Bringing ideas to life

When enough is enough

Published in Dirty Looks, Latest Posts by Mark Murphy on November 20, 2014

image by Rob

Donald Winnicott’s concept of the good enough mother has endured past its psychoanalytic origins, gaining an unusual level of popularity since its first airing in 1953. No wonder, as Winnicott offers a logical and reasoned rebuttal to the unachievable concept of the perfect mother:

A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities [Winnicott, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1953].

Given how Winnicott’s concept has worked its way into public consciousness, it’s surprising that the concept of ‘enough’, regardless of context, has received much less attention in the public sphere. This is a shame, as concepts like ‘enough’ can act as valuable portals into the relational world and its mechanisms of regulation and affiliation.

Grammatically, ‘enough’ can be used in various ways: – as a pronoun (e.g., ‘enough is now known’); as a determiner (‘there’s not enough time’); and as an interjection (‘enough!’). The real power of ‘enough’, however, centres on its function as an adverb. Apart from its use as an interjection, ‘enough’ carries ‘sufficient’ ambiguity to be considered as one of the more potent adverbs. This is because, similar to words such as ‘almost’, ‘nearly’ and ‘just’, ‘enough’ is an adverb of degree (‘enough’ means ‘to the necessary degree’) – an adverb that sorts, classifies, makes judgements. ‘Enough’ is a power tool in the language of social distinction, a word that carries a significant emotional punch to those unfortunate ‘enough’ to be in its firing line. ‘Enough’ is an adverb that, when attached to emotional adjectives, can render its recipient an outcast, an interloper, a charlatan – not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not loved enough. Its power lies in the fact that, while ‘not pretty’ is a definitive judgement, to be not pretty enough indicates that acceptance by the group lies tantalisingly just out of reach. To be insufficient in/at something suggests that steps can be taken to achieve sufficiency, to be enough of something to be worthy of inclusion – to be ‘one of us’ (whatever ‘us’ might be).

Without adverbs of degree, it would be difficult to assign people their rightful place(s) in life, to assign to others the positions and status they have come to deserve. Such a function makes even more sense when placed alongside its close inverted cousin in the degree adverb world – too. Meaning ‘more than necessary’, the adverb ‘too’ brings a more definitive notification of rejection: too fat, too small, too smart, too attractive. It could be argued, in fact, that the (invisible) line between not enough and too much, constitutes the site of the relational court of arbitration, a court of social judgement and classification, sorting the deserving from the undeserving.

A cursory glance at the etymology of ‘enough’ suggests its relational roots go deep: “to please/satisfy” (Albanian); “to attain/reach” (Proto-Indo European); “to get” (Latin); “to arrive” (old Irish variant Tánaic). These historical antecedents strongly indicate that being considered good enough is dependent on the jury of our peers, our worthiness contingent on attaining their approval and admiration. Its etymology also indicates that Winnicott only scratched the surface of the relational world, his ‘good enough’ mother only one status among many to be gained in the struggle for acknowledgement and visibility. Because when confronted with the court of social arbitration, and its confusing rules and regulations, who doesn’t desire to be ‘one of us’, to belong and be accepted – to be ‘just so’?

[originally posted on Dirty Looks] Image by Rob


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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