“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside and hustle for your worthiness.” Brene Brown
I was shaking and sweating with fear as I stood in front of my graduate professor for the final test of the semester. I was twenty-two years old at the time and felt like a fish out of water in my graduate program. I dreamed of being a professor, studying, and writing, but deep down I thought, “I’m not smart enough. I don’t fit in here. No one likes me.”
When my religion professor announced that the final wasn’t a sit-down, bubble-in quiz, but a one-on-one translation, and I’d need to answer questions aloud, I knew I’d fail it epically, and I did. To add oil to the fire, I ran out of the room in tears.
I failed it before I even started because my fear was so great. My hands were shaking, and soon my teacher would know the truth: I didn’t belong there.
My professor was incredibly intelligent, and I was intimidated from our first meeting. The way I thought he spoke down to others, probably because his tone, diction, and vocabulary were academic (whether intentional or not), triggered a deep wound.
Since childhood I had developed a limiting belief: “I am not intelligent.” This followed me wherever I went.
In school, at work, and in relationships, I constantly trusted others to make decisions and discounted my own opinion. I looked to others for the answers and then compared myself to them. This left me feeling insecure and dependent on others. Not at all the leader I envisioned for myself.
It was the root of the shame I felt, and I allowed it to mean that I was stupid, I wasn’t worthy, and I would never succeed. My inner critic was loud and eager to prove to me why I was less-than.
There are a few memories I have from childhood that I can recognize as the start of this limiting belief.
I remember my first-grade teacher passing back a math worksheet. I received a zero at the top in red letters. I still remember that red marker, the questions, and feeling unworthy. I didn’t understand the questions or why my classmates got ten out of ten, and I was too shy to ask or listen to the answer.
This happened throughout my schooling. It took me more time than my classmates to understand concepts. I wanted to ask questions but was afraid I would look stupid or that I still wouldn’t understand, so I just avoided traditional learning all together.
I always looked around and thought, “If they understand it, so should I.” In other words, there is something wrong with me.
Growing up in the nineties, I was teased for being blonde and ditzy. I was friendly, silly, and loved to laugh, so I was labeled as a stereotype blonde airhead. It hurt my feelings more than I ever let on.
Even when the teasing was lighthearted and done by friends who loved me, it reinforced my belief that I wasn’t smart or good enough. This belief made me feel small and kept me locked in a cage because no matter what I achieved and how much love I received, I still felt like a failure.
This limiting belief even made its way into my friendships because I held this insecurity about myself and felt that I could not be my truest self in front of others. I wanted to please my friends by listening, supporting, and championing their dreams rather than risk showing my leadership abilities and the intellectual pursuits I yearned for deep within me.
Looking back now, I see that I was capable of excelling at school and in relationships, but due to my misconceptions about my worth, it felt safer not to stand out. Drawing attention to myself was too dangerous for my nervous system, which was always in survival mode.
I preferred to fly under the radar and pass classes without anyone noticing me. I preferred to focus on my friends’ problems and dreams because it felt safer than vulnerably sharing my own.
I never attended my graduate school graduation, nor did I complete all my finals. I still passed, but I didn’t celebrate my accomplishment.
In fact, I wanted to write a thesis, but my guidance counselor (a different professor) discouraged me. She told me how much work it would be and that it wasn’t necessary to pass instead of motivating me to challenge myself. Since writing was always important to me, I actually wanted to do it but never spoke up or believed in myself enough to tell her.
I have heard from many people like me and know that I am one of many sensitive souls that have been discouraged by a teacher. I mistakenly thought my differences made me less capable than others, but I am happy to say that none of these experiences stopped me from moving forward.
With time and building awareness I took steps to heal these wounds and to change my limiting beliefs about myself.
Learning about shame is the biggest step you can take to change this for yourself. Whether the shame you carry is from childhood, a traumatic event, struggles with addiction, coming out with your sexuality, or anything else, there is healing to be done here, and you are not alone.
At the present moment, I don’t allow this feeling of shame to run my life. I am aware of it when it arises and no longer value its protection. I have done the inner work to heal.
The first step I took was talking to someone about it. Letting it out. Shining a light down upon it. If we want to heal or change anything in our lives, we have to be honest about what we want and what we’re afraid of.
Once I did that I realized many other people had the same fear and that it wasn’t true.
It wasn’t true that I wasn’t smart enough. I had evidence that proved this. I’d been accepted to programs; I’d passed classes; I understood challenging ideas. I liked research and writing and was open to feedback in order to improve. I even had a graduate degree.
I was able to learn new skills in environments that felt safe and supportive to me and my sensitive nervous system. I realized I did better in small groups and with one-on-one support.
Knowing that didn’t mean the wound was no longer triggered, but it meant that I had the awareness to soothe myself when it was.
It meant that it hurt, but I didn’t allow it to stop me from moving forward. Instead, I let myself feel the pain while supporting myself and reminding myself of the truth: that I am unlimited and worthy of love, acceptance, and approval.
Whenever we believe a lie about ourselves it creates major internal pain for us. That pain is an invitation to dig deeper, expose the lie, challenge it, and adopt a new belief that makes us feel proud instead of ashamed.
The person that I most longed for approval from was myself. I had to be the one that finally accepted my differences without labeling myself as unworthy. I had to love myself even if I felt unsafe or unsure. Once I did that, it was reflected back to me tenfold.
We all have fears and limiting beliefs and carry the burden of shame within us. These are human qualities, meaning this is a natural challenge shared by all healthy people.
Instead of hiding them, numbing them, and burying them deep within, share them in a safe space, shine a light on them so the truth can emerge, and take your power back by feeling the emotions while knowing the truth: No matter what lies you’ve told yourself, you are good enough and worthy of love.