Lately, you never seem to feel good enough. Maybe you directly and regularly tell yourself: I’m not good enough. I’m not smart, skilled, capable, talented, attractive or thin enough. Maybe the question Am I good enough? reverberates through your brain and body.

Maybe you don’t utter these exact words. But, when you delve deeper, you realize that the painful feeling pervades and dictates your actions. You don’t pursue a promotion or request a raise. You won’t get it anyway. You remain in unfulfilling relationships. It’s what you deserve. You let people cross your boundaries. Why would you stand up for yourself?

Maybe you don’t remember ever feeling good enough.

According to psychotherapist Ali Miller, MFT, the “not good enough” feeling isn’t a feeling at all. She views it as a thought. “[T]his distinction is important [because] once we recognize it as a thought—a judgment, in fact—I find it’s easier to work with.”

The source of this thought is usually our inner critic, said Miller, who helps adults live more authentic, empowered, and connected lives through psychotherapy, couples counseling, and women’s groups in Berkeley, Calif. (Which means it is not some absolute, fundamental truth.) And the source of our inner critic might be critical caregivers or teachers or our competitive society, she said.

Even though the inner critic can be cruel, it actually doesn’t have ill intentions. In fact, your inner critic is trying to protect you. “I think ultimately the inner critic is trying to look out for us, and is afraid about our survival. So when it is telling us we are not good enough, it is often trying to motivate us so that we survive,” Miller said.

But this backfires. Because who responds well to relentless and cruel judgment and criticism? Instead of feeling motivated, we feel exhausted (“because we’re being attacked by our own minds”).

Even worse, this can lead to low self-esteem, shame, isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, insomnia, eating disorders and relationship issues, Miller said.

Thankfully, we can get to a point where we do feel good enough. The thought “I’m not good enough” is actually a signal of our unmet needs, she said. So instead of focusing on not being good enough, you can refocus on meeting those needs. Below, you’ll find the specifics on doing just that.

Explore your feelings.

When you have the thought that you’re not good enough, what feelings do you experience? Maybe you feel overwhelmed or despondent. Maybe you feel scared, anxious or insecure. Maybe you feel jealous. Acknowledge and sit with these emotions.

Explore your inner critic.

“Get to know the part of you that [tells you you’re not good enough],” Miller said. Ask this part what it’s afraid of and what it wants, needs or longs for, she said. Maybe it longs for independence or acceptance. Maybe it longs for appreciation or security. Maybe it longs for purpose or wholeness.

Feel into the longing.

“Take a breath or two with each need [that] you’ve identified is important to this part of you,” Miller said. She shared this example: Let’s say the need is belonging. Focus on what it feels like when your need for belonging is met. Remember a time that you felt like you belonged. “One of my teachers calls this being with the ‘beauty of the need.’” 

Find ways to meet your need.  

“The ‘not good enough’ thought is letting you know that certain qualities are important to you,” Miller said. “If you get curious about what those are and can identify them, then you can shift your focus from believing the “not good enough” thought to finding ways to get your needs met.”

For instance, you identified that belonging is important to you. You explore different ways to create a sense of belonging in your life, Miller said. This might include joining a therapy group or spiritual community or volunteering.

It also can help to challenge the “not good enough” thought by asking: “Not good enough for whom?” Which “can lead to a fruitful exploration, or it can also just render the whole criticism absurd.”

Miller also stressed the importance of practicing self-compassion. “Be as kind to yourself as possible, for when you’re caught in that lie [that you’re not enough], it hurts, a lot.” You’ll find self-compassion practices and tools at Miller’s website www.BefriendingOurselves.com.

Feeling not good enough is painful. But it is not permanent. The next time you feel this way, get curious. Explore it. Then focus on meeting the need or needs that you’re really longing for.