Why you need empathy for relationship success and how to show it
Everyone wants to feel good enough. Feeling like you are a good enough person enables you to feel lovable, to love others, and to feel safe and competent in the world. But are you really a good enough friend, date, partner, parent, or, if you’re a mental health professional, a good enough couples therapist?In her new book, Winnicott and ‘Good Enough’ Couples Therapy, psychologist Claire Rabin focuses on the important concept of good enough, reviving key ideas from the writings of Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician whose notions have become fundamental to much of our current understanding of what constitutes mental health. Feeling good enough, Winnicott posited—and he focused on the family dynamic, though the ideas are widely applicable—comes from parents who conveyed acceptance, appreciation, and affection to you. Some parents, alas, convey to their children instead the impression that “no matter how good you are, it will never be enough.” Ignoring children, excessively criticizing them, or simply being mean to them, teaches them that something about them is inherently not good—not worthy of love—with predictable ramifications in later years.
To be a good enough parent, partner, or professional conveys the idea that we do need to perform our roles skilfully enough to accomplish the challenges of a relationship, parenthood, or counselling. To be good enough, we need to understand and apply the techniques and attitudes that lead to loving, growth-oriented relationships. We need these capabilities in order to enjoy the doing of it, and to be effective.
At the same time, we don’t need to accomplish these challenges perfectly. (Phew!) We don’t have to be Number 1 or win a gold medal; we just need to be good enough. From there, we can enjoy our relationships, making mistakes along the way and learning and growing from our errors.
Rabin’s book revives other concepts from Winnicott concepts that have become core to psychology’s understanding of good-enough relationships:attunement, holding, and hiding the true self behind the mask of a false self.
Do you tune in or do you tune out?
Besides originating the term “good enough,” Winnicott clarified multiple traits of good-enough parenting, including the skill of attunement. Rabin extends this idea to good enough coupling and beyond, exploring attunement in each realm.
Attunement implies hearing, seeing, caring and responding. It involves listening, and responding appropriately, when, say, an infant cries and a toddler sounds frustrated. But it involves noticing positive emotions as well—in parenthood, attunement also means listening to a teen who expresses shyness, sadness, joy, or anxiety, and then talking out solutions to triggering situations. Parents who are insufficiently attuned can produce children who grow up with a sense of inner emptiness. If your parent(s) insufficiently saw, heard, and responded to you, you could be prone as an adult to ignore your own feelings, dismissing and denigrating them.
If you ignore messages from your partner, child, or client, or send them to the Delete box, you will be functioning in a not-good-enough manner. Marriage researcher John Gottman, for instance, identified responsivity—attunement followed by responsive action—as the single best indicator of which husbands will succeed in marriage and which will end up in a partnership at risk for unhappiness or divorce.
Again, no need for panic: You do not have to be a perfect partner; just good enough.
Do you hold or scold?
When children feel upset, holding them tightly in a loving hug enables them to relax and reset their emotions at a calmer baseline arousal level. Parents who accomplish holding in a “good enough” fashion not only successfully soothe their child after a specific upset; they also teach the child’s neurological system to self-soothe.
Harlow’s famed classic studies of monkeys clarified what happens when mammals grow up without someone to hold them, or for them to hold on to. Monkeys who grew up with at least a terry-cloth-covered wire barrel to hug when they were upset grew up neurologically normal. Those who lacked even this “good enough parent” to hold and be held by grew to be anxious adults ineffective at calming themselves when anxious feelings were triggered.
How well do you “hold” yourself? Do you have good enough emotional regulation patterns? Can you go to a quiet place, or to a trusted friend or family member, to calm down if something triggers scary or angry feelings—or do you stay scared or angry, suffering excessively, and maybe, in the process, also antagonizing the people closest to you?
Do you pretend to be who you think you should be, or are you for real?
Rabin’s book also highlights Winnicott’s concept that children raised by a not-good-enough parent may develop a “false self.” Winnicott himself knew well of what he wrote. The family in which he was raised had been prosperous and ostensibly happy, but behind the veneer, Winnicott saw himself as oppressed by his mother—who tended toward depression—and he therefore had to be the caretaker his mother needed him to be, rather than his spontaneous real self.
Parents who are scary, critical, or non-attuned inadvertently teach a child that it is unsafe to show him or herself to the world. If parents are not good enough at providing a safe and emotionally nourishing environment, the child still needs to survive and to protect himself. A common solution is to hide—behind a pretend or false-self.
Instead of openly greeting the world, such a person may develop an exterior presentation to the world that differs dramatically from the way he or she feels inside. When he feels sad, he acts the clown. Though she feels insufficient and not good enough, she develops an exterior show of charismatic personal charm. Or, an external appearance of great generosity may cover an inner tendency to be profoundly selfish.
Good enough parents, lovers, and therapists, by contrast, welcome honest expression of feelings and concerns from their children, loved ones, and clients. Open sharing of feelings and concerns, expressed with confidence that they will be received with understanding and caring, lie at the core of positive parenting, couple partnership, and therapist-client relationship.
Do you openly share your true self, tactfully and at the same time frankly, with your children or loved one? At the same time, how safe and welcoming are you toward what you hear if loved ones openly shares their true thoughts with you?
Thank you, Dr. Rabin, for giving new life to Winnicott’s important and ever-relevant ideas, giving us all renewed permission be good enough: to aim high enough that we do things well and at the same time to let ourselves accept our imperfections. Good enough is good enough for a highly satisfying life.