“It’s helpful to understand that when we’re possessed by fearful reactivity… we become cut off from the very parts of ourselves that allow us to trust ourselves, to be more happy and free.”
– Tara Brach
Why is it so hard to love and accept ourselves the way we do other people? Why is self-criticism so deeply wired in us? Those questions are the point of departure for much of Tara Brach’s teaching, and for her essay Waking Up From the Trance of Unworthiness that features in a compilation of essays on spirituality and psychology called The Self-Acceptance Project. Brach, herself a psychologist and teacher of meditation, reminds us that self-love is one of the most neglected areas of our psychic landscapes. Many of us don’t even realize the weight of the suffering wrought by the inability to accept ourselves as we really are and trust that others will love us for our existing qualities and not the selves we think we’d like to be.
When we believe that something is inherently wrong with us, we expect to be rejected, abandoned, and separated from others. In reaction, the more primitive parts of our brain devise strategies to defend or promote ourselves. We take on chronic self-improvement projects. We exaggerate, lie, or pretend to be something we’re not in order to cover our feelings of unworthiness. We judge and behave aggressively toward others. We turn on ourselves.
Although it’s natural to try to protect ourselves with such strategies, the more evolved parts of our brain offer another option: the capacity to tend and befriend. Despite our conditioning, we each have the potential for mindful presence and unconditional love. Once we see the trance of unworthiness — how we’re suffering because we’re at war with our self — we can commit to embracing the totality of our inner experience. This commitment, along with a purposeful training in mindfulness and compassion, can transform our relationship with all of life.
We exaggerate, lie, or pretend to be something we’re not in order to cover our feelings of unworthiness. We judge and behave aggressively toward others. We turn on ourselves.
It’s helpful to understand that when we’re possessed by fearful reactivity, we can be hijacked by our primitive brain and disconnected from the neuro-circuitry that correlates with mindfulness and compassion. We become cut off from the very parts of ourselves that allow us to trust ourselves, to be more happy and free. The critical inquiry is what enables us to reconnect— to regain access to our most evolved, cherished human qualities.
The gateway is the direct experience of the suffering of fear and shame that have been driving us. Not long ago, one of my students revealed that she felt as if she could never be genuinely intimate with another person because she was afraid that if anyone really knew her, they’d reject her outright. This woman had spent her whole life believing, “I’ll be rejected if somebody sees who I am.” It wasn’t until she acknowledged her pain and viewed it as a wake-up call that she could begin to stop the war against herself.
Once we recognize our suffering, the first step toward healing is learning to pause.
Once we recognize our suffering, the first step toward healing is learning to pause. We might think, “I’m unworthy of my partner’s love because I’m a selfish person.” Or, “I’m unworthy because I’m not a fun or spontaneous person.” Or perhaps, “I don’t deserve love because I always let people down.” We might experience feelings of shame or fear or hopelessness. Whatever our experience, learning to pause when we’re caught in our suffering is the critical first step. As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” When we pause, we can respond to the prison of our beliefs and feelings in a healing way.
The second step toward healing is to deepen attention. It’s important to ask, “Beneath all of my negative thoughts, what’s going on in my body, in my heart, right now?” When we begin to bring awareness to the underlying pain, I sometimes call that the sense of “ouch.” You might even ask how long it’s been going on and realize: “Wow. I’ve been feeling not enough for as long as I can remember.” If that happens, try placing your hand on your heart as a sign of your intention to be kind toward yourself and your suffering. You might even tell yourself, “I want to be able to be gentle with this place inside me that feels so bad.”
We move from being identified with the unworthy self to a compassionate presence that witnesses and is with the unworthy self. That shift is a movement toward freedom.
For most of us, staying with the “ouch” can be painful and grueling; it can wear down our spirit and energy. The reason I suggest putting a hand on our heart is that a gesture toward ourselves that expresses comfort or healing has real power. If being with yourself in that way is uncomfortable, imagine someone who is truly wise and compassionate helping you; this can serve as a bridge to bringing the healing presence to yourself.
When we do this, a shift begins to occur. We move from being identified with the unworthy self to a compassionate presence that witnesses and is with the unworthy self. That shift is a movement toward freedom. It’s in that very moment when we become present and offer kindness — or the intention of kindness — to ourselves that real transformation begins to take place.