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Growing up, I placed all of my focus on my parents and derived my sense of self-worth from their approval.
I took cues on how to be and who to be from them. This often happens to children whose parents are alcoholics or anxiety-ridden.
In my adult years, the most important reflection in which I saw myself was motherhood. I believed that if I was a perfect mom to my kids, I would be a good person. A valued person. A worthy person.
I always tried to keep myself busy while my children were at school with writing, chores, friendships, and a job. But I always felt as if I was in suspended animation until they were safely back with me—I could exhale into the familiar role of the mother where I had rooted my self-worth.
As my children grew older and required less of my attention and guidance, my roots of worthiness began to wither. I grew dissatisfied with myself and believed that the answer to my happiness was somewhere outside of me.
I went on solo trips. I wrote a memoir. I attended countless self-development workshops until finally—unable to withstand the discomfort of unworthiness—I did the unthinkable. I cheated on my husband with one of the workshop participants.
After six months of singledom, a new romantic relationship presented itself. I felt excited. And even though my intuition told me it was too soon, that I was not in the clear, I decided I could handle getting to know myself while in a relationship.
I could not have been more wrong.
Blind to my pattern of searching for worthiness outside myself, I put all my focus on the relationship and my new partner. I believed that if our relationship was healthy, loving, exciting, and connected, those qualities would reflect back on me. I would become healthy, loving, exciting, and connected as a byproduct of the relationship.
Over time, I became addicted. I felt good only when the relationship and my partner reflected my worth back to me. When something went wrong, I doubled down. I refocused—came up with new ways to rebuild and return healthier, stronger, and more loving—all the while not seeing that I was once again becoming a shell of myself. A shivering, scared little girl, drowning in the wretched pool of unworthiness.
A few weeks ago, a betrayal of mammoth proportions shattered the new relationship into shards that were so fine any attempt to put it back together felt impossible. The consequence of this obliteration was that the relationship could no longer serve as the source of my self-worth. I asked:
How do I begin to paint myself back into existence?
Without a mirror to see me in, who am I?
Without a reflection, how do I know that I am good, worthy, loveable, and important?
The work of returning to ourselves requires diligence, determination, willpower, and, if possible, the assistance of a trusted therapist who can lovingly point out the blind spots of our outdated beliefs, programs, and the insidious, harmful self-talk our mind churns out without us even realizing.
To unearth our true selves, we first have to reclaim our bodies.
Our true self is not in our minds. It resides in our body—inside our hearts. Cultivating a habit of bringing ourselves to stillness and noticing bodily sensations is the first step to reclaiming our sense of self:
Sit with both feet flat on the ground. Take three breaths, making the exhale twice as long as the inhale. On the exhale, consciously focus on the weight of your body. Feel the heaviness of your buttocks and thighs on the seat of your chair, the weight of your hands on your lap.
Return to regular breathing and shift your focus to the palms of your hands. With your mind’s eye, see the trillions of cells vibrating with energy. In a short period of time, notice sensations of buzzing, tingling, aliveness. Also, notice that thoughts cease when we put our focus on sensing the inside of our body.
Sensing is a gentle tool that severs the ruminating, reasoning, questioning, reminiscing, remembering, bargaining, promising, threatening, and replaying old stories the mind uses to keep us in our old patterns.
Once we’ve grown familiar with sensing into our bodies, we can delve deeper:
Feeling our Feelings
According to Dr. Joan Rosenberg, there are eight feelings we label as negative: Sadness. Shame. Helplessness. Anger. Vulnerability. Embarrassment. Disappointment. Frustration.
They are neither good nor bad. They are uncomfortable energetic sensations that manifest in our bodies. Most of us want to avoid these unpleasant sensations because we are afraid of being engulfed by them, or think that if we give into them, they will never stop.
The truth is the exact opposite. By allowing ourselves to move through these emotions, our confidence in ourselves and our emotional strength will increase.
Dr. Rosenberg compares unpleasant emotions to waves rolling onto the shore:
“They can come up tumultuously. They can come up moderately. They can come up mildly. The waves tend to just hang, linger for a moment before they subside. That’s the beauty of it. They always subside.”
Neuroscience has proven that each emotion, like the lingering wave on the beach, lasts between 60 to 90 seconds. This bit of scientific information has given me the courage to sit with even the most uncomfortable emotions.
What follows after we sit with emotions are feelings of centeredness, groundedness, calm, and relief. We didn’t die. We weren’t swept into the sea. We are still here, alive and breathing.
This is where we may gain insights into our situation, unhook from old stories that kept us paralyzed, and, ultimately, feel more of ourselves in our bodies.
If you are anything like me, holding grudges is next to impossible. If someone asks for forgiveness, we don’t fully understand what they are asking. What is there to forgive?
What I realized after sensing into my body and feeling my feelings, is that the person who needs forgiveness most is me—for not loving myself, for not taking care of myself, for crossing my own boundaries, and for all the horrific labels I’ve put on myself over the years.
A powerful tool for self-forgiveness is the practice of Ho’oponopono, an ancient Hawaiian meditation of reconciliation and forgiveness. In its simplest form, it is a mantra that is repeated while focusing on the person in need of forgiveness:
While focusing on your heart center, say the following:
Please forgive me.
I love you.
Make a point of repeating this mantra as often as possible: while driving your car, washing dishes, before going to sleep or upon waking, while on a walk. The key is repetition and imagining we are talking to our inner child.
By committing to this work, I’ve discovered that the sense of self-worth is caused by nothing because if it comes from something or someone, it is not true worthiness. If we lose that something or someone, our worthiness will be destroyed.
We all have a boundless capacity for happiness that does not require anything on the outside to support it. Like a sweet chestnut inside its burred outer skin, it’s already there.
“For even when awareness uncovers unpleasant things in you, it always brings liberation and joy. Then you will know that the unaware life is not worth living; it is too full of darkness and pain.” ~ Anthony De Mello