If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.

–-- Brene Brown

On Worthiness

In many ways, worthiness is the very first and the very last topic of leadership. From the start a leader is someone who is concerned with knowing and relying upon his or her self-value. Without it the person who wants to lead, to create change, to bring people together around a new idea or movement all too easily becomes immobilized by self-critique or blame of others. Why? Because leading means breaking through old structures, old personal and social patterns, which is difficult work requiring the energy of faith and trust — of worthiness — to express itself in action. And last, the leader is also concerned with the sense of worthiness that others possess because it is the fundamental nourishment that enables them to participate freely and to lead themselves. One could say, in fact, that what genuine leaders do is contagiously release big doses of worthiness within others so that together positive change can happen.

There can, however, be great confusion between self-esteem and self-worth. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion — see this Ted Talk — explains the difference between the two. Self-esteem is about being better than others in order to feel good about oneself. Self-compassion (which I would say reflects true worthiness) is about profound self-care in the face of adversity. Worthiness to me is what stands beyond comparison with others, moving us to more transpersonal ground and giving us a spiritual point of connection with stillness, peace, and the love that is our universal human root. Worthiness is discovered and received outside the smaller egoic self that must aggressively and creatively fake it while drowning in shame, anxiety and anger. “True self love is the love the ocean has for the wave,” is the way writer and thinker Umair Haque puts it. Though we use different terms for worthiness, they point in one direction — which is a total contrast to selfish, arrogant or narcissistic ways. Following Kristen Neff’s description of self-compassion, worthiness is the inner reassurance that helps us get past the very moments when egoic self-esteem fails.

Ferns

The confusion between self-esteem and worthiness in leaders is particularly dangerous. The leader who relies on self-esteem, on being “better than” others (and helping others feel “better than,” too) may well attract followers, but the entire movement is premised on what it is against and in competition with, rather than reflecting the light of what it is for. The consequences are destructive because the only way to sustain the esteem is to lower the value of others, over and over, creating an inner circle, a dogma, a new enemy everyday. It is the path to rigidity, conflict, paranoia and, and ultimately, brutality called out as “winning.”

How then does one “come upon” this intrinsic worthiness? Is it so elusive? For surely if it already was the universal experience, we wouldn’t be where we are as a society. In my own experience, the process of uncovering this worthiness has been incremental, the result of making very difficult decisions, of coming to terms with emotional pain, of building and repairing relationships, surrendering to arduous circumstances, and also of finding clues, often in works of art — a novel, a spiritual tract, a piece of music, a painting or photograph, a poem (such as Mary Oliver’s The Journey). It would not be accurate to say the process has been challenging all the time. There have been plenty of moments of joy, transcendent engagement, collaboration, and connection, of holding a higher purpose, of loving and giving. And there was one very special meditative insight about the role of beauty, silence, timelessness and community in my life and work. But the truth for me is that the worthiness I feel has more often emerged out of darkness than light.

This has made me sensitive to how we leaders often want simple, external or analytical answers to our problems that do not require us to delve too much into the painfully emotional but potentially self-revelatory aspects of our circumstances:

• A young manager struggles with a decision to leave her job or stay. She may want to make a decision in a way that does not hurt her pride but that is a tall order given her circumstances, and whatever way she turns she may experience embarrassment, doubt, and guilt. Somehow she must find an angel within to guide her.

• A high-level administrator must make sure everything is done right, even if he has to do it himself. He has difficulty delegating, of course, but his boss is also worried about him physically — his hyper-attention to mistakes and possible mistakes stresses him. Somehow he must experience his value beyond mere performance and achievement.

• A consultant has received considerable feedback that his work plan will fail with his client. He goes ahead anyway, asserting the plan “should” work but privately worried that he absolutely must be right in the face of the feedback in order to prove his skills and knowledge. Predictably, the work fails and he is fired. Somehow he must find a way out of his humiliation.

• A small management team has difficulty discussing a company’s realities, the mistrust that exists, the problems with productivity and morale. Instead the team works on trivial issues, as guided by the team’s leader who fears opening up the real problems and who “takes everything personally.” Somehow she must find the courage to tackle those problems head on with her team’s help.

How can we find this place of worthiness in the face of our own denials, rationalizations, blaming of others and self-sabotaging behaviors? This million dollar question may seem almost unanswerable. Kristin Neff would say it is in being kind to ourselves instead of critical, accepting our flawed selves and our humanity, and learning to be truly mindful of the suffering we experience rather than stuffing it or denying it. These are beautiful answers. To them I would add the notion that we all have interior doors and windows that lead us out of our smaller selves, and when we learn to open them, it is what comes into us from “out there” that is the key. The point is that you cannot generate worthiness entirely on your own and out of nothing. But it comes, if invited — and especially in the tough moments when there is absolutely nothing else you can do. There is, I believe, beneath everything a kind of cosmic reassurance that we are good, that we are enough, that we are deserving, and that embedded in this experience is all of our true courage, our love, our trust in one another, and our ability to do the right thing. Our fundamental wholeness is given, not made. It is the experience of this birthright, belief, and (for me) fact that brings me happiness.

And how then do we open those doors and windows more frequently to what we are all part of?

Well, there I’m afraid you must find your own practice, but personally I like to take walks in the mountains, get my feet wet in the ocean and, every so often, go down to the river and just wait.

Green River

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5 Comments

  • Hello my friend!

    I wanted to take a moment to comment since I haven’t in awhile and I wanted you to know I read your post!

    I was going to wait until I finished my nutrition assignment but that might take me the rest of the evening so I thought I better do it while it is on my mind.

    Worthiness. I would love to say that just the word felt light to me, yet it still doesn’t. It remains to be a heavy word. Yes, I know the ‘intellectual’ definitions…

    Now ask me how much of my day do I spend in total communion with my own sense and belief in worthiness? Or anyone for that matter? Who can say they feel this at all times?

    I know not a soul. Not one.

    Heck, much of the time is spent just trying to accept what I feel from one moment to the next without having to pretend I don’t feel it most of the time!

    …Yes….this makes me angry. (But you aren’t ‘supposed’ to feel anger….if you do, you aren’t enlightened or spiritual enough….)

    …I’m not feeling satisfied with my life at the moment. (Then you must not be feeling grateful enough and should be appreciating all that you have….)

    …I don’t like x,y,z….(Quit being so negative! You need to have a positive attitude….)

    I could write a list here that goes on for eternity….

    The point is we are bombarded both within and on the outside with messages that ‘argue’ with not only our sense or experience of worthiness but also our ability to simply ACCEPT what we are experiencing at any given moment.

    Perhaps one of the keys to embracing worthiness is in learning how to accept what we feel and experience at any given moment without being forced (by ourselves or others) to deny it in the first place.

    I want to say that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. My life is beyond busy right now and I’m hoping it is only for a season. Something I must endure to get from point A to point B. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it! (my brain hurts with all this studying!)

    Also when it comes to leadership itself, I wrote something a long time ago and it’s on my tweets page of my website. I wrote this quote:

    ‘The #1 trap of #leadership is set in the beginning w/ intention. The moment we presume someone else is #inferior to ourselves.’

    Now I don’t believe you are coming from this place…this is simply what came to mind when you spoke of leadership in the context with worthiness. It reminded me of what I wrote and I believe it to still be part of the dilemma in leadership.

    Leadership is still the ‘source’ of worthiness in the sense that as children, our ‘worth’ is mirrored to us by our caretakers, teachers, society, etc. So many grow up believing that once in leadership themselves, they carry this kind of power over others…they can declare the worth of other human beings.

    I deem you ‘worthy’. I deem you of little to no worth at all. How? Based on how I treat you….

    We do this to each other day in and day out.

    Declaring the worthiness of human beings based on how we treat them.

    And many leaders set themselves up as an authority believing they are somehow superior to others…and need to ‘lead’ them.

    In reality, that kind of relationship is reserved for parents and children.

    The rest is social structure and ego. In my heart and mind.

    Although I don’t mean to say that we don’t have things to share and teach one another. We do! The elderly has wisdom the youth do not. And the youth has much to teach as well.

    Thanks for sharing. And thanks for listening to my own ramble of thoughts…not meant to ‘solve’ anything at all. Simply personal experience and observation…at least for this moment.

    Miss you!

  • Hi Samantha~

    Many beautiful thoughts, as always, cutting through the surface to get at the world underneath, which is not always beautiful at all. And yes, I totally agree that leaders can get hooked on their evaluations of others and can create rationales why others need to be led. But this is just the smaller egoic thing operating away on automatic; the hook of self-esteem, the comparison of better and worse, an addiction often largely unconscious. That’s why the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion may be useful. What isn’t useful are the judgments.

    I did another post not long ago on the “voices” of self-criticism. When you get a chance in what sounds like a very hectic schedule, you might like that one, too!

    All the best to you and take good care of yourself during this strenuous time!

    Dan

  • Thanks for sharing the link to the inner critic post Dan. Very good break down!

    I just finished analyzing my diet for a nutrition assignment so will bookmark your page so I can look at is more closely in the future.

  • Lots of inspiring insights here, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who reads your blog and feels inspired – and invited – to elaborate on what I find here.

    I had heard of Kristin Neff and her TED Talk, but never watched it until I followed the link here, and I’m glad I did.

    I had not considered the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion before. Esteem always involves a comparison (holding someone – possibly oneself – in esteem implies a ranking), and thereby a differentiation, whereas compassion literally means shared suffering.

    I can relate to worthiness often emerging only through darkness. I recently posted a few notes about my experience of letting go of blame and judgment during a retreat I attended. One of the hard-wrought insights from that experience is that I felt invalidated and unworthy based on something someone else did, and the only way to avoid this in the future is to let go of my tendency to depend on other people for validation (or worthiness). I have come to the conclusion that validation (worthiness) must come from within.

    I’m curious about your statement “you cannot generate worthiness entirely on your own and out of nothing”. My latest thinking is that it is not so much a matter of generating worthiness but of recognizing it (and perhaps that is what you mean here). In a recent meditation, Tara Brach read a quote from the Radiance Sutras that nicely captures this perspective:

    There is a place in the heart where everything meets.
    Go there if you want to find me.
    Mind, senses, soul, eternity, all are there.
    Are you there?

    Enter the bowl of vastness that is the heart.
    Give yourself to it with total abandon.

    Quiet ecstasy is there –
    and a steady, regal sense of resting in a perfect spot.

    Once you know the way
    the nature of attention will call you
    to return, again and again,
    and be saturated with knowing,
    “I belong here, I am at home here.”

    Answer that call.

  • Joe–

    Thank you so much for your comments, the links, and especially for the wonderful quotation from the Radiance Sutras. When I read this excerpt, it reminds me immediately of the place where I took the photographs and captures the full sense of what I meant by “going down to the river” and “just waiting.”

    I recommend to anyone reading this comment to check out Joe’s own blog post about his retreat. It is a profound complement to the messages I touch upon in this post.

    All the best, Joe!

    Dan

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