Enough, already!May 29, 2021
Part 2 of the Limiting Belief Dirty Laundry Series
For the majority of my life I have believed that I am inherently flawed in two vital ways—I am not an “athlete” and I am not a “morning person.” More specifically, I very much dislike exercise, and I very much dislike getting up anytime before 8am. As a kid, I knew that if I ever found a lamp with a genie in it, I would use two of the fabled wishes to remedy these obvious flaws in my personhood. When the magical lamp failed to materialize, I spent several decades trying to self-discipline my way to a regular exercise habit and an early riser routine. I’ve made resolutions, purchased gadgets and programs, and hired people (for instance, a trainer who for two years came to my house at 6am, 3- days a week to make me exercise…early riser and regular exercise all rolled into one excruciating solution). I put the alarm across the room. I rewarded myself with new workout clothes. I manifested, and mantra-d, and prayed. I tried fear tactics, inspirational posters, and accountability partners. But ultimately I failed, despite all of this effort, to move the needle even one hair towards being an early riser or a regular exerciser. And I told myself, over and over again, that my inability to establish habits of exercise and early-rising are due to a lack of effort, motivation, and, most of all, self-discipline.
Let me repeat that. Despite years of effort, trying everything I could think of and everything anyone recommended, I still believed that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
I first encountered the idea that maybe a lack of self-discipline wasn’t my problem in one of Tara Mohr’s Playing Big workshops. Her book Playing Big has a chapter called “Let It Be Easy”, in which she describes creating support structures to make the habits that you are committed to building your default. The idea is that you do NOT rely on self-discipline in order to make big changes in your life. You create a different architecture in your life, one that supports the new habit and creates obstacles for the old habit. During the workshop associated with this chapter she shared with the participants that when she was eliminating sugar from her diet, she realized that she would hit an energetic low each afternoon, and she had been using sugar to get through the lull. Creating an architecture that would support the breaking of the sugar addiction meant she would need a different approach to resolving the afternoon lull. So she built her schedule so that she could take an afternoon nap every day. Yes, you read that correctly. She did not try to force herself to “power through” those afternoon lulls. She did not chastise herself for not having “enough self-discipline” to push through the afternoon, or tell herself that everyone else can do it/has to do it, so why should she be any different. Nope. She said, my body is telling me it needs rest, how can I give it what it needs? And then she changed the structure of her day to accommodate that need.
The key difference between Tara’s approach to establishing a new habit and my approach to establishing new habits is that her commitment to breaking her sugar addiction was motivated by self-love, by a belief that she was worthy, valuable and did not need to be anyone other than exactly who she was. My attempts to implement healthy habits were all made on top of an underlying, limiting belief that I must be lacking in something that I am supposed to have.
Psychologists have been debunking the idea of self-discipline as a primary ingredient in success for awhile now, but it takes a long time for something that ingrained in our culture to really change course. Research on willpower has become more sophisticated and rigorous and has poked a lot of holes in the idea that you either have it in your genetics or you don’t, end of story. And a quick google search on the etymology of the word “discipline” reveals enough references to patriarchal and militaristic constructs to make me suspicious of it as a culture-less construct as well.
But let’s put the troubling baggage of self-discipline aside for a minute, because what I actually want to focus on is the limiting belief that I mentioned above—I am somehow inherently insufficient. Put another way, there is such a thing as enough, and I am not it.
Certainly there are appropriate uses of this word and its ability to help me identify what is missing and find a better solution to an external problem:
- “This kitchen tile isn’t modern enough, its a bit too rustic.”
- “This proposal isn’t detailed enough, I need more information about XYZ.”
- “This framework isn’t expansive enough, it doesn’t encompass the experience of people who don’t share my privilege.”
Those are uses of “enough” that help me iterate and improve.
But applying the word enough to anything that has to do with who I inherently am, is an insidious strategy for making sure I always fall short:
“I’m not smart enough to write that article.”
“I’m not academic enough to participate in that conversation.”
“I’m not self-disciplined enough to have healthy habits.”
I’ve come to call this, “the tyranny of an undefined enough” and once I noticed it, I began seeing it everywhere. It surfaced incessantly in my own self-talk and was littered throughout my clients speech too, with the same kind of difficult-to-uproot belief that there is an objective standard of enough and that they just weren’t born with it.
- “I’m having a really hard time getting over this thing that someone did that hurt me; I guess I’m just not forgiving enough.”
- “I really want to write a book, but I don’t think I’m creative enough.”
- “I can’t speak up during meetings/class because I’m not dispassionate/smart enough.”
Enough, already! Amiright?!
I began asking myself, my students, and my clients this question, anytime one of us used the word "enough"—how much would be enough, and how will you know when you’ve reached it?
In my own life, I took note of the things that tended to make me vulnerable to the tyranny of an undefined enough, and found this recurring event—meetings with people I don’t have close working relationships with always left me second guessing what I had contributed and how it was received. I’d spin a narrative that I shouldn’t have said such-and-such thing, and that by doing so I had said too much or said it all wrong, and generally made a fool of myself. My inner critic would pounce—“You really aren’t professional enough to be a leader.”
I decided to create a rubric for “professional enough,” an objective standard against which I would judge myself. My rubric had to pass three tests—it had to be reasonable (that is it had to match the expectations I would be willing to have for other people as well), it had to align with my values, and it had to be attainable within the context that I would be in.
I decided that “professional enough” would be an affirmative answer to each of these three things: did I arrive on time, did I know the topic of the meeting as well as the average of everyone else in the meeting, and did I listen to what others had to say. If at the end of the meeting I could answer yes to all of those things, then I would not let my inner-critic tell me that I wasn’t professional.
“But that one guy looked at you funny,” my inner-critic insisted, “he obviously didn’t think you were professional enough.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied, “I did the things that I believe amount to professional enough. Now go take a nap, you’re acting like a tired toddler.”
Bolstered by the success of a rubric for professional enough, I tackled a much trickier foe—smart enough. The tyranny of an undefined smart enough usually surfaces when I share an idea and then someone else shares a different idea that I perceive as better than the one I shared, especially if their idea purposefully points out the flaw in my idea. I decided that the rubric for smart enough would be--did I remember to include my own experience/story in what I was sharing, did I draw connections between topics or disciplines of study, and did I give and take credit in fair ways. I determined that the next time I heard my inner-critic launch it’s “you’re not smart enough” attack, I would calmly produce this rubric and give myself a fair assessment of whether or not my contribution to the conversation was smart enough.
“But the other guy’s idea was better than yours,” howled my IC.
“Better by which standard,” I calmly countered.
“It was smarter. He has a PhD. Let’s just stop participating in conversations with PhD’s so that we don’t look foolish and feel embarrassed.”
“Nope. I shared a short story about my work in theatre and connected it to the topic at hand, and then I described an article I read recently on the topic and gave credit to the author for their research. By my own standard, the contribution I made to the conversation was smart enough. Besides, first ideas usually lead to better second ideas; that guy is lucky I’m in the room and brave enough to put a first idea out there so others could build upon it. I am role-modeling a proven approach to building a culture of innovation.”
As I am wrapping up here, I gotta say, my inner-critic has been desperately trying to get me to not “press release” on this post.
“You can’t just rewrite the rules and definitions,” it says, “you lack motivation, self-discipline, and willpower, plain and simple. You just aren’t trying hard enough.”
“Shhhh,” I tell it, “time for your nap.”
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