"Uh oh. He's describing me."
That was the thought that stopped me in my tracks recently as I was listening to a Sounds True podcast interview with Ed Espe Brown.
Brown — a Zen chef, teacher, and author — was sharing some of the personal stories behind his latest book, No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice.
And in that moment, he was talking about an insight that arose for him during a time in his career of pretty intense burnout...
Edward Espe Brown
Zen Teacher & Chef
I started thinking, "Why am I doing this?" And I thought, "Well, I want to make good food. I want people to like my food."
Then I thought, "What difference does it make? ...Why anyway do I want them to like my food? ... Well, that would mean that they liked me."
And then of course I had to distinguish between what's my performance and what's me. Do they just like the performance? Or do they like me?
But let's say that I could get them to like me through cooking — through my performance. Why would that be important?
I realized then, "Oh, if enough people like me, then maybe I could like me."
That's when I realized, "Uh-oh. I guess I don't like myself very much." [Laughs.] "Oh." I hadn't realized.
What he's essentially talking about here is his sense of worthiness.
Or lack thereof.
And I recognized myself in what he was saying...
I'm generally a pretty confident and secure person. Some of that is the privilege of my particular upbringing. Some of it I've worked hard for.
But whenever I stop consciously paying attention to my own thought processes, it's there...
In sneaky, subtle ways — hidden beneath the surface — there's still a fundamental belief that I need to earn worthiness. That I'm only as good as my most recent performance. Only as good as what others think of me.
And that belief is holding me back.
Not just in those moments when I make a big mistake and feel crappy about myself.
In many other, less immediately visible ways too. It's limiting my impact in the world, my ability to achieve my dreams. It's limiting the good I can do for others.
And it's probably doing that to you too.
That's what this article is about.
I've been learning, thinking, and teaching about productivity (and related topics too) for more than 15 years, and I've had the chance to witness a LOT of people getting in their own way. Myself included.
It's always seemed to me like so many of these challenges were connected — different expressions of the same underlying issue. But it was only recently that I was able to put my finger on it...
What is it?
The exact same issue that Ed Brown was talking about in that interview.
This article outlines 16 of the problems I've seen crop up when people don't feel wholly secure in their innate worthiness as human beings.
Sadly, it's a long list. And it's probably not complete.
But don't get too depressed about it, because with each one I've also included a loving reminder — something you can tell yourself if you find yourself in the situation I'm describing. (Look for these reminders in green below.)
And stay tuned at the very end for a few last thoughts on what else you can DO about it if feelings of shame, unworthiness, and inadequacy are creating problems for you.
All of us wrestle with these kinds of feelings to some degree — whether they're flying discreetly under the radar or are as in-your-face as a banana cream pie.
Not all of us experience ALL of the problems I've listed below.
However, I bet you'll recognize yourself to some degree in more than a few of them. I know I do.
Before we get to the list, though, there's one more thing we need to get clear on...
If earning approval from others isn't the way to know if you're worthy, then what is? How do you decide if you're enough?
Sweetheart, here's the truth —
You just are.
There's no calculus to do. No litmus test.
As a child of God — or of the Universe, or whatever language speaks to you — as a human being with an oh so human heart — you are enough.
You are worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of belonging.
Will your every action be worthy of who you are at your core? No. Sometimes you'll make mistakes, do stupid or hurtful things. We all do.
But YOU, my dear, underneath your flaws and your talents, underneath your moments of kindness and of meanness — YOU are beautiful. You are enough. Just as you are. No need to prove it or earn it.
As Brene Brown has said, there are no prerequisites for worthiness...
The challenge is remembering this — remembering our inherent worthiness.
The challenge is catching ourselves in the act when we slip into old assumptions and ways of operating. Noticing when you're holding yourself back with your beliefs about your own value.
And then allowing a wiser, more loving part of yourself to speak up — to challenge those beliefs and to remind you of who you really are — a precious, beautiful soul — worthy in all your imperfection.
I hope the following list is enough to make you feel the importance of giving this issue the attention it deserves.
I hope it inspires you to work on really, truly loving yourself.
If you struggle a lot with this issue of worthiness, here are 16 ways it's probably showing up in your life and lowering what you're able to accomplish...
As Tim Ferriss has said, “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” Saying "yes" to every request you receive ultimately means saying "no" to your own priorities.
And when we're trying to earn our worthiness by pleasing the people around us, that's exactly what ends up happening. You erase your ability to achieve your dreams or even make meaningful progress on the goals that matter most to you.
In fact, you can get so busy doing things for others that you don't even have time to think about what YOU really want.
Here's what you need to remember, love: You have the right to say no. In fact, you have a responsibility to your own deeply worthy soul to say no if you don't really want to do something. Whether or not it means disappointing someone else. (Although most of the time they won't be as disappointed as you think.)
This is another one I see happen a LOT.
Someone's behavior is creating a problem for you.
They're interrupting some important work you're doing. Or they haven't followed through on a promise to you. Or they keep asking you questions you've already answered for them. Etc.
Frustrating, isn't it? And it definitely derails your productivity.
But you don't say anything.
And if you look closely at the reason why, it usually comes down to this: You're prioritizing their needs and wishes (or your assumptions about these things) over your own.
But remember what's really true here: They are inherently worthy. AND YOU ARE TOO. So respond in a way that honors that sacred spark inside each person — yourself included: Kindly. Respectfully. Honestly.
You're struggling with a problem, and you'd get to the solution so much faster if you had someone experienced to help you figure it out.
Or you've got too much on your plate, and you need a hand to get it done if you want to leave work at a reasonable hour. Or you spot an exciting opportunity that requires you to make some new professional connections — ones your friends and colleagues could help you with.
But you find it painfully hard to ask. And so you usually don't. You just try to muddle through on your own — making less progress, and at a slower pace.
Or maybe you DO ask. But you feel guilty and awkward about it.
Maybe you phrase the request in a way that practically begs the other person to say no, or that downplays your need and its importance to you.
And if they say yes, you'll probably feel even more awkward and guilty. You might do all kinds of unnecessary things for them in return to try to "earn" the favor they've done for you.
Because there's a part of you that says you aren't inherently worthy of that kind of care and kindness.
But you ARE, dear one. So take a deep breath, and ask for help. And if they say yes, take another breath and soak up the kindness that's coming your way — from one deeply worthy human being to another.
Alex Pang's book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, is packed with 300+ pages of research and examples illustrating why good self-care makes us more productive. He shows how taking time for things like sleep, exercise, and unstructured down time is key if you want to stay on top of your game.
But for many who struggle with worthiness, self-care is the first thing to go.
A big part of this is problem #1 — compulsively saying "yes" to others' requests, which means saying "no" to your own needs and priorities. (Other than earning approval, that is.) Needs and priorities like self-care.
But there can be another piece here too...
The question of "Am I worth it?" Do I respect myself enough to invest in myself in this way, to make the commitment to myself that genuine self-care requires?
Many people would push themselves much farther on someone else's behalf than on their own. Are you one of those people?
You have beautiful gifts to bring to the world, my friend. But you'll always struggle if you don't take time to rest and renew. So offer your dear self the love and reverence you deserve. Say no to the things that diminish you, and commit to caring deeply for yourself — body, mind, and spirit. You're worth it. Always.
The way you talk to yourself can be another form of self-care — or it can be the opposite.
You might think your internal dialogue is harmless. Sure, self-criticism doesn't make you feel great. But don't you need that kick in the butt to keep yourself from slacking off?
A lot of people think that. But the answer is "no".
In reality, self-criticism (which is different from honest self-reflection) reduces your effectiveness.
It saps your energy, lowers motivation, and cripples confidence. And no wonder. When you repeatedly tell yourself what a loser you are, you eventually start believing it — and sometimes others do too. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You probably wouldn't speak to a friend — or even most strangers — the way you privately speak to yourself. Self-compassion is the antidote.
But if you're discounting your own worthiness — or making it conditional on your performance — you're likely to feel you don't deserve that sort of self-kindness.
Here's the truth, though: You DO deserve compassion and love — including from yourself. So befriend your own heart. Speak to it kindly, the way you would speak to an innocent child. Teach yourself with your own words that you truly are worthy. Right now. Just as you are.
If our value depends on how well we perform, then we'll avoid all situations in which we risk failing. Because to fail would be to prove our unworthiness.
But of course if we want to challenge ourselves to improve, to innovate, to reach new heights and accomplish new things, we must take risks. So avoiding risk is a losing strategy.
The other problem with this approach is that when we avoid putting ourselves out there, we reinforce that negative opinion of ourselves — the voice that says you're not good enough. Because the people who are good enough, we tell ourselves, are the courageous ones out there getting things done.
Are you paralyzed by fear of failure? Wrap yourself in love, darling. Remind yourself that everyone fails from time to time — and that failing or succeeding says nothing about your inherent worth. Then follow Susan Jeffers' advice and remind yourself that your fear is just a sign that you're growing and stretching your beautiful self — as we are all meant to do.
This one is a direct outgrowth of fear of failure. Because with every decision you make, you risk making a "bad" one. Or making one that others will criticize or disapprove of.
But making decisions is one kind of risk you need to take all day, every day. And when you agonize over even the smallest decisions — e.g., Where should we eat lunch? Should I respond to this unimportant little email? What should I wear today? — you slow yourself down significantly.
Here's the truth, sweetheart: You know you can never please everyone. But you also know this: You don't have to. Just do your best, decide based on the information available to you, and then embrace the fact that, no matter what the outcome, you yourself are fully and completely worthy.
You knew this had to be in here, right? It's another variant on fear of failure.
If your worth is dependent on the work you produce, the image you project — on attaining an all around superlative quality in everything you do, say, and are — then WOW, does that create a lot of extra work for you!
I know from experience that perfectionism can seriously slow you down and significantly limit how much you can get done.
(Don't you love how perfect this blog post is? Just kidding. Sort of.)
Remember this, my dear: You're probably doing way more than people expect or need from you. Some of the biggest value you can offer is in just showing up. Offer your presence, your perspective, your uniqueness — and let those things be enough. Because they are. No need to perfect or polish. Good enough is good enough because YOU are.
If you view your mistakes and failures as signs of your unworthiness, then you'll feel a deep shame about them. Which makes it really hard to look closely at them. Instead, you just want to get away from these steaming piles of shame as fast as you can!
But looking closely at our failures — with curiosity, openness, and objectivity — is the only way to learn from them. And as you probably know, some of our biggest opportunities for learning come from our missteps.
Here it is yet again, love. You are not defined by your successes or failures. Your value is a given, EVEN when you make a mistake. So close your eyes, breathe deeply into that truth, invite it to settle into your bones. And then when you open your eyes again, look kindly at your failures and embrace them for what they are — not judgments of you, but rather opportunities to learn something new.
This one is the flip side of #9. In both cases, there's an underlying belief that YOU are the failure.
In #9, that belief makes it hard for you to look back and learn from the situation — hard even to believe you can learn anything from it other than how inadequate you are.
Here in #10, the trouble is one of persistence, of problem solving.
When you come up against a challenge or roadblock, if you believe you are inadequate, then you'll give up. You've found your default answer to the question of why you're struggling or stalled: The problem is you.
But when you're grounded in a sense of worthiness, you can start looking at the situation with clear eyes and search for actual solutions. You shift from asking "What's wrong with me?" to asking "How can I solve this?"
Carol Dweck calls this a "growth mindset" as opposed to a "fixed mindset". I've included her TEDx talk about this below in case you want to dive deeper with this. But meanwhile...
Let go of the self-blame, dear one. Set it aside, and allow yourself to look more expansively at what's going on when you encounter a problem. A challenge is not a judgment on your worth, it's an opportunity for you to stretch and explore and grow.
This one comes straight out of the same self-blame playbook.
If you have, then you know that the research says we get way more accomplished when we work with who we are instead of fighting against it. You also know that the same personal tendency or quirk can be a strength in one situation and a liability in another — the key is finding (or creating) a good fit.
Here's the trouble...
But when we come from a place of less-than — operating based on assumptions of not-enough, and judging ourselves by other people standards and examples — then our default is to see our own qualities as problematic. We end up trying to fundamentally change ourselves instead of embracing who we are.
If that's what you're doing, you're fighting an uphill battle, my friend.
Try this instead: Take delight in who you are! You are the one and only you, unique and precious — just as we all are. Embrace that, and don't let questions of worth blind you to the treasures right under your nose.
That classic Marianne Williamson quote comes to mind here. You probably know the one...
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world...
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Are YOU playing small? Do you shrink from the spotlight because you don't feel you deserve it? Or are you waiting for someone to give you permission to step into your strengths, to bring them more fully into the world?
If so, you're not only cheating yourself — you're cheating the rest of us too.
Come back, now, to those words from Marianne Williamson: "We are all meant to shine." Like all of us, you have a beautiful, sacred spark inside you. Now is the time to let it be seen, in all its perfect imperfection. Shine, sweetheart, shine. It'll be a gift to us all.
Here's where things get really heartbreaking...
This can go beyond playing small (#12). Sometimes you're playing the wrong game altogether.
I used to do a lot of career counseling, helping people who felt lost or off track with their work. And from time to time I still encounter coaching clients who have poured years of their lives into paths that their hearts weren't really in — at work and beyond.
The wrong career. The wrong marriage. The wrong identity. (Right for someone else, perhaps. Wrong for them.)
Why? Because they thought that's what they were "supposed" to do. Because someone else told them that's who they had to be. With an implicit "or else", of course, that's all about worthiness.
This relates back to productivity in part because you'll never achieve as much if you're not working toward things you feel a deep personal commitment to. But that's hardly the point.
The bigger question is this: Have you accomplished things that feel meaningful to YOU?
You deserve to live your own life, dear heart. It's that simple.
Remember Ed Brown? That Zen chef I mentioned at the start of this article?
What he ultimately discovered was this...
You can never get enough evidence from others to like yourself. You just can't.
— Edward Espe Brown
If your sense of worthiness comes from outside yourself, you'll never get there. You'll never be able to earn enough of the appreciation you crave. You'll always be seeking that next "hit" of external validation.
Even if you work yourself almost to the breaking point. Even if you respond with a "yes" to every request that comes your way. Even if you go the extra mile and do thoughtful things for others that they didn't even ask for.
And so eventually you can reach the same level of burnout that Brown experienced.
And along with that burnout comes a whole host of negative thoughts and emotions. Resentment. Apathy. Bitterness. Futility. Exhaustion. A "what's the point in trying?" mindset.
Not exactly a recipe for productivity, as anyone who's been there can attest.
So put a stop to the madness, my friend. Right here, right now. Step back, take a cleansing breath, and let go of the grasping for approval. Practice loving yourself instead. And when you go back to your work, do so in a wholehearted way that has nothing to do with earning approval — and everything to do with bringing your authentic gifts into the world.
When feelings of unworthiness are lurking around, they can poison your relationships with others.
There are the feelings of resentment that can come up when you're endlessly giving to other people and still don't win the love and appreciation you're craving.
There's a sensitivity to criticism — hearing constructive feedback as a rejection of YOU at your core, or interpreting harmless comments (or ambiguous nonverbal cues) as slights or insults.
And it can be hard too when we see other people succeed.
It would be great to simply be happy for them, celebrate with them. But instead, you might find yourself feeling jealous, threatened, or diminished by their success. Because the unworthiness mindset fools us into seeing everything in win-lose terms. And in these moments, you feel like the loser.
If you're holding a lot of these kinds of feelings in, eventually they'll leak out — or explode — and your relationships with others will be damaged. And that's obviously not a recipe for productivity...
You'll spend precious time and energy ruminating about the conflict. Your ability to collaborate and cooperate with them to get things done? That goes out the window. Or, at best, you'll have to put other things aside for a bit while you work on repairing the relationship.
But here's a higher plane you can operate on: The one that's all about love. The one where you remember that we're all deeply worthy at our core — you, me, them. And where you remember, too, how vulnerable and imperfect we all are. That we're all doing our best.
You've probably heard how crucial EQ is — emotional intelligence. Research evidence about its importance abounds. It enables a whole host of competencies behind high performance, effective leadership, and personal well-being.
As Chade-Meng Tan shared in his wonderful bestseller, Search Inside Yourself, Peter Salovay and John Meyer (the fathers of EQ) defined emotional intelligence this way:
emotional intelligence (n)
The ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions.
Here's the trouble...
When you're feeling vulnerable about your own worthiness, it's like putting blinders on. It becomes hard to see yourself and others objectively. It's hard even to notice the cues that point toward what's going on beneath the surface — including your own.
What's at play is something called perceptual blindness. The idea is this: We have a limited amount of attention, and so when give our attention to one thing, we tend to completely miss others.
And what are you most likely to give your attention to? Things that are intense (e.g., upsetting feelings), that seem important (e.g., potential threats to your status and well-being), and/or things that fit with your existing world view (e.g., "confirmation" of negative self-perceptions).
So when your worthiness issues get triggered, you can end up focusing so much on your negative thoughts and feelings that you don't really see what's going on outside of yourself. Or you can get hyper-focused on negative cues in your environment and miss the other things that are going on.
And so you end up operating based on faulty social and emotional information.
You end up lowering your EQ.
That's unfortunate, because EQ can offer you a roadmap out of the swamp of unworthiness. It can offer a solution to ALL of the problems we've been talking about here.
So take another deep breath, my dear. Breathe in, again, the truth of your own worthiness. And as you exhale, let everything else go. Let go of the tension, the negative thoughts. Let go of the assumptions. And set an intention to look through fresh eyes — to notice what's going on inside you without judgment — and to be curious about what's going on with the other beautiful souls all around you.
So you've recognized yourself in this list?
Welcome to humanity.
We're all here to some degree — although some of us struggle with it more than others.
How much you're plagued by feelings of unworthiness has to do with a number of things beyond your control — things like your family upbringing, the society and culture you live in, your various life experiences, even genetics.
But as a dear friend and colleague of mine loves to say...
The rest is up to you.
You can give in to the feelings. You can buy into the negative messages you've received. And you can let unworthiness hold you back. Or you can make a different choice — which I hope you will.
If you choose to work on loving yourself, here are a few suggestions:
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And now let's close with one last quote from Brené Brown:
Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Thanks for coming along with me on this journey, my friend.
If this article spoke to you, I hope you'll decide to share it with others. Because our world would be a better place if more of us learned how to truly love and accept ourselves.