The Lie of Enough: Shame in our Perceived Lack

For most people, culture is virtually indistinguishable from truth. Whatever is normal is best. Whatever is socially acceptable is right. Whatever is valued or sought after as a society is good; that which is eschewed is bad. Besides the faulty logic of this approach, there are deeper, insidious impacts. These assumptions, these unchallenged standards and touchstones, lead us into violence towards others and ourselves. Though we may never raise a hand or wield a physical weapon, we suffer the destructive consequences on a daily basis.

Take, for example, the lie of “enough”. There are many iterations of this lie, each pertaining to a separate facet of life: looks, physical fitness, IQ, income, home, hair thickness, skin color, marital/relationship status, even the brand of household products we use.

The lie of enough says, “If _____, then I will be enough”. Enough means happy, fulfilled, adequate, worthy of love, entitled to rest, respectable, beautiful, satisfied, provided for, safe, whatever my heart most desires based on what I have been told I need or should be. The contingency of “if”: such a heartbreaking little word. Such a cunning little premise. Because not only will you lament and lambast yourself over your inability to achieve this “if”, you will work yourself into sickness, debt, despair, isolation, and self-loathing in your attempts to meet the conditions it exacts upon you.

If I had no acne, I would be beautiful.

If I made $60K a year, I could rest easy.

If I was married, my life would be good.

If I lost forty pounds, I would like what I see in the mirror. 

If I was a college graduate, I would have respect.

If I worked 3 jobs, managed my home well, had the energy to be present with my children while making homecooked meals, helping with homework, staying healthy, and…

Do you recognize mine? It’s the last one. Its ruthless. Lately, I realized I’d become a slave to the first part of that hypothetical. I was exhausted. Again. I have cycled through this place more times than I can count. If there was a theme to my life over the past 10 years, it would be a word which I’ve come to hate: exhaustion.

This short time ago, I realized I couldn’t even count the number of hours I had worked that week. It had to be over 80. There were several reasons for this: I work from home, so the division between work and the rest of life is hazy and easy to circumvent. I was working on a new project, the pandemic had begun, my children were home from school, I was learning a new skill, and under a couple deadlines. I wasn’t being wise with my body. But the saddest thing about it wasn’t my lack of stewardship of the one thing that is going to carry me into tomorrow. It was a quiet moment, a break, when I sat on the toilet and put my head in my hands,

“I am doing it. I’m working my butt off. I have much more to do than I have time for. This is something that has been true for months now. Especially lately. So, why don’t I feel good about myself? Why don’t I feel I’ve reached a goal? I have been waiting to justify myself as a good worker. To throw my daily grind into the face of the fear that I don’t work hard enough, that rest means I’m lazy, and that people who told me I didn’t measure up were wrong.”  

I admit that my initial reaction to these questions wasn’t to challenge their validity, it was to try to figure out what other thing I needed to be doing, what thing would make the difference between how I felt and how to feel better. But delusional as I can be at times, I saw clearly enough to admit that there was no solution.

I was performing for an audience that was illegitimate: lies about myself and ghosts from the past I was trying to disprove. Not only that, I was living by contract terms which I could not fulfill. They demanded a moving target and a payment of “always more”. This begs the question,

“What is enough?”

I have never found enough in striving. In regiment. In goal setting or achievement. In comparison or contrast. I haven’t found it when my family income was over $100,000 a year or stripped back to less than $15,000. I never connected to it when people approved of me or when they didn’t. I didn’t find it in a certain weight or fitness level or group of people and friends.

Why not? Because the question of enough is based on the premise of your own self being inadequate, which nothing short of a perspective shift can change. It is the lie of perfectionism. Its real name is self-loathing and shame, frantically mitigated through attempts at control. It is the fallacy of a new coat of paint on a home that has a crumbling foundation. It is the illusion of an insurance policy to prevent catastrophe and grief.

I realized in that moment that so called “workaholism” is so easy to fall into because it promises something that is always just out of reach but appears attainable. The end of that project, the paycheck, the accolades, the raise, the new position, the dream client, the huge contract…all things that are inherently good and admirable goals, but for the underlying reason and means: to cure ourselves of lack while slowly destroying the most precious aspects of ourselves.

In the end, if we are working for these things on the basis of our own inadequacy, with the insidious, often unconscious, belief that more work, more effort, more consistency will fix our value deficit, we will be left burned out, depressed, chronically ill, and disillusioned.

I took stock that day and was grateful for the limitations I set on myself going forward and the clarity coming near the end of my physical rope provided me. My progress in realizing these habits and working my way out of them has been slow, but steady. I am glad for the opportunity I had in being shown the fault in my goal of working hard enough to be worthy of admiration, even my own.

So, what is enough? Enough isn’t an action verb. It is a permanent state of being. It is present in your soul whether you sense or believe it. It’s not a set of rules, checklists, or numbers of hours worked. It isn’t lab results, an amount of exercise, or number of days you didn’t have donuts. It is the peace and assurance founded in looking squarely at yourself and approving of the human you are, without denigrating your faults or resenting your journey, while respecting the body and mind that have carried you all the way to today. It’s the acknowledgement that “doing” has no relation to your inherent value. You’d be amazed at how much gentler, kinder, healthier, wiser, and yes, even more productive you are when you embrace that truth (progressively) more.

Take stock. What is whispering to you each day, promising to fix your “lack” with enough? That sense of fruitlessness isn’t based out of your insufficiency, laziness, or lack of talent. It’s founded on a lie. There is nothing to fix and nothing to find.

What is enough? You are.

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