Comparison. Competition. The perpetual feeling that “I’m not enough”.
Something is happening to many of our kids. It’s happening at a level we haven’t seen before. And the ramifications appear deeply serious.
Many of our children are drenched in the insecurity of feeling incomplete, inadequate, insufficient, imperfect, lacking, faulty, limited, defective… imposters. There is a crisis of confidence – and importantly, competence . And even our seemingly confident and competent kids are struggling. It's often the kids who are "succeeding", the ones who are ticking all of the right boxes, the ones who are "winning" that are often the WORST at feeling like they're "enough".
Here’s what we know:
Anxiety disorders are on the rise
Anxiety, according to the Australian Psychological Society, is a natural and usually short-lived reaction to a stressful situation associated with feelings of worry, nervousness, and apprehension.
Anxiety is a healthy emotion!!! But the anxiety our kids feel is often not short-lived, and often not a reaction to a stressful situation. They’re anxious about a lot and many of the things they’re anxious about are self-oriented. This makes their anxiety unhealthy. It is:
- being felt at high levels
- for things that aren’t supposed to be causing anxiety, and
- it’s not being processed well.
These high levels of ongoing anxiety are cumulating in rising levels of anxiety disorders. The most recent National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing flagged that the rate of anxiety disorders in our 16-24 year olds is around 21% for boys, and 41% for girls. The 2007 National Study found that the prevalence of anxiety disorders in that same age group was only 15%. In just 15 years, the number of teens experiencing clinical levels of anxiety doubled, and now close to a third of them are experiencing levels of anxiety that interfere with daily functioning.
Perfectionism is also on the rise
Perfectionism is a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. Perfectionistic strivings (having those high standards) alone are debilitating. Combine those strivings with what is known as perfectionistic concerns (fear of negative social evaluation) and children start to believe that their worth is based on their performance. While rates of perfectionism have increased across the board over the last few decades, the rates of socially prescribed perfectionism have gone up the most – 32% from 1989 to 2017 (and probably even more since then!). Not only is this twice the rate of change as other dimensions of perfectionism, but it is also the most debilitating form of perfectionism. It is characterised by the fear of failing to meet the high expectations of others.
Kids tell me that they:
- Feel anxiety and stress about high expectations.
- Feel they must create the perfect life, get the perfect results at school, and have the perfect body… but they can’t.
- Feel life is extremely competitive, and if they don’t work to incredible standards, they’ll fall behind.
These expectations are often self-generated, but increasingly they are coming from parents, peers, and teachers. Overwhelm and a relentless intrinsic need to “fulfill their potential” combine with a tremendous pressure to succeed which paralyses them.
Pack your bags… we’re going on a guilt trip
I wish it weren’t true, but the rising rates of anxiety and perfectionism rest on us as parents – at least in part. After evaluating over 50 studies, one pair of researchers concluded that “increases in excessive parental expectations and harsh parental criticism offer perhaps the most plausible explanation for rising perfectionism to date.” Additionally, there is a moderate relationship between the anxiety our kids experience and how controlling they perceive we are as parents.
We might not like to acknowledge it, but it is our well-intentioned attempts to optimise our children’s present to guarantee success in the future that can leave them feeling like it’s all too much. In trying to secure a good future for them, we expect too much, criticize too harshly, and minimise their autonomy.
- In trying to help our kids succeed, we offer continual correction and direction, coaching, and even coercion. This is meant to guide them to reach their potential. But these messages can often backfire despite our good intentions, leaving kids feeling incompetent – and burdened by their inability to ever stretch far enough to satisfy our expectations (or what they perceive as our expectations).
- In trying to help our kids feel competent, we heap praise on them. Yet decades of research shows that praise is often interpreted by our kids as a sign that we don’t actually believe in them! It undermines their confidence.
- In trying to help our kids succeed, we monitor their progress and pressure them into achieving the goals we want them to achieve. Our excessive control undermines their autonomy.
All of this leads to a tremendous number of students feeling that they’re not ‘ enough’. They possess a feeling that expectations are too high, there is too much to do, they are far too stretched, and they have no control.
So it’s all our fault?
This is not to lay the blame solely at the feet of parents. We are immersed in a culture that essentially demands this of us. Even if we don’t personally push our children to achieve, our kids are inundated by the incoming tide of competition, comparison, and the endless messages that they are never enough; messages that are reinforced with every click, swipe like, and share they make on their screens. They are engulfed in a competitive environment that fuels comparison (which increases anxiety and perfectionism).
While parents are at least partly to blame, let’s zoom out and consider the macro view, extending beyond what’s obvious and an easy target.
- Our children are being raised in an ever-increasing culture of individualism .
Individualism is fabulous for freedom of expression and identity development. But an individualistic approach to life can exacerbate negatives too, like increased mental health challenges, perfectionism, and anxiety. An individualistic society measures social standing and popularity, and it emphasises labels and identity at what can sometimes be unhealthy levels, particularly for children who have not worked out quite who they are yet.
- Our society makes claims to be meritocratic, which increases pressure to perform.
A meritocracy connects results (grades for kids, and wealth and attainment for adults) with personal worth. If you aren’t doing well, you must not be working hard because – after all – you get what you deserve. That’s the whole idea of merit. Taken to extremes this is obviously faulty logic, yet it pervades the foundations of our society and our children have bought it hook, line, and sinker.
Meritocracies erode relationships too. When rewards are scarce, children see others not as friends and collaborators but as foes and competitors. Proving oneself too often means doing well at the expense of others.
- Competition is everywhere
Gone are the days of friendly neighbourhood soccer matches. Nowadays, practically all kids’ sports are competitive, and the focus on winning starts young. There are competitions for best dressed for Book Week, kids compete to sell the most cookies for the school fundraiser, and they compete against each other to be voted school captain. Then there is the added pressure to get a good ATAR (never mind that the system is set up in a way that guarantees that half of our kids will get an ATAR of 50 or lower). Our children are in an 18 year long version of The Hunger Games; only a few can come out on top.
Rising levels of societal individualism, a focus on attainment, increasing economic inequality and rising competitiveness have created a societal background that easily leads to controlling parenting practices and excessive parental expectations. We have the best of intentions in wanting our children to succeed, but when this matters too much we pass along our achievement anxieties to our children through our over-involvement and our high expectations. As an extension of this, autonomy-supportive parenting has plummeted since the 1990s as the pressure on our children’s lives has built.
Societal changes have affected parenting practices in another way that is particularly pernicious. We have determined that if our child fails, we have failed. Our own fear of not being enough inadvertently creates this fear in our kids.
Even if we as parents can buck the trend of being critical and controlling, our children are still exposed to a never-ending tribunal that judges them in relation to school results, how they look, the money in their account (or their parents’ account), their success with their social group, sports, status symbols, and more.
Is it any wonder they question whether they are enough?
Yet with so many of our children feeling that they are not enough, a helpful question to ask is:
What does ‘enough’ look like? What is enough?
We can break it down further:
- When will my grades be enough?
- What would it take for my body to be enough?
- How can I feel my friendships are enough?
- What position do I have to earn in the musical so I can feel I’m enough?
- How many awards in assembly do I need before I’m enough?
- What clothing do I need to wear so I can feel I’m enough?
- When will I ever feel like I am enough?
Do you notice that being enough is entirely self-focused? In my opinion, that’s why it doesn’t help. There will always be someone more beautiful, smarter, or funnier. Valuing self based on what you have or how you compare will always lead to feeling incomplete, inadequate, insufficient, imperfect, lacking, faulty, limited, defective… imposters. Misery and insecurity are guaranteed.
"If I could only... then I will be enough", "If I can just... then I will be enough", "When I achieve... then I will be enough." A sense of "enough" will never come this way. It can't. Because even when those things are achieved, there will be someone who has achieved more.
Different kinds of success
Questions about being enough are almost always extrinsically focused. And that’s how an individualistic, meritocratic, competition-fuelled society measures success.
It’s unhealthy. It’s unhelpful. And we all know deep down that it’s not real success.
But when the whole world feels like it’s built around this form of success, it can be hard to resist it. I call this extrinsic success.
You’ll also note that we usually only see our kids feeling they’re not enough in relation to extrinsic characteristics. It’s rare that they bemoan not being kind enough, or generous enough, or honest enough.
Yet just like the song in The Greatest Showman, it feels like no matter how much extrinsic success we (or our children) achieve, it is “never enough”. The lyrics remind us that
Towers of gold are still too little/ These hands could hold the world and it’ll
Never be enough/ Never be enough
Another form of success – what I call intrinsic success – is built on the development of character. Intrinsic success comes from meaning, purpose, relationship, and the slow and steady development of competence and capability as we learn how to do hard things. It accumulates over time through steady, consistent effort and an emphasis on doing the inner work of becoming a better person.
The New York Times bestselling author, David Brooks, describes these forms of success as the “resumé” virtues (extrinsic success) and the “eulogy” virtues (intrinsic success). Extrinsic successes are the things we put on our social media profiles and our resumés. Intrinsic successes are the things people describe when they talk about us at our funeral. Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, describes why we will never feel enough when we pursue the former, and why the latter naturally evolves into a feeling that we really are enough.
My friend and colleague, Dr Christopher Niemiec, conducted a study that examined goal pursuits for university students as they completed their degrees and entered the workforce. Some of these early-twenty-somethings were interested in pursuing extrinsic success in the form of nice cars, high salaries, and prestigious positions. Others indicated intrinsic success goals such as personal growth, close relationships, community service, and physical health.
The results? Niemiec states that “attainment of intrinsic aspirations related positively to psychological health, [while] attainment of extrinsic aspirations did not”. In fact, attainment of extrinsic aspirations increased ill -being rather than well -being!
- society (almost) demands that we and our children join the craziness of the rat-race and aspire to climb as far and as fast as we can – to the detriment of our wellbeing and
- our children are feeling swamped by the sea of comparison and competition (and the Sisyphean task of striving to be enough) and
- it’s easy to get lost chasing extrinsic success instead of intrinsic success,
I offer the following five tools to help our children overcome their anxieties, perfectionism, and even self-loathing so they can both do well and feel well.
More than any other species on the planet, humans are hardwired for love. Ethologist, Konrad Lorenz called love “the most wonderful product of ten million years of evolution”. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm romantically made the appeal that “without love humanity could not exist even for a day”. Professor George Vaillant of the longest running study on human wellbeing and health in the history of the world declared that “happiness is love. Full stop.” Saul of Tarsus, converted and renamed St Paul made the claim “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love”.
But love is different to mattering. And that difference… matters!
I discovered the concept of mattering while completing my undergraduate degree and was surprised then (as now) how little attention the idea received, especially since people have known about mattering for 70 years or more. For example, Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, emphasised that feeling like we “belong” is essential for psychological health. He wrote that children often get treated in ways that leave them feeling like they are nothing, and this feeling is exacerbated when adults don’t take them seriously when they express themselves. But parents who are not dismissive have children who feel they are ‘worthy’. While not using the term “mattering”, he undoubtedly meant precisely that. His writing described that when our children know they matter, they know that they are something… that they are enough.
In his book, The Psychology of Mattering, Gordon Flett describes how people who know they matter are more resilient and engaged in life than those without a sense of mattering (who are more likely to experience stress, distress, and psychological pain).
How do we show someone they matter?
- We treat them in a way that elevates them rather than diminishes them.
- We listen to them.
- We show we care about them.
- We remember things that are important to them.
- We show we depend on them.
- We go out of our way to advance their wellbeing or their prospects.
What does all of this mean?
Love and care should never be conditional upon performance. Love and care show a child she or he matters. And that is what helps them feel they are enough.
2. Knowing Who They Are
In what has become a well-known piece of research, Professor Marshall Duke and Dr Robyn Fivush of Emory University conducted a study into identity and resilience. Their research was prompted by Duke’s psychologist wife, Sara, who reported to him that in her work with children with learning disabilities, those who knew a lot about their families and their family stories seemed more resilient.
Duke’s much publicised study described the creation of a 20-item questionnaire called the ‘Do You Know’ (DYK) scale. His analysis showed that children (aged 9–12) who had the highest scores on the DYK scale lived in homes where families have more dinnertime conversation (which makes it sound like they “mattered”). Even more important, the DYK scale was related to children’s locus of control. This refers to whether we believe we are in control, or whether outside forces are controlling us.
Duke and Fivush discovered that children who were told – and who recalled – family stories believed they were responsible, and that they were capable of controlling things rather than being at the mercy of external or environmental elements. They had an internal locus of control, and it built their wellbeing. As scores on the DYK scale increased, so too did self-esteem. And higher DYK scores were related to children having lower internalising and externalising behaviours. (Internalising behaviours are things like depression, anxiety, and other unhealthy ways of being that stay inside a person; externalising behaviours are things like acting out, being delinquent or oppositional, or using alcohol and other drugs.) Lastly, family functioning and participation in family traditions also increased with higher scores on the DYK scale.
With his colleagues, Marshall Duke extended this research to children aged 14–16 to determine how knowing family history might relate to adolescent identity development, and whether teens who had a better-established sense of identity did better in life. He found that the better teens knew their family stories, the better adjusted they were. They possessed a general sense of self-worth and the ability to plan for the future, and they felt good about who they were. They had begun to achieve a sense of identity.
This research has significant implications for our conversation about being enough. Children who know their family identity tend to feel better about themselves. They have “roots”.
There’s an old saying that you need to “stand for something or you’ll fall for anything”. Knowing who you are means knowing what you value and what you’re about. It means you have a sense that you are ‘enough’.
3. Being Hopeful
Psychologists often work with people who feel anxious and depressed, encouraging them to look at what they can change. This aligns with the Covey-esque notion that we should operate within our circle of influence rather than our circle of concern. As we do so, we find our influence grows and our capacity for control extends.
Such an approach requires hope, but it also builds hope. Professors Shane Lopez and Charles Snyder described hope as requiring three things:
- Goals Thinking
This means knowing what it is that you want. Too many of our teens (and too many of us) are unclear on what we want. If we do not know what we want, how can we achieve it?
- Pathways Thinking
Even if we know what we want, we must believe there is a pathway to that goal. And if that pathway is shut-off, we must believe there are other ways as well.
- Agency Thinking
Agency describes the ability to act congruently with your goals. It’s the power to do. When we are agentic, we are actively choosing to act a certain way.
If we are hope-ful we know where we’re going (goals), can see a way to get there (pathways), and believe we can actually walk that path (agency).
If we are hope-less we don’t know where we’re going (no goal). Even if we do have a goal, we may not believe there’s a pathway. Perhaps we have a goal and we see a path… but we’re lacking self-belief. Agency is missing. And we remain without hope.
As parents, we must be hope builders in our children’s lives.
How can we do this?
- Help them identify things that are worth working towards
Encourage them to set goals that are based on personal interests and passions. These goals may be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), or they may be more process-oriented (such as the goal to read a chapter of a personal development book most days).
- Help them identify pathways that are open to them
This involves breaking the goal down into smaller tasks, and working with them to make sure they have the resources, tools, and information required to pursue their goal.
- Help them develop self-belief
Celebrate their achievements, provide reassurance when they face difficulties, and remind them that setbacks are opportunities for growth and learning.
4. Doing Hard Things and Celebrating Wins
In some ways, life is full of hard things for our children. That’s part of the reason they struggle. But at a deeper level, they’re feeling unsure of their identity because they have not had time to accumulate evidence of their competence – to do the hard things that prove to themselves that they are capable, competent people.
Competence is a vital human need. Yet you don’t become confident by shouting affirmations in the mirror or having your parents pump up your tyres with false praise. You build a sense of hope, self-efficacy, and power by having a history of action that offers you undeniable proof that you are who you say you are. It comes from doing the hard thing again and again.
If they continue to disprove their imposter syndrome, their anxiety dissipates at the same time as their identity builds. It’s like building a mountain with layers of paint. Incremental and thin growing. But growing with every brush stroke. Do the reps. Make them hard.
And celebrate the wins! Ask your child how it felt to progress. Ask them how they did it and how they plan to do it again. Boost them up with real compliments and genuine encouragement that reflects their own positive self-evaluations and helps them feel good about their efforts and results.
5. Making a Difference
I know of nothing that builds a teen’s sense of mattering, sense of self, sense of hope, and sense of competence like helping others. In recent decades volunteering has declined. And this is to the detriment of the wellbeing of our children.
We all need to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Our children forget themselves when they get to work helping others.
Spencer W. Kimball, a former leader of the Church of Jesus Christ, said, “The more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to “find” ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!”
Perhaps we might help our children realise they are enough by encouraging them to step outside themselves and look outwards in service to others. In so doing, I believe they’ll discover that, while no one may ever be quite “enough”, they will be more than they ever could have been otherwise.
You are enough
Over the years, we may have inadvertently contributed to our kids feeling like they’re not enough. We may have increased their anxiety and drive towards perfectionism by the pressure and control we have applied. Yet merely stopping our negative impacts is not enough to reverse the trend. Too much of our societal culture pushes our kids to feel like they will never measure up.
However, as parents we can be part of the solution. We need to let our kids know that they matter. We need to help them know their family story. We need to be hope builders. We need to celebrate the hard things they do. We need to support them to make a difference in the world.
Ultimately, here’s what I want our teens to know:
I am enough because of who I am right now in this moment.
My potential (or lack of potential) for the future is irrelevant to being enough.
What has happened (or hasn't happened) in my past is irrelevant to being enough.
Being enough isn’t something that our kids need to achieve. It isn’t something that is determined by what they have done. It is their ability to accept themselves completely in the present moment that gives them the ability to feel like they are enough.
They are enough. Right now. Just the way they are.