I often wake up with questions, and recently woke up wondering about unworthiness (Five of Pentacles). While having my coffee in my childhood bedroom, I learned that the spiritual teacher Ram Dass had died, and recalled one of my favorite of his messages:
Your problem is you’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness.
I loved it because it was so simple, and so true. A lot of his work was like that.
Unworthiness is like a snake in the grass in that no matter how well we do, how much we achieve and accomplish (Ten of Cups) it will be there waiting to undermine, blind and confuse us until it is faced, head on.
Like many psychic injuries, there’s no one path or protocol to heal it, but there’s generally a wound at the root. Unworthiness is the foundation of a cognitive structure built early in life to cope with what we had no better explanation for. A belief system to make sense of something we couldn’t understand.
In a certain sense, beliefs are coping strategies, one way of using the tool of intellect that we’re given at birth (Ace of Swords). Meaning-making puts a buffer between us and raw emotion, and this is why it’s so common for adults to compulsively tell stories about things that hurt deeply.
Similarly, as children, with no other way to cope with the overwhelming feelings of traumatic experiences, the mind creates beliefs to make sense of them. We tell ourselves, albeit unconsciously, “Oh, well this is happening because I’m not worthy of love and because I am broken.”
These beliefs serve two functions: They protect us from the raw pain of the trauma and give us information about how to ensure that something similar won’t happen again. As long as we know we are unworthy, we will know never to request real love, joy or fulfillment. To do so would be to invite unbearable pain. Even in our unworthiness, our minds lean naturally toward self-preservation.
At some point we realize that we’ve allowed a belief based on wrong information to form the foundation of our lives. That we’ve been using that belief as the basis for our life choices, everything from the minuscule to the monumental. And that we haven’t felt right all this time, and no wonder. Because this isn’t who we are. Not at all.
We have solid evidence by now that the unworthiness is a lie. We even have insight into why the people who hurt us did what they did. But we also realize that this intellectual knowing is not enough for us to heal the original wounds. It is a good first medicine, a potent one. But more is needed. To get to the root of the thing, we have to intervene at the emotional and energetic levels.
Tarot outlines four primary realms of being and gives us a set of images to unlock the keys to mastery in each. There is the emotional and relational realm of the cups, the intellectual and cognitive realm of the swords, the behavioral and bodily realm of the pentacles and the energetic and spiritual realm of the wands.
If we can recognize which realms are out of balance, we can choose the appropriate medicines to treat them. And if we listen very deeply to our emotional, intellectual, behavioral and energetic currents, we can even identify which realm might need to be prioritized.
Because each realm influences the others—behavior influences energy, thoughts influence feelings and so on—it can be tricky to know which realm to prioritize. Our being is a mystery, not a science. It is always only ever experimentation because everything is in flux, forever (Temperance).
One thing’s for sure, it’s very difficult if not impossible to do cognitive work (ex. reframing, revising narratives, challenging distorted thinking) when the mind is overwhelmed by the physiological chaos that ensues when an old emotional landmine has been stepped on. Over and over again in my work I hear people say “Intellectually, I understand this, but I just can’t seem to resolve it.”
Emotions are like water in that they have the ability to wash over and overwhelm every other domain. When they’re not given a proper outlet, there’s flooding and destruction. When there is an old wound, as is the case with core beliefs about unworthiness, it must be attended to. Once you’ve treated the emotional component, you’ll find that it is much easier to do work in the domains of thought and behavior.
We can start, as my therapist used to say, with going back to the scene of the crime. In returning to the site of the original wound, we can make proper sense of what happened, retrieve the parts of us that interpreted the trauma as a reflection of our worth, and let them feel what they didn’t have the tools to cope with back then.
To get to this place, we can ask:
What are you feeling (or what were you feeling when you were last overwhelmed with emotion)?
When was the first time you remember feeling this way (Six of Cups)?
Depending on the severity of your injuries, you may or may not need professional assistance with this leg of the journey. I might reach into my own medicine cabinet to heal a cold, but I wouldn’t do so with a broken leg. Trust your judgment.
If you’re going at it alone, find a space in the body that can be a touchstone, where you can return to ground your Spirit when needed. Have a tool on hand that will bring you back to the physical realm if you feel too far out and at risk of drowning—a frozen orange, scented lotion, a fuzzy blanket.
On these journeys we meet old parts of ourselves that are virtually unchanged since the trauma. Trauma can pin us to the Earth and freeze the part of us that sustained the wound in time, until we go back to retrieve them.
When we see them, we tell them what we’ve learned since then. It was never you. It could never be you. You are safe now. We let the part feel the raw pain of the original offense, without using the story of unworthiness to cope. We didn’t have coping skills then, but we do now. We share them.
Once we’ve done this, we typically find that “the charge”—the intense energetic current that forms in the body when emotions are trapped without a proper outlet—is neutralized. It may not happen immediately, or in one fell swoop, but if you go back to that place, and continue to go back until you can’t find any more good reasons to go there, your tenacity and thoroughness has paid off. The work is working.
Situations in the present will probably still touch on structural remnants of the unworthiness. You’ve cleared out the foundation, but there’s a pile of wood and nails to clear, too. If you’ve spent a lifetime drifting toward situations to confirm your unworthiness, you might find that you still go there. Out of habit, which is normal. But the need to confirm the belief will be less compelling. The fear will be less blinding and more workable. You’ll feel like you have more space to move, to choose, to be intentional.
Less blinded by the intense waves that radiate from unresolved emotions, good work in the cognitive realm becomes more possible. We can begin shifting old thought patterns to reflect new beliefs of dignity and worthiness. When the mind automatically says “I don’t deserve this job, I’m going to blow it” we can see it clearly and intervene with “I worked hard to be here. I will continue doing my best.”
In the realm of behavior, one of the best interventions for unworthiness is to just act worthy. Start to move like you’re worthy and speak like you’re worthy. And when you encounter a situation that reflects anything other than that you are here to be good and well, say no to it. Not with words—I deserve better!—though words may certainly be involved. But with actions—walk away, block a number, leave a job.
Do any action that directly states “I deserve better and will have it.” It is not enough to say that you deserve better, you have to prove it. Even if you don’t believe it all the way. Act like you do, and see what happens. Sometimes, to do a behavior that you don’t feel like doing is like doing magic. Try it.
When a person has achieved mastery in the domain of behavior (King of Pentacles), they understand the ways that action influences all other domains of being; thoughts, feelings and energy. And when we’ve learned this, we use behavior like the wave of a magic wand. Moving in deliberate ways to manifest the lives we desire.
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