Breaking the “Trance of Unworthiness”

Many of us are walking around in a “trance of unworthiness.” It’s a gnawing feeling that we’re deeply flawed. It tells us we’re not worthy of love, happiness, success, or approval. And it follows us around like a shadow.

When I first encountered this provocative term from psychologist and author Tara Brach, it felt like a revelation to me, because I’ve seen it in so many of my colleagues, clients, and students—and because I’ve felt it at times too. Brach describes it as “fear or shame—a feeling of being flawed, unacceptable, not enough. Who I am is not okay.”

“Who I am is not okay.”

Brach tells the story of a dying mother sharing a searing secret with her daughter:

“You know, all my life I thought something was wrong with me. What a waste.” -a dying mother, told to her daughter (from Radical Acceptance)

 

The Sources of Low Self-Worth

Feelings of low self-worth (unworthiness) are surprisingly common—and quite destructive. Where do they come from?

According to the research, the sources of low self-worth include the following:

  • Disapproving or overly critical parents or other authority figures (like teachers or coaches), often accompanied by intense pressure for achievement
  • Uninvolved, distant, or preoccupied parents or other caregivers
  • Frequent comparisons to siblings during childhood, leading to feelings of inferiority
  • Excessive praise by parents for performance or abilities (vs. effort and process)
  • Too much unhealthy conflict in the home (note: many children absorb those negative emotions and attribute the conflicts to their own faults or failures)
  • Childhood experiences with taunting, bullying, or ostracism
  • Overprotective parents, leaving children unprepared for challenges
  • School setbacks or failures, leading children to feel flawed or stupid
  • Societal expectations and pressures, including unrealistic portrayals of life and beauty from social media
  • Trauma and abuse

“Why do we hold on so tightly to our belief in our own deficiency? Why are we so loyal to our suffering, so addicted to our self-judgment?” -Tara Brach

Clearly, there are many triggers of the trance. Next, we need to know the consequences of the trance of unworthiness. How does it affect our lives, and what can we do about it?

 

The Consequences of Low Self-Worth

The effects of low self-worth can range from mild to devastating, potentially including:

  • Unhappiness
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional distress
  • Lowered resilience in the face of adversity
  • Substance abuse
  • Separation from others—a lack of deep connection with people you care about
  • Lower salaries, in part due to a lower inclination to negotiate for better compensation
  • Stifling your potential for growth
  • Preventing you from pursuing new opportunities, including lower rates of entrepreneurship
  • Suicide

 

The Signs of the Unworthiness Trance

How can we know if we’re susceptible to the trance of unworthiness? Here are some common signs:

  • Recurring feeling that something’s wrong with you, including what Brach calls “the habit of feeling insufficient”
  • Overly active inner critic and negative self talk
  • Perfectionism
  • Numbing behaviors, including addictions (to food, work, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
  • Perpetual busyness, constant multitasking, and frenzied action
  • Preoccupation with achievement, obsession with success, or status addiction
  • Avoidance of vulnerability and self-disclosure
  • Chronic sense of “shame” (“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging,” as defined by Brene Brown)
  • A “divided life” (“a life in which our words and actions conceal or even contradict truths we hold dear inwardly,” as described by author and educator Parker Palmer from the Center for Courage and Renewal)
  • Restless and perpetual pursuit of self-improvement, fueled by angst of feeling not good enough
  • Badgering yourself for mistakes you’ve made
  • Excessive fault-finding in others, to distract from your own pain or flaws
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism, even when it’s constructive
  • Difficulty accepting positive feedback
  • Playing it safe to avoid risk or failure
  • Reluctance to ask for what you want or need, and to accept help
  • People-pleasing
  • Self-hatred

When we’re under this trance, we walk around wondering the following:

What’s wrong with me?

This leads to a related concept: “impostor syndrome.”

 

Impostor Syndrome

 

In 1978, researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified a phenomenon called “impostor syndrome” (also called “perceived fraudulence”). It “involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite one’s education, experience, and accomplishments.”

Impostor syndrome is a belief that you’re undeserving of your achievements or the esteem you may have. You feel like a fraud who’s about to be revealed. You feel like a phony—and that you don’t belong where you are.

Impostor syndrome is common. Researchers estimate that about 70 percent of adults may experience it at least once during their lives, and they note that it’s more common among women—and specifically women of color—but also relevant to men.

According to Dr. Valerie Young, a researcher who studies impostor syndrome, there are five types of impostors:

  1. The perfectionist: feeling a need to be (or appear) perfect
  2. The natural genius: feeling embarrassed if something doesn’t come easily to you, arising from a belief that competent people can handle anything easily
  3. The rugged individualist or soloist: feeling that you should be able to handle everything on your own and that, if you can’t, it’s a sign of a deep flaw
  4. The expert: feeling like a failure when you don’t know the answer or how to do something
  5. The superhero: feeling that you need to be able to succeed across all domains in your life and work

These feelings are clearly self-defeating. We need to get better at crafting mental narratives that are positive and productive, as opposed to the negative and destructive scripts that have hijacked our brains. Enter the work of Shirzad Chamine on what he calls positive intelligence.”

 

“Positive Intelligence”

 

Chamine notes how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life, both personal and professional.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Chamine identified nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that limit our ability to function effectively. The “master saboteur,” as he calls it, is the “Judge”: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. The Judge sabotages us all, he says.

Other relevant saboteurs include the “Pleaser” (flattering, rescuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance) and the “Hyper-achiever” (depending on achievement for self-acceptance).

 

What To Do About It

Given how common and destructive these phenomena (including the trance of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, and our mental saboteurs) are, what can we do to flip the script and fill our heads with more forgiving and productive narratives?

Much, it turns out. Here are nine techniques for changing our mental narrative:

  1. The “audacity of authenticity” (described by Brown as “letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are” and “cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable”).
  2. Avoiding the comparison trap, our destructive tendency to compare ourselves to others and judge our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  3. Radical acceptance” (described by Brach as “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion”). Brach notes that it’s “the gateway to healing wounds and spiritual transformation. When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom, and love that are our deepest nature.”
  4. Viewing imperfections as gifts, because they connect us more deeply, as Brene Brown notes. People don’t feel deep connections with robots and superheroes. Rather, they form bonds with people when they discover shared humanity and risk vulnerability together.
  5. Challenging our self-doubts and examining the sources of our feelings of unworthiness, recognizing that they’re common and often induced by childhood or other life experiences. We’re not alone in having such thoughts but we must learn to interrogate them.
  6. Forgiving ourselves and healing our wounds. (“We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.” -Charlotte Joko Beck)
  7. Cultivating contentment, gratitude, and joy. Having a gratitude practice can increase our sense of wellbeing. We can savor what we have, enjoy the little things in life (which often turn out to be the big things, as the saying goes), and find pockets of joy both in the everyday and not just the sublime.
  8. Meditation and mindfulness, including the practice of observing and labeling negative self-judgments when they arise—and then letting them go.
  9. Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others. Sometimes it’s good enough to know that we’re still here and willing to try another day.

The trance of unworthiness is insidious. Its presence in our lives can go unnoticed for years, or even decades, because it operates subconsciously. Its negative effects, while gradual, can accumulate mightily over time, compounding into a mental black hole. It’s time to break the trance.

 

Reflection Questions

  • To what extent have you and your loved ones fallen into the trance of unworthiness?
  • What do you think are the root causes?
  • Which of the techniques above will you try (or have you tried)?
  • Are you doing enough to stop self-sabotaging and start a more productive mental script?

 

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 Postscript: Quotations

  • “Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” -Louise L. Hay
  • “Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.” -Maxwell Maltz
  • “Most bad behavior comes from insecurity.” -Debra Winger
  • “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” -Parker Palmer
  • “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” -Lucille Ball
  • “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” -William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure”
  • “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” -Suzy Kassem
  • “You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” -Amy Bloom
  • “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” -Mark Twain
  • “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung
  • “All you need is already within you, only you must approach your self with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors.” -Nisargadatta Maharaj
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle
  • “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, fear, self-doubt, vulnerability, shame, negative self-talk, inner critic, trance of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, positive intelligence, radical acceptance, wholeheartedness, Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Shirzad Chamine

Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.

Right?

Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly.

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?

 

What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.

 

Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even at all.

 

Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger. The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly. It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.

 

How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, fear, courage, self-doubt, vulnerability