The Universal Narrative: When You Feel Unworthy
By Leo Babauta
A little boy was told by his father, from a young age, that he wasn’t good enough. Not in so many words, but through his actions — by criticizing him, yelling at him, hitting him, leaving 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 and mocked, then fired. He tried to hide, not to put himself in the spotlight, because then maybe no one would see his unworthiness.
But he was always 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, 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 him, they’d think he was lovable. So he never tried to be truly honest, never found true intimacy, because he could only show them certain parts that might win him love.
And he was always ready for them to find out how bad he was, to leave him. In fact, he left them before that could happen. Or if he didn’t leave them, he was only halfway in the relationship, one foot out the door. Ready to leave. Only partway committed. And in truth, they always felt that, and craved his full commitment.
This was true of every friendship, every professional relationship. He was never fully committed. Never fully honest, because he couldn’t show his true self. Always anxious that others might know how unworthy he was. Always trying to prove how worthy he was, even if he knew he wasn’t.
This is the story of Unworthiness. And it is fairly universal.
My Inner Narrative of Unworthiness
It’s one of my longest-running inner narratives. That I’m not good enough — that I’m somehow unworthy to teach, to write books, 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 good enough to tackle our toughest struggles. To change our addictions and old habits. To change our diet, to start exercising, to start meditating — or to stick to any of these for very long. We’re not good enough to put our writing or art out in public. We’re not good enough for others to recognize our accomplishments. Not good enough to write a book, start a podcast, put videos online, start an online business, start a nonprofit, create a thriving entrepreneurial empire, launch a startup, teach ourselves a really hard skill, pursue a lifelong dream.
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.
The thoughts aren’t true. There’s no objective panel of judges in the sky who have judged us unworthy. We just 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.
The narrative isn’t true. And worse, it hurts us in every single part of our lives. It means we’re only half in relationships, hiding ourselves, never honest, never fully committed. It makes us anxious, afraid of failure, never putting ourselves out there (at least, not fully, not honestly), and if we do put ourselves in public, it’s a performance, trying to prove our worthiness. It holds us back. It makes us procrastinate. Hurts our health. Makes us unhappy.
This is the Universal Narrative of Unworthiness, and it’s not true, and it hurts is deeply.
Unlearning the Story
So how do we stop believing this untrue, hurtful story that goes so deep we don’t usually 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: writing out a mantra and repeating 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, let me tell you.
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, and 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, write a book or blog post. I repeated it many times: “The world craves you and your gift.”
Over and over, 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: letting 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 this moment — I notice how my body feels, I notice my surroundings, I notice the sensation of the air on my skin and the light in the room and the sounds all around me.
All of a sudden, I’m immersed in this moment, free of the story. I’m free. I’m at peace. I can open my heart to the moment, to the beauty of the person in front of me if there is one, to the beauty of myself. 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.