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A Family Legacy of Unworthiness

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Our parents hand down many things to us. Recipes. Inside jokes. Frugality. A penchant for spicy foods. A love for baseball. A strong moral system. Punctuality. Wit. You name it—when it comes to our best qualities and our little personal quirks, these things tend to be inherited from our parents and from those in our nuclear family system.

But, the same can also be said for our “worst” qualities. A quick temper. A sharp tongue. A tendency to hold grudges. An inability to accept affection. A fear of intimacy.

And, for many of us, a deep, deep core of unworthiness. What do I mean when I say unworthiness? It is not a word we use often in our society, yet I would venture to say that unworthiness is responsible for many of our social ills. Violence, theft, adultery, child abuse, you name it. No one commits these behaviors when they are seated in a place of love and acceptance. The same is true even for other self-destructive behaviors, like smoking, drug/alcohol abuse, over-eating, over-spending, etc.

But, sometimes, the legacy of unworthiness can be harder to see. It doesn’t always materialize as a person who drinks too much or as a person who commits violent crimes. Sometimes, it simply presents as a person who daily, minute-to-minute, denies themselves self-acceptance and sacred love. “Never good enough” would be the way I would describe this mindset, and it’s a mindset that most of us spend 90 percent of our lives in—if not more. This is true even for young children, because the legacy starts in our own homes, and it is handed to us by the people who care about us the most.

It is handed to us by parents who want to see A’s on the report cards so badly that they become enraged at a C. By parents who snap “Your hair is a mess” when they see their child walking out of school, instead of, “How as your day?” By parents who hiss “You’re so spoiled” when a child excitedly points out a toy at the store. By parents who ask “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or “Why do you always have to be so needy?” or “Why are you crying like a little wuss?”

The thing about this behavior is that parents are doing this because they desperately want to help their children. To make them successful. To make them self-sufficient. To prepare them for the real world. To give them “tough love.”

But I wonder, is love ever tough? If it makes you feel worthless, hopeless, or inadequate, is it love? We would not say so if it was a romantic relationship, so why do we allow it, and even encourage it, in a parent-child relationship?

Brene Brown says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” and I think these words are so, so true—especially when it comes to the youngest members of our society. If we grow up being shamed, ridiculed, and crossly criticized for our mistakes, we will not only become fearful, risk-averse people, but we will also believe that there is something wrong with our very being. That we don’t just make mistakes—that we are mistakes. That we are nothing more than the sum of our imperfections. That we aren’t deserving of love, success, and compassion.

How can we undo these stories of unworthiness? How can we reclaim our birthright of love and forgiveness? The only way is to heal these old wounds. We must find the thorns within our heart that tell us we are unlovable. One good exercise for this is to write down some of your thoughts about yourself and the way the universe works, such as “I am hard to love” or “I will never be as successful as my brother” or “I am weak” or “I am damaged goods.” Try to think about where these thoughts come from and when you first had these beliefs about yourself. You might be surprised to find that these wounds are primal, that they stem from our earliest days as children.

Once you are able to find where the messages come from, you will be better unable to un-identify with these beliefs, such as “My mom used to tell me I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, but as an adult, I can look back and see that she was suffering from her own lack of self-worth. I give myself permission to heal from those wounds and accept a new belief: That I am beautiful, inside and out.”

Of course, healing from these thorny stories will not be simple. It is often the work of a lifetime. But, here’s the amazing thing: Our thorns can often end up being our secret superpower. For example, I once had a friend who suffered daily from painful memories of her abusive and unhappy childhood. She felt “stuck” in the past and would relive memories of her abuse on a frequent basis. Then, she got pregnant and had a daughter, Harper.

When I connected again with my friend months later, she told me, “I used to be so angry at the world. I felt cheated by my violent past and I would see happy families and just feel so lonely. But, now, thanks to Harper, I look back at my childhood as a gift. Every moment of abuse I suffered ended up serving a purpose in my life—because of what I went through and my vivid flashbacks, I am really able to remember what it feels like to be a child. How overwhelming and frightening it can be. How you so desperately need a loving, secure place to grow up. It helps me to stay calm even during Harper’s temper tantrums. Because of what I went through, I am an awesome mom. And—best of all, I appreciate my new, loving family so deeply. I never take our happy home for granted.”

So, I challenge you: Can you find the gift in your thorns today? Is there a way that your most primal pain serves a purpose in your life? Can you make the gravely necessary leap from unworthiness to deep self-acceptance? I believe you can. But will you? Only you can decide.

Wishing everyone healing and peace…