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How to Help a Client Who Feels They Are ‘Not Good Enough!’

Undoing the conditioning that leads to low self-esteem

Loving ourselves can be a confusing and abstract concept, which can then make us feel bad for not loving ourselves.

I had a question on a live Q&A call about a client who reverts to feeling they are ‘not good enough’ and don’t deserve self-compassion when they become stressed.

The importance of being kind to ourselves, or even ‘loving ourselves’ – as distinct from being narcissistic (and sometimes the distinction isn’t made) – is a relatively new idea spawned from the self-esteem movement of the 1980s. But for some clients, the very idea of self-compassion and of ‘deserving’ can cause problems.

Under pressure to self-love

I recall when I was working in a psychiatric unit back in the 1980s trying to calm down an acutely disturbed woman. One of the nurses suddenly started telling her to ‘”send love to yourself”. She didn’t know what he was talking about!

Yes, we need to be for ourselves, to do, think, and feel in ways that encourage the completion of our primal emotional needs, and to calm down excessive self-blame. But loving ourselves can be a confusing and abstract concept, which can then make us feel bad for not loving ourselves. After all, which part of the person is doing the loving and which part is being loved?

Just showering people with praise and positive approval works well… for those who have healthy self-esteem. But for those who don’t, it’s been found that positive self-affirmation can actually make them feel worse, not better.

Yes, we need to treat ourselves as we would someone we care about, but this is not best achieved by using the blunt instrument of denying reality (the client’s conditioned reality) or using praiseful platitudes, which are all too easy to disbelieve or see as well-intentioned lies.

And in fact there’s an apparent paradox at the heart of healthy self-esteem.

If it no longer hurts, you don’t have to think about it

As people’s self-esteem grows, they tend to focus less on themselves and more on others and life in general. You don’t have to think about your big toe when you haven’t just stubbed it on concrete. When it no longer hurts to think about the self, you develop spare capacity to focus outward.

So what about this question of deserving?

What you deserve and don’t deserve

Now, we hear some clients describe life as if it’s a kind of binary tally sheet: I deserve this (bad thing)/I don’t deserve that (good thing). People may sabotage relationships that threaten to be healthy because they have been, at some point, emotionally conditioned to feel they don’t deserve happiness.

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One client told me she had started a loving relationship with a decent man. But, she added sadly, she felt she should end it because she “didn’t deserve it”. Rather than disrespectfully clash with her cherished (if self-destructive) belief system by contradicting her and saying “but you’re wrong, you do deserve it”, I simply said:

“Maybe you don’t deserve it if you look at things that way. But what can you do in future so that you do start to deserve this healthy relationship?”

Having expected me to do as other therapists perhaps had done and contradict her belief, she actually laughed. She had to really think about this. We had turned off automatic pilot. We were flying free.

To solve a sense of ‘not deserving’, perhaps we need to reach a stage of ‘deserving’. But how?

When you need it, you need it

Having planted the seed, I changed the subject. But later, as she relaxed deeply in hypnosis, I returned to the subject and asked her to see the things that both she and he would be doing in future that would make them ‘deserve’ one another. I then suggested that perhaps the idea of deserving or not deserving didn’t extend that far beyond simplistic categories or school grades.

Does the grass deserve the rain and sun to help it flourish?

If I’m thirsty, can I only drink what I need if someone decides I deserve it?

Does a cat deserve feeding, or do you feed it because it needs feeding?

And so on. I delved into her unexamined ideas of deserving. Because there’s a truth at the heart of all this.

To loosen rigid thinking, we need to transcend the framework of that thinking.

The way to get past the ‘I don’t deserve this’ trap isn’t necessarily to feel you do deserve it. It’s to begin to cast off such a restrictive framework.

We have needs, including the need for intimacy and love. We can become worthy of someone’s love after they fall in love with us… or we can enjoy the absolving light of love and stop demanding to understand why we are loved or why good fortune comes our way. We can cast off the restrictive ideas of deserving or not.

We can become worthy of someone's love after they fall in love with us... or we can enjoy the absolving light of love and stop demanding to understand why we are loved or why good fortune comes our way. Click to Tweet

But to do this we may need to help our clients feel differently before they can start to think differently.

Not worth a bean

Simplistic ideas as to how reality works, all-or-nothing absolutist thinking, tends to be produced by emotional conditioning.1 And emotional conditioning happens during the ‘symptomatic trance state‘ of strong emotion.

When we help clients view themselves and their lives more flexibly, we are not just appealing to logic.

A client of mine had been repeatedly screamed at by his wrathful mother that he was “not worth a bean” as she beat him heavily. The highly focused state of fear hypnotized him into a state of high suggestibility during these terrifying times. The idea of not being worth a bean became more than just an idea, it became a sense of who he was.

We needed to work on the level of ‘hypnotic’ emotional conditioning if we were to undo its effects. No amount of me trying to appeal to logic, telling him he was worth a bean, would help until we had worked on the level of emotional conditioning.

We should use clinical hypnosis to undo past negative conditioning of low self-esteem while, or even before, we examine the thinking biases of low self-esteem.

As I worked with my ‘not worth a bean’ client, I couldn’t help but remember the tale of Jack and The Beanstalk. But the story of how I used story therapy with him is, as they say, another story!

Asking questions of the unconscious mind

We can ask our clients who express a sense of not being good enough where they think this idea came from. Have they heard other people use the expression? What would they have to be and do to make them good enough? Can we become worthy of a role or a boon after we receive it? Can needs be met without the idea of deserving it or not having to come into it?

And we can ask these questions of the unconscious mind, which can absorb fresh and wider perspectives beyond the ‘ragged rocks’ and blocks of reason.

When we work on the level of the original emotional conditioning, our client has a chance to feel better without having to know why, and without getting trapped in a binary belief system of deserving versus undeserving or in the illusion of not being good enough.

Lue’s question

Do you have any ideas about how to ‘unstick’ a client whose sense of self returns to being ‘not good enough’ and failure when under stress? The client finds self-compassion impossible, as they ‘don’t deserve it’, but this also prevents acceptance of depressive feelings, creating angry feelings towards the therapist (me!) when alternative perspectives or reframing is offered. The triggers for the responses have been explored and the client is aware of the historical sources.

Listen to Mark’s answer or read below

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Hi Lue,

Well, the first thing we’d need to do is to help them manage stress, as we all tend to revert to simplistic, absolutist, black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking when we’re agitated. That is what fear or anger make us do, because in the wild, when such emotions might be more aligned to actual physical survival, we would need to climb a tree or fight, and decisions – and therefore thinking – would have to be all or nothing.

But if that simplistic all or nothing is applied to the self, we get narcissism – “I am amazing and better than you and the best because I am me.” Or, if the strong feeling is negative, we might get low self-esteem – “I am the worst” – especially when the person has been conditioned with such beliefs also through a state of strong emotion. So managing the stress and helping the client become less stressed in the kinds of situations that had been stressing them out should help them think more moderately and in less black-or-white ways so that they can start to question some of their assumptions.

I would use hypnosis to help them relax and rehearse staying calm during these types of times. You could also help your client examine their thinking, and help them challenge their extremist thinking and bring some moderation to it, which allows for multiple perspectives and grades of meaning.

So we have this idea of what she thinks people deserve, and luck, and good things being somehow dished out to the deserving… Does the tired horse deserve the pleasure of rest after galloping a long way fast? Does the parched ground deserve to become green and beautiful after rainfall? Does the sky deserve to play host to a rainbow after the rain? Or are these not to do with deserving but simple side effects of other things happening?

You mentioned this client becomes angry at you, her therapist, for doing therapy, and it may be that if she has low self-esteem any clashing with her self-undermining ideology may seem like too much of a contradiction, so it may be that you need to tread carefully. Quite often with such people I will talk about people in general and leave it to them to apply what I’ve said to themselves or not.

See clients with low self esteem treated

You can watch Mark Tyrrell treat clients with low self-esteem in our ‘Netflix for therapists’, Uncommon Practitioners TV. With dozens of live client session films, training videos, and more, you’ll join hundreds of practitioners inside. Read more here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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