A little boy was taught he wasn’t good enough by his father who criticized him, yelled at him, hit him, and left him.
The boy grew up into a man, knowing that he was unworthy of praise, of success, of love.
The boy, as an adult, got a job but didn’t really think he was good enough to do the job well. He faked it, deathly afraid every single day that he would be found out, mocked, and fired. He tried not to put himself in the spotlight so no one would see his unworthiness.
But he was deathly afraid of people seeing him fail. So he held himself back, careful not to do anything where he might fail. He put off taking on tough tasks and formed a long habit of procrastination. This came to rule his life, affecting his health habits, financial habits, and relationships.
The boy, now that he was an adult, got into a couple of long-term relationships, hoping to find someone to make him happy. He didn’t believe he could make them happy or get them to love the true him, because he already knew he was unworthy of love. But maybe if he was really nice to them, and only showed them the good parts of himself, they’d think he was lovable. So he never tried to be truly honest and never found true intimacy. He could only show his partner certain parts that might win him love.
And he was always ready for them to find out how bad he was and to leave him. In fact, he often left them before that could happen. If he didn’t leave them, he kept himself only half in the relationship, with one foot out the door. As a result, his romantic partners never felt his full commitment, yet always wanted it.
This was true of every friendship and professional relationship. He was never fully committed or fully honest and never showed his true self.
This is the story of Unworthiness. And it is more common than you might expect.
My Inner Narrative of Unworthiness
One of my longest-running inner narratives is that I’m not good enough—that I’m somehow unworthy to teach, to write books, or to train people in uncertainty.
As I’ve worked with thousands of people in changing their lives, I’ve found this is one of the most common inner narratives there is.
We’re unworthy. Unworthy of praise, of putting our work out there in the world, of leading a team or community, of creating something meaningful in the world. We’re unworthy of success. Of happiness. Of peace. Of financial comfort. Of loving relationships. We’re unworthy of love.
We’re not good enough: not to tackle our toughest struggles, change our addictions, change our diet, or to start exercising. We’re not good enough to change a bad habit or start a good one, like meditating. We’re not good enough to put our writing or art out in public, start a podcast, or launch our business. We’re not good enough for others to recognize our accomplishments.
We’re not good enough, and we’re unworthy.
The Great Secret
Here’s the thing: it’s all just a story, isn’t it? It’s a narrative in our heads that we replay, over and over, until it beats us down into submission.
We made up this story, and we pick out evidence to match the narrative. When someone says something remotely critical, we take it to heart and offer it up as yet more proof that we’re not good enough. (Of course, some people apply this selection bias in the opposite direction, making themselves always perfect and correct.)
The narrative isn’t true. And worse, it hurts us in every part of our lives. It means we’re never truly honest, never fully committed. It makes us anxious and afraid of failure. If we do put ourselves in public, it’s a performance to prove our worthiness.
This is the universal narrative of unworthiness and it hurts us deeply.
Unlearning the Story
So how do we stop believing this story that goes so deep we usually don’t even realize it’s there?
I’ll share two practices that have helped me start to unravel the story, even if it still persists when I’m not being vigilant.
The first practice: write out a mantra and repeat it.
This is something I use when my unworthiness narrative comes up around writing a book or public speaking.
When I’m writing a book, the narrative inevitably asserts itself as something like, “No one is going to find this book valuable, this is going to be terrible.” It makes it much harder to write the book and I get very good at cleaning my kitchen instead of writing.
When I am supposed to give a talk, it seems fine when it’s months away and I agree to it. Then I get deathly afraid as the day gets nearer. Then the flop sweats start. I start questioning my sanity: “Why did I ever say yes to this? No one is going to want to hear what you have to say.”
So last year I came up with a mantra to start to see the world in a new way: “The world craves you and your gift.”
I repeated this whenever I noticed my heart fluttering because of having to give a talk, conduct a workshop or webinar, lead a course or program, or write a book or blog post. I repeated it many times: “The world craves you and your gift.”
I repeat it until I start to believe it. Yes, it sounds incredibly corny. And yet, it works. I start to look for evidence of it being true. I can’t hear the other story so much if this one is being told.
The second practice: let the story dissolve.
I do this all the time, and it’s absolute magic.
Here’s how it works. I notice the narrative. I notice how it’s making me feel—I feel crappy, I’m fearful, I’m procrastinating, I’m hiding. And then I ask myself, “What would I be like if I didn’t have this story?”
This is a magical question for me. I imagine what it would be like, in this particular moment, if I didn’t have this narrative. All of a sudden, I’m completely present in the moment—I notice how my body feels, I notice my surroundings, I notice the sensation of the air on my skin, the light in the room, and the sounds all around me.
All of a sudden, I’m immersed in this moment and free of the story. I’m at peace. I can open my heart. What an incredible gift it is to just drop the story and be completely present and in love with how things are, in love with myself and other people around me.
Practicing a new mantra and the magical question, the boy is gorgeously free of his old narrative and can run wildly through the jungle, joyfully alive.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net