Snapping Out of the "Trance of Unworthiness"
by Portia Franklin, LCSW,
Some time ago when the Dalai Lama was being interviewed, the subject of low self-esteem came up, and his translator had great difficulty finding a way to help him understand this concept. Reportedly he was perplexed by the notion that people could disrespect themselves; that they could fail to perceive their own value and feel unworthy of the fulfillment and happiness in life that should be the birthright of every human being.
It is striking that the concept of low self-esteem that plagues so many of us in Western society is so foreign to Tibetan Buddhist culture that there is not even a word for it in their language. Rather there is a sense that every being is unique and precious, and inherently worthy of love and respect. How is it that we have managed to create a culture in which low self esteem—the devaluing of the self—is so common, that even people who appear very successful by conventional standards are often riddled with self doubt and feelings of unworthiness?
This thought came to mind during a session with Roger (not his real name), a dynamic, highly regarded executive in a software engineering firm. Though he has succeeded by every objective measure—he has earned a good living that has allowed his family great material comfort and is well regarded by colleagues and friends--he walks around with a constant sense of “not good enough.” His external image of an affable, self confident man, well practiced over many years of professional life, belies the sinking feeling inside: “I always feel like they’re going to find me out, that my façade will crumble and they’ll see who I really am.”
Even in non-professional situations, the feeling endures. As we were discussing how pervasive these negative feelings are in his life, Roger winced and buried his head in his hands as a wrenching memory rose to consciousness: “When my son was born—he was perfectly beautiful from the first moment he came into the world—for just a moment in time I felt such exquisite joy—but then—words came screaming into my consciousness—‘You don’t deserve this!’ ” He struggled to continue in a halting, agonized tone: “and we didn’t have any other children—though I always wanted a big family.”
Roger lives in a state that author Tara Brach describes in her powerful book Radical Acceptance as “the trance of unworthiness.” As we explored his history, the origin of this trance became clear. He had a mother who was emotionally volatile, physically abusive, and cruel, and a father who was emotionally and often physically absent. Though Roger was extremely bright and always did well in school, from his mother’s perspective, he never did well enough. To a very great extent, children become who we tell them they are, and Roger got the message over and over again, that “You don’t deserve!”
In therapy Roger was able to begin to identify the bad feeling that goes with the thought “I don’t deserve” as ancient history—literally a memory of what it felt like to be a beleaguered child with a mentally unstable, cruel mother. He came to understand—as we all must if we are to transcend a difficult childhood—that he is constantly viewing current reality through the lens of the past.
The question is, why don’t the positive accomplishments of the present override the negative programming from the past? To answer this question we have to look at the nature of the brain, and the powerful way that early memories color how we see and respond to the world as well as how we see ourselves.
The first thing to understand about the brain is that it is a survival machine that has the primary job of keeping us alive. To accomplish this goal it is constantly processing the here-and-now through the lens of the there-and-then. That means it sizes up every new situation by instantaneously comparing it to all the similar situations we’ve lived through in the past. As it does that, it pulls up all the old feelings from history—the implicit memories—that make us feel the same way now that we did then. The problem is, we don’t usually recognize that these negative feelings are a form of memory.
That was certainly true for Roger when he first came into therapy. Every time he walked into a professional situation where the quality of his work was likely to be evaluated, his brain would pull up all the feeling memories of being a little boy who was harshly judged as “never good enough.” He would re-experience all of the dejection, hopelessness and despair of his 10 year-old self, without realizing that these were the feelings of the child who lives on in memory.
And this is a physiological as well as a psychological phenomenon. If we could go back in time and capture an image of Roger’s 10 year-old brain when his mother was putting him down, and then do the same for adult Roger when he was feeling inadequate or criticized at work, the images may very well look identical. Which means that the historical child lives on in his current feeling states, still wounded and longing for the love and validation that he so richly deserves.
Roger was eventually able to identify the dejected feeling state he so often fell into as “old stuff”—a memory of the suffering child he once was. In a very moving session he spoke from an adult, compassionate place to the child in his memory: “You never deserved what she did to you! You were always a good kid. You deserved to grow up and have a good life—to feel good about yourself—to be happy!” This was a turning point in his therapy, after which he was able to confront the negative voices from history, no longer viewing them as accurate or real.
There were so many profound moments in Roger’s sessions that resonated with my own early experience, having grown up in a conflict-ridden family that gave me many negative messages about myself. I spent long years in therapy re-wiring that early software—learning to recognize my strengths, accept my weaknesses, and embrace the person that I actually am. This is the birthright of every one of us—to come home to ourselves and know that it is a good place to be.
The most important take-away for anyone struggling with self-esteem issues is the realization that you don’t have to live in that negative trance for the rest of your life. You can learn to recognize, as Roger ultimately did, that most of the negative feelings that plague you are “old stuff”—negative programming, not ultimate truth.
You can begin to give yourself the same love and respect that you would offer a beloved child—the same “radical acceptance” that Buddhist psychology suggests—which means that you accept yourself with your history, understanding that whatever negative messages were learned along the way do not have to define you; they are simply the story that you have lived; they are what you must transcend in order to snap out of the “trance of unworthiness” and become who you truly are.
Recommended readings: “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach and Buddha’s Brain, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson
Portia Franklin is a New York City based psychotherapist who has more than 20 years experience helping people move beyond depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties to lead fuller, richer lives. Check out her web site: www.integrativepsychotherapy-nyc.com