Psychoanalytic concepts that might help in life and on the spiritual path: ‘good-enough’

This concept of ‘good-enough’ originates in the writings of D. W. Winnicott where he applied it to the part played by the mother in infancy. He describes in his paper on True and False Self (1960) a comparison between two extremes: at one extreme the mother is a ‘good-enough mother’ and by the other the mother ‘is not a good-enough mother’. Another way of thinking of this is to turn it around so the ‘good-enough mother’ (or mothering person) is able to meet the needs and the omnipotence of the infant through responding with ‘enough good’. This has to happen repeatedly so that the infant begins to gain a sense of his or her own agency, and in Winnicott’s terms the True Self begins to have life.

‘In the first case the mother’s adaptation is good enough and in consequence the infant begins to believe in external reality which appears and behaves as if by magic … ‘the True Self has a spontaneity … The infant can now begin to enjoy the illusion of omnipotent creating and controlling, and then can gradually recognize the illusory element, the fact of playing and imagining.’

The mother who is not able to respond with enough good fails to meet the infant’s gestures and needs, instead she puts her own needs and gestures before those of the baby so the baby has to become compliant – here’s the early stages of the False Self where the baby’s needs and omnipotence becomes subsumed by the mother and so not met.

Where the mother’s adaptation to the infant’s needs and gestures and spontaneous impulses is not good enough – where the mothering person has insufficient capacity and not enough good to properly respond, then the infant remains isolated – the infant lives but lives as Winnicott writes falsely. ‘The infant gets seduced into a compliance, and a compliant False Self reacts to environmental demands and the infant seems to accept them.’ The False Self can hide and protect the True Self – there is little if any spontaneity and often the infant and child learns to imitate ‘even attains a show of being real, so that the child may grow up to be just like mother …or whoever at the time dominates the scene.’

As well as helping me understand early infancy and childhood it’s also a useful concept in terms of relationships and spiritual life … it’s easy to transfer early experiences into collective contexts including for example church and religious groups – either that I’m not good enough for a particular church group or the other way round – it doesn’t feel as if there is enough good there for me.