“A Closer Look at Unworthiness”

Do you ever feel unworthy to receive good things in your life? It’s not an easy question to answer. Some of you are in touch with your feelings of not deserving. Some of you are not. I dare say that feelings of unworthiness are present in most of us, although we might not be aware of them. The first step in overcoming these feelings is to become aware of them. This can’t only be a mental process. Feelings of unworthiness need to be recognized and felt, before healing can happen.

Joyce and I see many people in our counseling practice who deny any feelings of unworthiness. These same people show some of the classic signs of unworthiness: difficulty asking for what they need, most forms of procrastination, resistance to lifestyle improvement, not taking good enough care of themselves, or problems with addiction. There are perhaps many times when we resist something good simply because we don’t believe we deserve it.

Where do these feelings of unworthiness come from? Our childhood can hold some important clues. In a previous article, “How We Internalize Blame” (on our website, SharedHeart.org), I wrote about a violent act by my mother and the message given to me that her violence was my fault. I learned that I deserved violence … not helpful! But I very much needed to become aware of this feeling, before I could learn on a feeling level that no child deserves violence.

I also learned in my childhood that love was conditional. I needed to earn love by being extra good. So as an adult, and a doctor/psychotherapist, the more I helped people, the more good I did in the world, the more I deserved to be happy (or so I unconsciously thought). But this never worked because it was a flawed concept. Perhaps twenty years ago, at a couple’s retreat at Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts, I vulnerably shared these feelings. Scott Kalechstein Grace, our musician and assistant, suggested I experiment with lying on one of the couches in the back of the room and completely letting go of leading the workshop. He said, “Don’t worry, Joyce and I can lead the workshop just fine.” Just then, an older man suggested I lie with my head in his lap so he could father me and keep giving me the message that I was perfectly worthy without having to do a thing, without having to prove my worthiness.

It was a fabulous experience! I really let go. Even though I only lay there for perhaps twenty minutes, I returned with a whole new feeling of worthiness that did not depend on doing anything. I became a human being rather than a human doing. It’s simply not possible to earn love or happiness. Love and happiness are our birthright.

The healing of unworthiness lies in understanding our dual nature. I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: we are both human beings having a spiritual experience AND we are spiritual beings having a human experience. If we identify with either one, and push away the other, we delay our healing of unworthiness. If we’re only human beings having a spiritual experience, we become too identified with our unworthiness, and so cannot let it go. If we’re only spiritual beings having a human experience, we risk minimizing or even denying our human feelings, including unworthiness.

Healing our unworthiness depends on our acceptance of our humanity and our divinity. Here’s an example. Many years ago, Ram Dass lived close to us and was an important teacher for us. He was writing a book about his guru, and had not spoken in public in many months. Then he received an invitation to speak at a local college, the University of California Santa Cruz. We saw him the day of the talk. He admitted to us that he felt more nervous than he had in many years. He felt unworthy to speak as a teacher to so many people. And he had been praying deeply for divine help.

Joyce and I went to the talk that evening. We told him later that it was the best talk he had ever given. He actually agreed. He said he was more in touch with his humanity … and his unworthiness … than ever before. As a result, he also opened more to his divinity and his need for divine help.

One of my heroes is Saint Francis, a man who was intimate with his unworthiness. He actually took unworthiness to a whole new level. He often stood in the Piazza del Comune, the village square in Assisi, dressed in rags and acting like a fool. Even now he is still referred to as the “Fool of God.” People called him names, spit at him. Children threw rocks at him. All the while, he thanked God for the bad treatment. He actually celebrated his unworthiness! Was he a masochist? Not at all. He felt so close to his beloved Jesus while he was being abused. He became completely identified with Christ who also suffered even worse abuse. As a result, Francis also rose into a spiritual ecstasy, into a true awareness of his divine worthiness, his full divinity.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to celebrate your unworthiness. But still you can accept these feelings as part of accepting your full human condition. Only then can you more fully accept your divine condition and open to your original worthiness. We have always been worthy. We are all divine beings too. Nothing we have ever done, or could ever do, can take away our inherent worthiness. Yes, we all make mistakes, some very big ones too. But we are not our mistakes. We are sparks of the one divine light. We deserve all the good the universe has to offer. When we know our worthiness, we are then free to give all of our love and make our dreams come true.

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