When I first donned the role of “therapist” in my pre-graduate internship, I thought feeling helpless meant I was doing something wrong. But lately I’m starting to think helplessness is just part of my job, like how eye strain or terrible co-workers are inevitable in other careers.
But then, sometimes I’m not so at peace with helplessness. I like to obsess about how I’m not enough for my clients. I tell my supervisor about all my missed moments, times when my client blamed herself, or told the same story for the third time, or tried to hold back tears, and I didn’t pick up on it until after the session was over. My supervisor receives my confession calmly. She always sits the same way, resting comfortably into her chair, one ankle crossed over the other knee, hands loosely clasped in her lap, head tilted, soft eyes looking at me, smiling almost imperceptibly. She’s so regal and non-anxious, and she never moves. I try desperately to mimic her stillness in my sessions. But I always end up thrashing like a fevered child, and sitting with one foot under my butt and the other dangling, leaning over one armrest like it’s a grand piano and I’m about to start singing “Santa Baby” in a husky lounge voice. My clients probably think I have a nervous-system disorder.
I keep hoping my supervisor will tell me how I can start being enough for my clients, but she hasn’t yet. I suspect she’s waiting for me to discover that not-enough is enough. D.W. Winnicott, who was a pioneer in studying how babies interact with their parents, coined the phrase “Good-Enough Mother.” A Good-Enough Mother meets her child’s needs enough of the time, but not all the time. The combination of meeting and not-meeting needs helps the baby build what we call frustration tolerance: The ability to have your needs go unmet and still be okay.
Good-enough mothering translates into good-enough-pretty-much-anything. Good-enough therapist. Good-enough wife or husband. Our couple’s therapist told us that the most sexually satisfied adults don’t require mind-blowing sex, but rather they have a concept of “good-enough sex.”
I sometimes wonder what percentage of need-meeting constitutes good-enough mothering. Is it half? Three Quarters? If I have a baby, maybe I’ll keep a chalkboard above her crib with a tally. In my 3am sleepiness as I shove a boob into her mouth, I’ll put a mark in the “needs met” tally. Then when she keeps screaming and I can’t figure out why I’ll mark “needs unmet,” shrug and go back to bed. And on my way out the door I’ll remind her of another thing Winnicott said: “There’s no such thing as a baby.”
So can i keep a chalkboard above my client chair as well as the baby’s crib? When I reflect my client accurately, when I provide a corrective emotional experience— Tally under “needs met.” When I don’t catch what really matters to him, or I’m so enraptured with my theories that he might as well be invisible, tally under “needs frustrated.” What is my score, anyway?
And what about my own therapist, with whom I might be in the process of terminating after four years? What’s her score? In contemplating the impossible question of whether to leave her, I know down to my bone marrow that she has been good for me. And, without a doubt, she has never been enough. She’s never met all of my needs. I’m not sure what her tally is, but she’d be lucky to be at 50% success. But she’s been good-enough.
I never liked the Apostle Paul’s comment that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It always sounded disempowering to me, like an excuse to not grow because there’s some magical divine property of Christ that fills in our gaps, like a cosmic version of that expanding insulation foam that comes in a spray can. But maybe Christ doesn’t fill something in, rather there’s something holy and grace-filled in the missing space. It’s our not-enough that makes us enough. It’s in our longing, not our satisfaction, that we are so beautifully human.