Learning to Recognize Our Strategies

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
Whenever we find ourselves caught in what I call “the trance of unworthiness,” many of us tend to reflexively do whatever we can to avoid the raw pain of feeling unworthy. Each time our deficiencies are exposed—to ourselves or others—we tend to react, anxiously trying to cover our nakedness, like Adam and Eve after the fall. Over the years, we each develop a particular blend of strategies designed to hide our flaws and compensate for what we believe is wrong with us.
Here are a few that are common; do you see yourself in any?

1. We embark on one self-improvement project after another
We strive to meet the media standards for the perfect body and looks by coloring out the grays, lifting our face, being on a perpetual diet. We push ourselves to get a better position at work. We exercise, take enriching courses of study, meditate, make lists, volunteer, take workshops. Certainly any of these activities can be undertaken in a wholesome way, but so often they are driven by anxious undercurrents of “not good enough.” Rather than relaxing and enjoying who we are and what we’re doing, we are comparing ourselves with an ideal and trying to make up for the difference.

2. We hold back and play it safe rather than risking failure
Playing it safe requires that we avoid risky situations—which covers pretty much all of life. We might not take on leadership or responsibility at work, we might not risk being really intimate with others, we might hold back from expressing our creativity, from saying what we really mean, from being playful or affectionate.

3. We withdraw from our experience of the present moment
We avoid our wildness and passion, our fear and shame, because we feel powerless in the face of their force. We buffer our raw experience by incessantly judging it or interpreting it through stories we tell ourselves about what is happening. While there are infinite variations in the material, we keep certain themes going: what we have to do, what has not worked out, what trouble might lie ahead, how others are viewing us, how others are (or are not) meeting our needs, how others are interfering or letting us down.

There’s an old joke about a Jewish mother who sends a telegram to her son: “Start worrying, details to follow.” Because we live in a free-floating state of anxiety, we don’t even need a problem to set off a stream of disaster scenarios. Living in the future creates the illusion that we are managing our life and steels us against personal failure.

4. We keep busy

Staying occupied is a socially sanctioned way of remaining distant from our pain. How often do we hear that someone who has just lost a dear one is “doing a good job at keeping busy”? If we stop we run the risk of plunging into the unbearable feeling that we are alone and utterly worthless. So we scramble to fill ourselves—our time, our body, our mind. We might buy something new or lose ourselves in mindless small talk. As soon as we have a gap, we go on-line to check our e-mail, we turn on music, we get a snack, watch television—anything to help us bury the feelings of vulnerability and deficiency lurking in our psyche.

5. We become our own worst critics
The running commentary in our mind reminds us over and over that we always screw up, that others are managing their lives so much more efficiently and successfully. Often we take over where our parents left off, pointedly reminding ourselves of our flaws. As cartoonist Jules Feiffer puts it: “I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, my father’s walk, my father’s opinions and my mother’s contempt for my father.” Staying on top of what is wrong with us gives us the sense that we are controlling our impulses, disguising our weaknesses and possibly improving our character.

6. We become hypersensitive to the failings of others
There is a saying that the world is divided into people who think they are right. The more inadequate we feel, the more we want to feel right and that others are wrong. We get angry at those who do not recognize our talents or treat us with the respect we want. We get angry and impatient when another’s incompetence threatens to make us look bad and sully our reputation. When things go wrong and we already feel inadequate, admitting our faults makes us too uncomfortable. Blaming others temporarily relieves us from the weight of failure.

The painful truth is that all of these strategies simply reinforce the very insecurities that sustain the trance of unworthiness. The more we anxiously tell ourselves stories about how we might fail or what is wrong with us or with others, the more we deepen the grooves—the neural pathways—that generate feelings of deficiency. Every time we hide a defeat we reinforce the fear that we are insufficient. When we strive to impress or outdo others, we strengthen the underlying belief that we are not good enough as we are.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete in a healthy way, put wholehearted effort into work or acknowledge and take pleasure in our own competence. But when our efforts are driven by the fear that we are flawed, we deepen the trance of unworthiness.



From Radical Acceptance (2003)


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