I didn’t need a pandemic to show me how bad I want to be part of something larger than myself. To be part of a real community. To be loved. To belong.
I’ve always felt like that. One of my earliest memories is crying over a broken radio my parents had thrown in the trash. Why can’t it stay with us? I wondered.
Sure, like anyone else I’m often drunk on white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist mythology. Imagining that if I work hard enough, one day I’ll feel like I belong. Pretending I don’t need help. Thinking I’m self-made — that I come from nowhere and the future is all that matters.
But about a decade ago I was lucky enough to find the meditation teacher and therapist Tara Brach. An ex-girlfriend took me to one of Brach’s talks and handed me her book Radical Acceptance.
“We yearn for an unquestioned experience of belonging, to feel at home with ourselves and others, at ease and fully accepted,” Brach writes. “But the trance of unworthiness keeps the sweetness of belonging out of reach.”
In other words, sometimes we hold ourselves back from belonging. Because we think we’re unworthy of love — we’re not enough.
It’s like what the subject of the documentary The Feminist on Cellblock Y, Richie, says, “The fear is, if I show you who I really am, that’s not going to be good enough. And it sounds silly. It sounds like a small fear. But it’s everything.”
Once I learned about this “trance of unworthiness,” I started seeing it everywhere. In how I communicated with the people I loved. In how they communicated with me. In my friend’s stories about their relationships, their jobs, their hopes and dreams.
Then I got lucky again. That same ex all but forced me to go to a therapist.
The therapist, Cynthia Wilcox, showed me that “unquestioned experience of belonging” Brach wrote about.
I told her how I couldn’t relax on the weekends because it felt like there was always more to do. How it was hard for me to ask for help. How my parents are the hardest working people I know.
She listened and nodded along. Then she said, “Sounds like your family values hard work.” There was no judgment in the way she said it. Not a whiff of shaming.
That might not sound like much. But it washed over me the like warmest ocean wave. She didn’t try to change my mind or fix me or make me feel better. She just listened.
That’s what therapy is for. Getting that “unquestioned experience of belonging.” Or as the pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers called it, unconditional positive regard.
It’s what my parents couldn’t give me. Or your parents either. When they see us, they see a reflection of themselves, how good of a parent they’ve been. We shouldn’t blame them for that. Blaming only deepens the trance.
Wilcox eventually gave me a list of common ways we can fall into the trance.
If you’re like me, you might believe that you must earn love by what you do, produce, accomplish. So you always feel burned-out.
Or maybe you believe you’ll lose yourself by getting too close to someone. So you avoid deep relationships.
Or you feel responsible for other people’s well-being. So you try to make everyone else happy and forget yourself.
Or you might think keeping others comfortable is the most important thing. So you hold back from saying what you really feel.
Or maybe you believe you can’t trust anyone completely. So you avoid asking for help.
Or maybe you think that if you’re all you can be, you’ll overwhelm people. So you keep yourself small and quiet.
There are tons of other stories that can cause the trance. The real work is waking up, getting curious about what stories guide your life, and learning how to show yourself that “unquestioned experience of belonging.”
How? By stopping the blaming. By finding friends who don’t shame you. By seeing a therapist. By meditating or doing yoga, i.e., practicing something that increases your presence. By caring for your body. By finding your people and building a community. By helping dismantle the systems that make it so hard to belong.
Those are the things that have worked for me.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.
Photo by Sarah C.