Awakening From the Trance of Unworthiness

by Tara Brach – July, 2014

During high school, I consciously struggled with not liking myself, yet it was during college that I became distressed by the intensity of my self-aversion. On a weekend outing, a roommate described her inner process as “becoming her own best friend,” and I broke down sobbing, overwhelmed at the degree to which I was unfriendly toward myself. For years my habit had been to be harsh and judgmental toward what I perceived as a clearly flawed self. I judged myself for falling short as a daughter and friend, condemned myself for being too heavy, felt that my moods were too extreme, my performance at school less than what it should be.

In retrospect, I realized I was living in what I call the Trance of Unworthiness. This experience of personal deficiency is a pervasive form of suffering, with its roots in societal norms that assign superior value to certain races, types of intelligence, appearance, sexual orientation, behavior, and performance. As messengers of the culture, parents often communicate that to be loved and approved, we need to be special, to look and act a certain way, work harder, win, succeed, make a difference, and to also not be too demanding, shy, or loud. Basically, the familiar message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”

Our feelings of deficiency are a trance because, while we might realize we judge ourselves too much, we are rarely aware of how thoroughly a felt sense of falling short affixes itself to all our relationships, to work, to many moments of daily life. When in this trance, we are living in an imprisoning perception of who we are. When strong, our beliefs and feelings of deficiency prevent us from being intimate and authentic with anyone; we sense that we are intrinsically flawed and others will find out. Because the fear of failure is constant, it is difficult to lay down our hyper-vigilance and just relax. Instead, we are consumed with hiding our flaws and/or trying to be a better person.

After college, my strategy of perpetual self-improvement ended up transferring into my spiritual practice. I moved into an ashram, and for the next dozen years attempted to become more pure—waking up early, doing hours of yoga and meditation, organizing my life around service and community. I thought that if I really applied myself, it would take eight or ten years to awaken spiritually. The activities were wholesome, but I was still aiming to upgrade a flagging self. Periodically, I would inquire of my teachers, “So, how am I doing? What else can I do?” Invariably, they would all respond, “Just relax.” I wasn’t sure what they meant, but I didn’t think they really meant “relax.” How could they? I clearly wasn’t “there” yet.

A moment of transforming insight occurred during a six-week Buddhist meditation retreat. I had spent at leasttwelve days with a stomach virus. Not only was there physical discomfort, but I was feeling “wrong” for being sick. My assumption was that I didn’t know how to take care of myself, that being sick reflected unworthiness and a basic lack of spiritual maturity.

During an evening talk, a teacher at the retreat said, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” For me, this rang incredibly true. I’d been hitting that boundary repeatedly, contracted by the almost invisible tendency to believe something was wrong with me. Wrong if I was fatigued, wrong if my mind was wandering, wrong if I was anxious, wrong if I was depressed. In the moment that I made myself wrong, the world got small and tight, and instantly, I was in the trance of unworthiness.

Carl Jung describes a paradigm shift in understanding the spiritual path: Rather than climbing up a ladder seeking perfection, we are unfolding into wholeness. We’re not trying to transcend or vanquish the difficult energies we consider wrong—the fear, shame, jealousy, anger—since this only creates a shadow that fuels our sense of deficiency. Rather, we’re learning to turn around and embrace life in all its realness—broken, messy, vivid, alive. This is the way out of trance: mindfully recognizing and bringing compassion to the parts of our being we have habitually ignored, pushed away, condemned.

This open and accepting attention is radical, because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what’s happening as wrong. We are de-conditioning the habit of turning against ourselves. Each time we can mindfully pause and refrain from fear-based activities of blaming, striving, or self-numbing, the trance of unworthiness begins to lift. It is this willingness to stop and deepen our attention—what I call ‘the sacred art of pausing’—that is at the center of all spiritual practice. Because we get so lost in our fear-driven reactivity, we need to pause frequently.

If I pause in the midst of feeling even mildly anxious or depressed and ask, “What am I believing?” I usually discover an assumption that I’m falling short or about to fail in some way. The emotions around this belief become more conscious as I further inquire, “What wants attention or acceptance in this moment?”

Frequently, I find contractions of fear under the story of insufficiency. The more I can recognize the mental story and open directly to the bodily sense of fear with radical acceptance and compassion, the more than trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve. Rather than the impossible climb to perfection, I’m relaxing and opening into wholeness.

While extremely painful, the trance of unworthiness and its energies of raw shame and fear is a portal to profound transformation. The first step is the realization that we are imprisoned in this trance.

As we begin to awaken through mindful and loving presence, we don’t land in a sense of worthiness, which is just another assessment of self. Rather, the very sense of a separate self becomes increasingly porous and transparent, and we begin to rest more and more in the light-filled space of awareness that regards ourselves and all beings with appreciation and love. It is this shift in identity that expresses our true healing and growing freedom.

Tara Brach, Ph. D., is a clinical psychologist and the author of Radical Acceptance, (2003) and True Refuge (2013). She is founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, and teaches meditation at centers in the United States, Canada and Europe.