Good Enough

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As a newly minted, fresh-out-of-graduate-school mental health therapist, I like to obsess about how I'm not good enough at my job.

I tell my supervisor about all my clinical mess-ups, the evidence of my incompetence. She receives my confession calmly, leaning back in her chair like a sedated priest. I keep hoping she'll tell me how I can start being a good enough therapist, but she hasn't yet.

I suspect she's waiting for me to discover that not-enough is enough. Donald Winnicott, a British theorist who studied interactions between babies and parents, coined the phrase "good-enough mother." A good-enough mother meets her baby's needs enough of the time, but not all the time. This combination of meeting and not-meeting needs helps the baby build what we call frustration tolerance.

Good-enough mother translates into good-enough-pretty-much-anything. Good-enough spouse. Good-enough job. Good-enough friend.

So, how much need-meeting constitutes a good-enough therapist?  Can I keep a tally with each client and score myself at the end of every session? When I can help someone start to unravel the impossible tangle of depression, tally under "needs met." When I'm so enraptured with my own theories that my client might as well be invisible, tally under "needs frustrated."


One of my former church pastors (who was not good-enough, by the way) used to quote the Apostle Paul's comment that God's power is made perfect in weakness. That always sounded disempowering to me, like an excuse to not grow because God somehow fills in our gaps, like a cosmic version of insulation foam. But maybe Paul meant that there's something holy and grace-filled in the missing space. It's in our longing, not our satisfaction, that we are so beautifully human.

Our not-enough makes us enough.

With a Perspective, I'm Christine Canty.

Christine Canty is a marriage and family therapist intern in San Francisco.