? A part of me desperately wanted to test that, to prove that I would be loved for myself. And there were times I engaged in some half-hearted attempt at self-sabotage because I really wanted to test and see if I would still be loved just for myself.

But the fear was too great that I would not be loved if I failed, so I continued to try to keep succeeding. Apart from achievements, a very important part of my identity was self-sacrificial love. Now this is a wonderful ideal, as far as it goes - to love another so much, that one is willing to sacrifice one's own self-interest.

As a Catholic, self-sacrificial love is also a mark of mature faith and discipleship. As an ethnic Chinese, the willingness to sacrifice one's individual interest for the good of the larger community is also held up as a cultural ideal. The problem is not in the idea of this ideal, but in the way in which it is lived out.

Let me offer an analogy to explain what I mean. When I was around three years old, I fell in love with watching ballet, the grace and virtuosity of the dancers I saw on the TV screen were breathtaking. A particular favorite ballet production, which my mother had recorded for me and which I played over and over, was American Ballet Theatre's 1983 production of Don Quixote.

You can actually still find this production on YouTube. If you're interested in checking it out. I would watch transfixed as the prima ballerina pirouetted and spun and leaped. And then in my own living room and bedroom, I would try to imitate her moves. Of course they were clumsy attempts at imitation, and I was fortunate that I never hurt myself badly in the process, but in my imagination, I was just like Cynthia Harvey, who was the prima ballerina in that production, filled with grace and poise and elegance and power.

I loved watching ballet so much that my mother enrolled me in ballet school when I turned four years old. Unfortunately, ballet class was nothing like what I had seen on TV. We had to repeat boring drills and pretend to chase butterflies. And in my impatience, I wondered when would we ever be learning real ballet? An accident that happened to me soon after that left a painful splinter in my palm ended my flirtation with ballet before it even really began. And I never became a ballet dancer. 

Now you may be wondering what does self-sacrificial love have to do with ballet? That kind of love in its truest, most genuine form is truly powerful and life transforming. Like ballet performed by skilled dancers, it is a marvel to behold. But it is not something that can be executed by a beginner or a novice. The years of training and suffering that a dancer must endure before they have the strength and skill to dance like that is invisible. A little girl who admires the performance can pretend to do the same thing, but could never actually succeed in it.

Even if it could be a good imitation, it would still be that - an imitation. It does not come from the same place. And if I had been overzealous in trying those pirouettes and leaps beyond my physical ability, I could have very easily ended up injuring myself or destroying something in my home as I once or twice nearly did.

True self-sacrificial love comes from a place of an abundance of love, but I was trying to emulate self-sacrificial love from a place of deficit. I was trying to be self-sacrificial because I thought it would earn me love; that it would make me worthy of love. I had been taught from a very young age that I should always take the lower place, offer the best available to others and choose the less good thing for myself.

And always to serve others instead of expecting others to serve me. Again, I wish to stress that these are all noble things in the right context. When these things come from a place of abundance and a freedom, they are truly beautiful to behold. I desire to uplift someone else. I am willing to put somebody else's need before my own.

Truly, because I have that love to offer and that love is a beautiful gift for another, but it is not the same thing when I try and act self-sacrificial, to defer to another person, not because I have that love to offer, but because I'm hoping that by doing so I will get some love in return. This does not come from a place of abundance or freedom when it is thought of as a condition in order to be valued and loved.

As I learned to emulate these acts, I expected and craved affirmation and reciprocity because my love tank was empty. I would feel betrayed when my love was rejected. I would be angry and view that the world was unfair. But worse than all that, I came to believe that there must be something fundamentally unlovable about me because in spite of trying so hard to love others sacrificially, I was still not receiving the love that I needed.

And it was so easy for me to fall short. Trying to love self sacrificially from a place of emotional poverty had another unintended and terrible consequence. To the extent that I believed I was actually loving people sacrificially, I became self-righteous and prideful. Because I had so little self-worth, I grasped at my own moral achievement to give me the esteem that I needed. And it led me to look down on others who failed to measure up. 

Of course in reality, I was not really genuinely loving either sacrificially either, but I was not yet aware that my acts of service and love for others was in large part due to my need to be loved back. It was only much later that my eyes were opened. But before that could happen, I had to realize that for all my drive to excel and achieve and be loving to others, I simply could not accept or love myself. In my own eyes, I was never virtuous enough, diligent enough, intelligent enough, or capable enough.

When I started burning out, I pushed myself even harder because I could not accept weakness in myself. It was only then that I noticed how prideful and insecure I was and how incapable of rest I had been my whole life. The need for rest and play were to my mind symptoms of weakness. It was a little wonder that I struggled to have genuine compassion for weakness in anyone.

What I could only offer was a condescending kind of empathy, which made me feel big, but others even smaller. I eventually stopped running from my false self, but that only happened because something devastating happened to me. A major rupture in some cherished relationships had happened, and my self worth was once again in tatters.

And just when I thought my life had begun to make sense, I realized that I was as lost as ever. But this time, thankfully, the descent into suffering and chaos was the mark of the start of deeper healing in my life. My heart had to be broken again so that it could be broken open - so that God could reach the places I had hid from myself and show them to me. All that was my healing, and also my pain.

The passage to wholeness and interior freedom is made through many deaths: death to our self-image, death to what we thought we understood about good and evil; death to what we thought we understood about faith and love. Finally, there had to be a death to the old way of living from fear and insecurity.

And the only way for this death to happen was to be filled with love. Time does not allow me to go into that part about being filled with love yet, but that will be for another episode in the future. For this episode, I wanted to share with you my impossible race to be good enough so that you might perhaps recognize the race that you run or the games that you play to try and earn the love that you desire.

Here are some signs that you may have difficulty accepting yourself. And that you're trying to earn love. You depend on external validation to feel good. You feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You feel that you are never enough or that you are too much. You're constantly giving to others in the hope that they will also give to you.

You try to be the one to make everyone else feel better. Even when you are feeling sad, you try to fix everyone's problems. You try and let everyone know what a sad lot you have received in life. You're often envious when others receive praise or are chosen instead of you. You have a hard time receiving or acknowledging criticism.

There are many more signs to look out for, but these are some of the very common ones that people have. Now, in case you're getting worried because you recognize that you are also in this impossible race to be good enough, I want to assure you that recovery and healing is possible. All this is part of the interior journey that we are on.

It cannot be rushed. The process takes our whole lives after all, but the good news is that countless people have been on this same journey before you and me and countless more will come after us. So let's pace ourselves and trust that our hearts are worth his effort from us. 

There is a quote from the book, the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." I believe that is not just a poetic quote or wishful thinking. I have found that to be true in my life when what I want is a true desire for what is beautiful, good, and true. I may not know how or when, and I cannot choose the pace at which it is given to me, but when I really commit to this interior journey, grace connects me to what I need to keep taking the next step. So keep trusting the process, fellow becomers! We are on the way and we can do it! 

Now, here are the praxis prompts for today's episode. One: Listen – as you listened to today's episode, what struck you? Does something resonate particularly strongly with you? What emotions or thoughts came up in response as you listened?

Two: Ponder – what impossible race are you running? What are the rules you feel you have to abide by? Or the things that you have to do in order to be seen, affirmed and loved? What has been your experience of running this race so far? What words would you use to describe it? 

Three: Act– try and remember a time, a place in which you did not have to run your impossible race, where you could relax and be yourself and be loved and accepted as you were.

Where were you? Who were with you if there was anyone? What was near you? What were you doing? When you have identified this space in which you could be your true self, I invite you to make a commitment to schedule a similar encounter for yourself within the next month. And to return to this space regularly. Whenever you notice that you're losing sight of who you are because you are getting caught up in running your impossible race, return to where you can be just you. 

And don't do this to escape but to be consciously reminded of who you are when you don't have to play any games. This is the you we want to strengthen in the interior journey so that eventually you can live from this identity, even in the most challenging of circumstances. 

[00:17:37] CONCLUSION
Thank you for listening to Becoming Me where new episodes drop every first and third Wednesdays of the month.

Remember, the most important thing about making this journey is to keep taking steps in the right direction. No matter how small those steps might be, and no matter where you might be in your life right now, it is always possible to begin. The world would be a poorer place without you becoming more fully alive.

Don't forget to visit my website at becomingme.sg and to subscribe to my newsletter as well as to this podcast. Until the next episode, happy becoming!