There is a question I hear all the time from teen clients and even my own teens- every single time it brings tears to my eyes. The question is always some form of “why am I not good enough?”
It often follows a break-up of a friendship or dating relationship. Sometimes it even comes from family conflict. While it is a completely normal reaction and something many tweens and teens struggle with, it is still deeply painful. Many adults still struggle with these feelings.
My response to this question always offers validation for how painful it is to feel rejected and unwanted.
But over time, I’ve also discovered a rather unconventional approach that I’ve incorporated into these situations. It involves a discussion of cake. Yes, cake.
I start by explaining that I am a huge fan of chocolate cake. My preference is anything with a name resembling “death by chocolate.” While I am a dessert fan in general, nothing makes me happier than chocolate.
I also explain that vanilla cake, on the other hand, does not appeal to me at all. I am secretly disappointed when I go to a party and they serve vanilla cake. I know there is nothing wrong with vanilla cake and that many people love it. Yet, for me it just isn’t chocolate.
So what exactly do my cake preferences have to do with anything here?
Well, I am confident that no one would argue that one type of cake is objectively and universally better, or worse. We recognize that our personal preferences do not define the value of each option. Yet, despite my confidence in these facts when discussing cake, most tweens and teens struggle to apply the same kind of thinking to themselves.
Just because a person, or many people consider us “not good enough” for them (i.e. not their chocolate cake), it doesn’t mean we aren’t good enough. It simply means we are their vanilla cake. If our tweens and teens can start to incorporate this understanding of preferences, then they can begin to develop a belief that they are, in fact, good enough regardless of who likes them.
This is what in therapy talk we call “wise mind” speaking. “Wise mind” is when we are able to balance our rational thinking and our emotions. But then there is what our “emotion mind” tells us and this is where most teens get stuck.
When we are in emotion mind, our emotions override our capability for rational thought. These are the times when all of us are susceptible to the deeper fears that we are somehow “not good enough.”
Our emotion mind can play tricks on us. To do so, it often distorts our thoughts in two ways that make us jump from “this person doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me” to “I am not good enough for anyone.”
So in the case of our tweens and teens, emotion mind increases the likelihood that they will personalize information and events. In the case of a relationship ending, our teens use this distortion to assume the end is all about them and all their fault. Wise mind, in contrast, recognizes that any relationship is between two people. That means the relationship ending also falls on both parties.
In addition to personalizing, the emotion mind often leads our tweens and teens to generalize. They will generalize from one instance to all instances. If one person says they are not good enough, they may generalize this to believe all people think they are not good enough.
The end result is that they think they are not good enough.
A more wise mind approach is to remember that one person’s thoughts do not represent everyone’s thoughts. After all, do you know anything that everyone agrees on? A wise mind knows that a preference for chocolate cake is simply that – a preferences. It is not about the cake and it is not everyone’s opinion. So, how do we help our teens develop this wise mind understanding?
A teenager who is hurting and feeling unworthy is often in emotion mind and not ready to hear our wise mind advice. We first need to validate how painful these thoughts and feelings are. That does not mean we agree that they are not good enough. Rather we validate how easy it is to jump to that conclusion and how much it hurts. We need to sit with them in their distress before they may be willing to let us help them ease that distress. When they feel validated, the intensity of their emotions will decrease enough to make room for more rational thought.
This is when we can teach them about cake preferences, personalization and generalization. We can explain the natural tendency all people have to personalize negative feedback and generalize it. We can give them examples from our lives of when we have fallen prey to these thought distortions with peers.
Beyond explaining how we jump from rejection by a peer to the belief “I am not good enough,” we can help them check their evidence. Specifically, help them identify what evidence they have that other people including peers, family members, teachers etc. like them. You can also work together to identify what evidence your teen has that they behave in a way consistent with their own values. That may help them to see that they are likable by their own standards.
It is so important that our teens not feel alone in this pain. The reality is that it is common across all ages. Our goal should be to help them challenge it at an earlier age so they can continue to strengthen their sense of self-worth. In the end, we want our teenagers to understand that no one is liked by everyone. While rejection is painful, it is not the same as being not good enough.
This is a contributed post by Alisa Crossfield. She is currently enjoying the roller-coaster ride of parenting a teenage son and teenage daughter. She is also a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Westport Connecticut. Her private practice focuses on adolescents and young adults with emotion dysregulation as well as parent consultation. Her professional and personal roles serve to inform each other. She shares these experiences in a personal blog entitled “Psychdiary” and a Psychology Today blog entitled “Emotionally Healthy Teens.“