Jan Grant, Counsellor and Educator
The notion of 'good enough' comes from child development and particularly from two eminent psychoanalysts: John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Both talked about the need for a developing baby to have a mother who was responsive, protective and caring. This mother was not perfect, but she was 'good enough'. This meant most of the time she was available to meet the infant's needs. This in turn gave the baby a sense of control and a sense of connection and the baby learnt to trust her/himself.
As adults, we are not perfect either and never will be. However, learning to do well most of the time at what we choose to do is crucial for a happy and successful life. Developing a sense of 'good enough' is important in our work roles and our relational roles throughout life. Being able to admit when we have not done a good job is part of being 'good enough'.
What is delightful in Gay McKinley's book is hearing from both sides of the couch how learning to trust ourselves as 'good enough' is such a strong theme in many people's lives and how much more satisfying life can be when we manage this.
Brad McLean, Psychotherapist and Relationship Therapist
Gay McKinley’s book, On Becoming Good Enough: stories from both sides of the couch, offers readers a glimpse into the mostly arcane world of psychotherapy and the characters that inhabit it. Not only does this collection of 14 real and sometimes painful client stories showcase the depth and breadth of Gay’s work as a counsellor and psychotherapist, this book also conveys an important message about the healing power of self-acceptance and the potentially reparative power of the therapeutic relationship.
Gay does this by weaving her central message about finding our sense of “good enoughness” through multiple narrative threads: those of her clients, her own as a therapist and her own as a person.
In having these central themes run through the book she avoids joining the growing, but often directionless, genre of ‘therapist vanity’ publishing in which therapist/authors muse over their client work without offering much coherence about what it all means for the reader. It’s the ‘therapy tales’ narrative filling shelves fuelled by the public’s voyeuristic fascination about what happens in therapy and the desire to know what therapists are thinking about their clients. You only have to google ‘what therapists are really thinking’ to get an impression of the extent of this. Millions of articles (mostly bad ones) have been written on the topic.
Gay rises above this by bringing herself into the story through her own struggles to find her sense of ‘good enough’ as a therapist, parent, partner and self. In so doing she ‘shows rather than tells’ the reader what an incredibly challenging task it is to be a therapist, especially one who practises in the modern relational style. She shows how disciplined, open, vulnerable and honestly reflective, relational therapists need to be to function optimally for their clients.
The message of finding the ‘good enough’, the primary driver for writing the book, is distilled from her years of therapeutic practice from which she quite recently retired. If people can find that ‘good enough’ place, she contends, they are likely to be able to move towards a more integrated sense of self and better relationships. Or as Sigmund Freud put it so clearly, but deceptively simply, to be able to work and to love.
This concept of “good enough” is not a new one. One is derived from the writings of D.W. Winnicott, a paediatrician at London’s Paddington Green Hospital in the 1940s who later trained and practised as a child psychoanalyst. He wrote widely on the issues of parenting and emotional development. For some, he is hailed as one of the most brilliant post-Freudian psychoanalytic minds.
Winnicott consulted with (and analysed) thousands of mothers and babies and coined the term “the good enough mother” in reference to the mother who was focused on the tasks of being a mother, paying very careful attention to creating an emotionally caring and physically nurturing environment designed so help the infant thrive. Winnicott’s thinking about the power and influence of this infant-carer relationship has now been supported by 30 years of top quality infant development and attachment research; the value of which remains largely unrecognised by policy makers much to the detriment of our society.
Its said that 70% of mothers (or primary caregivers) provide this ‘good enough’ environment that promotes robust emotional development and a healthy sense of self for their babies. Importantly, Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ was in no way perfect. What’s key to the concept of the ‘good enough mother’ is her fallibility, how she experiences ambivalence about her role, realises she has made sacrifices, and how sometimes she is inattentive to the child. She is both attuned but fallible, she is real. She can be selfless, at times resentful, and she most definitely makes mistakes.
Gay’s version of ‘good enough’ is somewhat different to this but its origins lay in the Winnicottian notion. Gay’s conceptualisation of things relates to the here and now experiences of how people feel about themselves as adults, the long tail of these good and bad infant experience. As Gay explains, children who have grown up cared for by ‘good enough’ mother (70%) as Winnicott described, are likely to have an internal orientation that is healthy and have capacities to feel ‘OK’ and adequate in the face of life’s many and varied vicissitudes. Where good enough mothering has been absent (30%) or the messages heard, and ultimately hardwired, leave us feeling inadequate, unimportant, boring, ordinary, plain or bad, well, the sense of being good enough is not present. The effect ripples through our lives with consequent negative effects as Gay illustrates so sharply through the case vignettes.
“I was witness to many client stories and I came to see over time that no matter what the story, there was a consistent, ubiquitous, result of ‘I am not good enough’,” she says.
Beyond the focus on good enoughness, the book also has a central message about therapy; that it can create the right environment, be facilitative, and either restore or potentially introduce a sense of ‘good enoughness’ for the client to pick up the pieces and ultimately lead a fuller, more settled life.
The book also sheds light on the mutuality of the therapeutic relationship and the power of this mutual influence to shape this ‘good enoughness’ in people through relationship. Gay does a great job of conveying both the client’s and the therapist’s journeys into the unchartered waters of this unique and most intimate of relationships. She illustrates what brings individuals into therapy and how the work unfolds, affecting both participants in sometimes transformative ways. She explains how the therapist, who is also on a career long journey, continuously searches for a sense of being ‘good enough’ both as a clinician and as a person themselves. It’s actually fundamental to the work to be orientated this way.
The storylines that Gay’s book traverses illustrate so poignantly how psychotherapy unfolds in the two-person context (that of the client and therapist) and conveys how each coupling (and actually, each encounter) is unique. This one-off quality of each therapy is one of the reasons its very difficult to communicate what the work involves in general terms.
The process is unique because the therapist and the client bring their own conscious and unconscious subjectivities (motivations, life experiences, relationships, losses and triumphs and emotional needs) to the therapy room. Add to these factors the individual personalities and history of relationships and you start to get an idea of just how complex the work is to describe (and thus how hard these books can be to write well).
What we do know is that the process works best when the therapist has done significant personal therapy work to the point they can bring their full self into the work with the client so as to ensure something safe, coherent, contained and professional is provided. The key to it all is an appreciation that both parties mutually influence each other but the therapist takes responsibility for what is happening. The relationship is a mutual but ultimately asymmetrical one.
As the US psychoanalyst and author Andrea Celenza puts it, it is the asymmetry of the therapist/client relationship that defines and distinguishes therapy from friendship. Importantly skill, training and experience also separate the two but what makes things so complicated and unique about psychotherapy, as Celenza articulates so clearly, is that the asymmetrical relationship sits side-by-side with a mutually influential relationship. The therapist impacts the client and vitally, at least in the post modern world of psychotherapy, the client needs to impact the therapist for change to occur. It is this dual axis of asymmetry and mutuality, these seemingly opposite co-existing forces, that has to be in place for psychotherapy to lead to change, growth, or integration of experiences for clients.
Gay McKinley’s book is about the idea that as therapists, part of what we do is to not only offer an environment, but also a part of ourselves, so clients can experience a relationship, in a way that is consistent and good enough, so that room is created for the person to safely explore and make meaning of their experience. In this way the client’s elusive sense of ‘good enoughness’ might be brought into the light.
I highly recommend Gay’s book for those readers interested to find out what happens in therapy, what good therapy looks like, and how therapy can change lives.
Brad McLean is a psychotherapist and relationship therapist based at Redfern, Sydney. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.