Obviously the burned toast was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. However, this example illustrates how easy it is for people to fall into thinking of themselves as inadequate. Too often the belief of having failed at something results in a sense of inadequacy, critical self-judgment, unworthiness, and the feeling of just not being good enough. My friend felt disconnected from her son, family, and friends. She felt powerless, helpless, and useless, which also disconnected her from who she thought she was. There was a time when she had felt empowered and that her life had a purpose. She had felt useful, confident, and hopeful. All of that seemed to have evaporated.
The good news here is that this state of self-judgment, uncertainty and questioning can become a jumping-off point to developing a new perspective of one’s self, which could result in a whole new life. Experiencing a sense of failure and feeling less than adequate at certain times is a universal condition that occurs to everyone. The key is how to respond when the jumping-off point arrives. Until the moment she allowed her tears to have words, my friend had been ignoring, pretending, and numbing the major turn her life was taking. She had been pretending she could handle this alone and without help. She ignored the reality that she had shut people (including her friends and even her son) out by keeping her fears and vulnerability to herself. She was also doing what so many do when faced with uncertainty, which is to numb by indulging in use of credit cards, food, and mood altering substances. The problem with pretending, ignoring, and numbing is that they are joy killers. Pretending works only for a while perhaps until you burn the toast. Ignoring has an ever-approaching end line which produces a feeling of dread that becomes bigger each day. And the problem with numbing is that it anesthetizes not only the fear but other feelings such as happiness, gratitude, joy, kindness, and love.
The marvel of the burned toast is that it provided my friend an opportunity to hit that jumping-off point and express what was really going on for her, exposing her sense of failure, helping her to face it, along with the pretenses she had been using to cover it up. It was at this point that she was able to connect in a real way with herself and with someone else who could serve as witness to her fear, pain, and struggle. Her sense of failure illustrates how easy it is for any of us to question our capacity to feel worthwhile and loveable. All human beings are flawed, imperfect, and have limitations. It is in having the courage to face and share these inadequacies that evaporates worthlessness and shame. It is this sharing that provides the perspective that in spite of it all, one can be good enough.
The paradox is that, in order to have a strong sense of love and belonging, a person has to let her- or himself be seen in spite of the impulse to want to hide their vulnerability. It is through revealing oneself to someone that meaningful connections are formed. People who believe they are worthy also believe they are loveable in spite of their imperfections.
If I have learned anything in the 30-plus years of working with people through life change, it is that being connected in a real and meaningful way with others is a basic ingredient to happiness. Human connection, our ability to empathize, belong, love, and share with others is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. It is what makes people feel worthwhile and good, producing a sense of contentment and well-being. Humans are wired to be this way.
Inadequacy is an equal opportunity employer. It’s the “I’m not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, appreciated enough,” syndrome that everyone faces in some way. It is the phenomenon that is exemplified when you hear 25 good things from someone and one “room for improvement” that results in focusing on that one thing you heard as a negative. As a whole, our society seems to have a hard time with imperfection.
In many different ways this facing and admitting our weaknesses has been ritualized for centuries. Christians confess their sins, Jews seek reconciliation and atonement. In Buddhist design, artistry, and construction, small flaws are purposely built in to signify the imperfection inherent in humanity and the humility needed to accept this. The idea is that love and compassion grow out of an understanding of our fallibility, not from ideals of perfection.
The point is that by facing and sharing a sense of failure, rather than leading one to conclude they must be inadequate or worthless, it renders one worthy and capable through forming connections in a real and meaningful way. People who have the courage to let go of who they think they should be, to be who they are, become self-accepting and confident. In this way failure is transformed into strength.
From time to time, we all need to have some burnt toast.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love” ~Rene Brown
Editor’s Note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation and therapeutic services at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.