One of the most common core beliefs that people in our society hold is that we are unworthy. We may hear it from others or we may hear it from ourselves. We may have gotten the message from the culture or from people in our families. And it can be very tender to contemplate when we turn our attention to it.
When I recently chipped my front teeth, I had an opportunity to remember how deeply vulnerable this landscape is. Between the waiting to get it fixed, the dancing with insurance companies, the cost, and the pain, I was questioning if I was worth it. And at the same time, I worried what people would think and say about me. I was hearing stories of unworthiness from all sides.
However, I also know that we can change our belief in these stories. How? Here are three possibilities.
1. The story of unworthiness comes and goes
First, we can pay attention to how the story of unworthiness comes and goes. Sometimes it’s here, and sometimes it’s not. It’s not some permanent part of your personality. It’s not even a “core belief,” as I just described. It’s a phenomenon – a story that arises and passes through.
Now this is where it gets tricky, because the more the story comes up, the more it reinforces itself. You might hear the story so many times that you really believe it. You might only notice it when it’s there, not noticing that, at other times, it isn’t.
In our meditation practice, we can experience that another way of being is possible. For example, there are simple meditation instructions that train us in fostering mind states like joy, compassion, and lovingkindness. When we experience life without the story of “unworthy,” we know that we can live without it, and that it isn’t actually there all of the time.
2. Noticing when you’re vulnerable
Second, we can train ourselves in noticing when we’re vulnerable to believing the stories of unworthiness. With mindfulness, we can start to see the feelings that come up with these stories – perhaps shame, depression, anxiety. There's so much intensity that comes with some of our patterns. But as we get to know these tender feelings, and know when they’re present, we can be aware of when we might be vulnerable to believing the story underneath them.
Of course, this can be painful, and it’s important to work with your experience so that you feel comfortable in the discomfort. The rate at which this happens is different for everyone, and needs to be held with care. We can't force it. We need to be gentle. Maybe we haven't been taught to trust that love is bigger than fear. Maybe we've lost our sense of trust in loving awareness itself. Maybe we have to learn it anew.
However, when we're willing to actually look at our stories of unworthiness with attention, this is a form of love. You don't have to make a big deal out of it. You can be very simple, just saying to yourself, I'm willing to see this.
This takes courage. It takes a willingness and an open-minded heart. But what comes from this work is a greater humanity. Toko-pa Turner, author of Belonging Ourselves Home, writes, “there is a special quality of stillness in a person who encounters their shadow wholeheartedly. Your body may relax in their company because it understands in the subtle communications of their presence that nothing is excluded in themselves, or you, from belonging.”
3. Growing in our humanity
Finally, remember that most of these stories of unworthiness are not our fault. They may have been inherited or learned. They may even have protected us once. After all, a lot has happened in this life already and a lot more is going to happen. But some of what we’ve learned and inherited just doesn't work anymore, and it’s time to let it go.
For me, I want to sense something greater and be present with that, along with all my personal pain. And I want to be willing to show up and embody interconnection, a sense of both the sameness and difference of life.
You don't have to believe the stuff that’s not true. You can change and be kind and conscientious. You can give yourself over to the inclinations you have toward lovingkindness and compassion. And you can start right now.
What does it feel like to be here and have me tell you that you are worthy? I hope that you can sense into that part of you that knows, Okay, okay, I’ve heard this message. And may it be so. May I live this life full of worthiness.
Emily Horn is on the core team of Buddhist Geeks, which integrates technology, culture and meditation. She is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Insight Meditation Society, and InsightLA, and has been called a "power player of the mindfulness movement" by Wired Magazine.