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Growing Up Unworthy

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When talking about the trance of unworthiness, I sometimes share this story:

A family went out to a restaurant for dinner. When the waitress arrived, the parents each gave their orders. Immediately, their 5-year-old daughter piped up with her own: "I'll have a hot dog, French fries and a Coke." "Oh no you won't," interjected the dad, and turning to the waitress, he said, "She'll have meatloaf, mashed potatoes, milk." Looking at the child with a smile, the waitress said, "So, hon, what do you want on that hot dog?" When she left, the family sat stunned and silent. A few moments later the little girl, eyes shining, said, "She thinks I'm real."

Most of the clients that come to see me are very aware of the qualities of an ideal parent. They know that when parents are genuinely present and loving, they offer their child a mirror for his or her goodness. Through this clear mirroring, a child develops a sense of security and trust early in life, as well as the capacity for spontaneity and intimacy with others.

When my clients examine their wounds, they recognize how, as children, they did not receive the love and understanding they yearned for. Furthermore, they are able to see in their relationships with their own children the ways they too fall short of the ideal -- how they can be inattentive, judgmental, angry and self-centered.

Our imperfect parents had imperfect parents of their own. Fears, insecurities and desires get passed along for generations. Parents want to see their offspring make it in ways that are important to them. Or they want their children to be special, which in our competitive culture means more intelligent, accomplished and attractive than other people. They see their children through filters of fear (they might not get into a good college and be successful) and filters of desire (will they reflect well on us?).

As messengers of our culture, parents usually convey to their children that anger and fear are bad, that their natural ways of expressing their wants and frustrations are unacceptable. In abusive situations, the message is, "You are bad, you are in the way, you are worthless." But even in less extreme situations, most of us learn that our desires, fears and views don't carry much weight, and that we need to be different and better if we are to belong.

The Buddha, who had his own imperfect, flawed parents, looked deeply into his own suffering more than 2,500 years ago, and his amazing insight was that all suffering or dissatisfaction arises from a mistaken understanding that we are a separate and distinct self. This perception of "selfness" imprisons us in endless rounds of craving and aversion. When our sense of being is confined in this way, we have forgotten the loving awareness that is our essence and that connects us with all of life.

What we experience as the "self" is actually an aggregate of familiar thoughts, emotions and patterns of behavior. The mind binds these together, creating a story about a personal, individual entity that has continuity through time. Everything we experience is subsumed into this story of self and becomes my experience. "I am afraid," "This is my desire."

The Thai meditation master and writer Ajahn Buddhadasa refers to this habit of attaching a sense of self to our experience as "I-ing" and "my-ing." We interpret everything we think and feel, and everything that happens to us, as in some way belonging to or caused by a self.

Our most habitual and compelling feelings and thoughts define the core of who we think we are. If we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we experience that core as flawed. When we take life personally by "I-ing" and "my-ing," the universal sense that "something is wrong" easily solidifies into "something is wrong with me."

It's sometimes helpful to remember that wanting and fearing are actually natural energies, part of evolution's design to protect us and help us to thrive. But what happens when our caretakers and larger society react to these emotions and fail to mirror our essential goodness? What if others fail to see we are real? In these life circumstances, our wants and fears become the core of our identity, and we lose sight of the fullness of our being. We become identified with, at best, only a sliver of our natural being -- a sliver that perceives itself as incomplete, at risk and separate from the rest of the world.

If our sense of who we are is defined by feelings of neediness and insecurity, we forget that we are also curious, humorous and caring. We forget about the breath that is nourishing us, the love that unites us, the enormous beauty and fragility that is our shared experience in being alive. Most basically, we forget the pure awareness, the radiant wakefulness that is our Buddha nature.

Here is a short talk on the topic titled: "Behind the Mask."

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003).

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