First Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask
Do you feel you deserve love? Do you feel worthy of real happiness? These are very basic questions. Many people answer with a quick “Yes, of course I do,” which is often from the mind and not from the feelings. From many years of experience working with a diverse range of people, Joyce and I have observed something different. True, most people “think” they are deserving of all good things. Unfortunately, most people’s feelings often undermine what they think, and sabotage their actions.
Take Trudy for example. Present with her husband Jake at one of our couples retreats to “deepen their already happy marriage,” we led a “re-parenting” exercise. We feel it is very important for people to understand the needs of their inner child, the part of themselves that needs love, acceptance, and validation. Trudy had no trouble holding and loving Jake’s inner child. He curled up on her lap just like a little child. When it came time to switch places, Trudy resisted. She felt she didn’t need to be held as a child. She only wanted to be held as a woman. When I intervened and coached her past her resistance, her body suddenly shuddered with sobs of pain and grief. She revealed later that she had no idea how much she needed as a child, and how much unworthiness she felt. She had just learned a tool to make her “happy marriage” much happier.
Rick is another example. A very loving and generous husband and father of three teens, he found himself continually giving to his family, his friends, and his community. When we asked what he gave to himself, he couldn’t think of much, besides the basics: eating and sleeping. When we pressed him on this subject, he instead asked, “Isn’t that selfish?”
How many of us were given the message that it is selfish to give to ourselves? That it is more blessed to give than to receive. There is often a deeper message here: we don’t deserve to receive. My favorite Native American saying: “Humble yourself to receive, before you can truly give.” In fact, there can be no real giving unless you are willing to receive.
Flight attendants instruct passengers, in the event of loss of cabin pressure, to put an oxygen mask on yourself before you try to help your children or other passengers. A mother sitting next to me on one flight defiantly blurted out, “They can’t tell me what to do. I’d put the masks on my children first.” But how much help could this mother offer her children if she passes out while trying to put their masks on?
Like many people, I somehow learned growing up that my goodness, my very worth, came from how much I gave, or the good things I did. This was a damaging message. No matter how much I did or gave, it never brought me a sense of inner worth. Some years ago, at our annual couples retreat in Rowe, MA, I shared my struggle to find my innate worthiness. An older man in the group offered to hold me on his lap on a couch in the back of the room. I hesitated. I was, after all, one of the leaders of this retreat. However, Joyce, and our musician friend, Scott, were all over this idea.
I finally accepted his offer and lay in his lap, while he stroked my face and spoke to my inner child, “Little Barry, always remember you are loved for who you are, not for what you do. Joyce and Scott have the retreat handled. There is nothing you need to do. You are precious and special just as yourself.”
It was an amazing experience! I completely let go of leading the retreat. I vaguely heard talking in the room, but it was all in the background. In the foreground, I concentrated on absorbing the loving fatherly words spoken to me as a little boy. I got it! After all, I was a human being, not a human doing.
Where do these feelings of unworthiness come from? Mostly they come from old damaging messages. As children, we are open and trusting to the caregivers in our lives. If we hear things like, “You’re good for nothing,” or “You’ll never amount to much,” or “Can’t you do anything right,” we take these words deeply into our beings, our self-image is damaged, and unworthiness grows like an unwanted weed in the garden of our soul.
These damaging messages can also come from ourselves. Over the years I’ve realized how many times I’ve condemned myself because of the hurtful things I’ve done in anger, the mistakes I’ve made that have caused suffering, even the times as a child when I took out my own pain on our family pets. As an adolescent, I stole, I cheated, I lied, and I vandalized other people’s property. Even though these things happened in the distant past, they live on in my unconscious mind, ever trying to convince me that I don’t deserve love or good things to happen to me.
Another one of our workshop exercises involves self-acceptance. In small groups of 3 or 4 persons, we give each person an opportunity to vulnerably reveal something they have difficulty accepting about themselves. For most people there is no shortage of these items. We then give the others in the group a chance to accept each speaker exactly as they are. It is remarkable how easy it is to fully accept another person’s flaws, to see these weaknesses or mistakes as part of their beauty. At the end of each person’s turn, I will often sing a sweet little song written by our friend, John Astin,
“You are precious, you are whole.
Listen deeply and you will know
You’re a child who’s worthy of heaven’s grace.
And it’s a worthiness no mistakes can erase.”
When a child is first learning how to walk, it will inevitably fall down. Do we condemn that child because it fell? No, we encourage him or her to keep trying. We may even see the cuteness in this innocent mistake. We are no different than this child. We inevitably fall down in many ways. Those who love us most, whether it be people or heavenly beings, also see our mistakes yet they continue to love and encourage us to keep trying. If we can see and understand this unconditional love that no mistakes can erase, we can then let go of any feelings of unworthiness.