The root of many, dare I say all, fears is the notion of not being enough — the idea that we are somehow less than we really are. That we are not strong enough (mentally, emotionally or physically). That we are not capable enough. That we are not beautiful enough. That we are not wealthy enough. That we haven’t lived enough. This is simply untrue. It’s a lie that feeds on our deepest insecurities, which become compounded and create many of our fears.
To truly understand this source of our fears requires us to recognize how pervasive it is. Whether we like to admit it or not, at one time or another we’ve all suffered from the notion of not being enough. This sometimes stems from childhood experiences or our parents’ own issues. We’ve all experienced it and dealt with it in our own way, often by overcompensating and striving for perfection or, at the other extreme, falling into self-destructive patterns of behavior that merely serve to reinforce the very notion.
At the same time, the notion of not being enough constantly surrounds us, underpinning so many of our social and economic constructs. Buried beneath these are the many narratives we’ve been fed and internalized, negatively impacting our sense of self-worth.
These narratives fuel our economy — everything from home and beauty makeovers, to lifestyle, celebrity and matchmaking reality shows, to plastic surgery and fillers, all leading to the excessive consumerism that ultimately leaves us feeling overweight, overspent and overwhelmed.
We’ve allowed these stories to inform our decisions in many ways from generation to generation, thus enslaving ourselves to a system and, in effect, allowing a small cadre of pseudo-elites (in the media and in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington) to assert their superiority and control over the masses. It’s the same lie that historically enabled a select few (from monarchs to Popes) to assert their supremacy over entire populations and nations, the lie that enabled whole races to become colonized or enslaved. It’s the same lie that today continues to keep people on a treadmill of achievement and spending and accumulating debt; the lie that keeps people from seeking true loving relationships and preventing them from accepting the truth, which is that they are deserving of love; the lie that keeps them from realizing their true potential. And it’s the lie that ultimately disempowers us all.
Once we can understand this source of our fears, it takes more to move past it. Seeing beyond the lie takes open-mindedness and compassion to understand how each of our decisions (or lack of decision) or responses has contributed to its continued existence. It takes accepting responsibility for the many times in which we were complicit in reinforcing the lie through our conspicuous consumption. It requires taking ownership for the fact we have, in one way or another, allowed this lie to be perpetuated. And ultimately, it takes forgiving ourselves for this and for the fact that somewhere along the way we gave up on ourselves and ceded our personal power.
What’s most challenging about overcoming the source of fear is facing life after it. That will be the most exciting or most terrifying day because our identities and self-perception have been so wrapped up in the external that we haven’t known our true selves. Up to that moment, we had been directed by the lie at the root of our fears to look outside of ourselves (focusing on what we didn’t have) and to want and desire. We will no longer have to look outside of ourselves to make us feel whole and alive. We will no longer accept half-assed relationships that demand we compromise our self-respect. We will no longer tolerate jobs that drain our life force. Instead we will be able to look within, to learn to friend and love ourselves, to find the kind of pure joy that has eluded us for most of our lives. We will be able to show compassion and receive love in return.
Healing isn’t about just letting go of the lie. It means embracing that it defined who we were, but not who we are — and that is strong, powerful agents who have the power to write our own story irrespective of our pasts. The moment we can truly accept that is the moment when we are truly free of all of our fears. And that is the moment we can create a new world.
During my senior year of high school, I experienced a deep personal crisis, one that severely impacted my relationship with my family, friends, teachers, and school administrators. I won't go into the messy details, but let me just say that the adults in the room overreacted to an inappropriate, unwise, and unfortunate decision by a teenager. At the time, my spiritual mentor, a highly spiritual and philosophical man I met while working part-time at the local public library with whom I'd share many deep and insightful conversations, told me something quite profound: we choose everything that happens to us and we must critically examine our life experiences with the understanding that they all have a purpose and are part of our spiritual growth.
These words gave me perspective, and I was able to make some sense of my crisis, but it wasn't until several years later when, a bit older, I found myself in another difficult situation that I came to understand the true significance of those words and their relevance to my spiritual growth and maturity.
In fact, it had been my own fear of their import—a fear I believe similarly experienced by many—that kept me from fully comprehending and accepting his words earlier. And that is, our spiritual maturity requires that we first acknowledge and own our individual responsibility for our decisions and actions.
This is not easy. It requires us to see ourselves not as victims but as the architects of our reality. By taking ownership of and responsibility for the act that drove me into my deep personal crisis, I was able to view the experience more holistically.
Discovering a universal purpose behind our experiences isn't simply ascribing a lesson to each and moving on. As a matter of fact, finding a reason for something that has happened to us is the easy part. The greater challenge is to not only accept the fact that that experience forms a part of our life’s tapestry but to understand that we ourselves are the weaver of that tapestry. In order to achieve full spiritual maturity, we must accept that we alone are responsible for our lives and everything that happens to us.
This demands complete compassion towards ourselves and those who may have hurt or disappointed us. It requires us to explore why our higher selves, our souls, would choose a painful and difficult experience to grow. It involves an active, not passive understanding, one that assumes that we are the creators of each and every one of our stories.
In this regard, many in this world are limited by the normative view of God and humankind's relationship with God. Through that lens, we are all viewed as God's children. Having been raised Catholic and after nine years of Catholic school, I had derived some comfort in the notion of God as the father figure. After all, in the Catholic faith, the Nicene Creed, begins "I believe in God, The Father Almighty." Yet, in this relationship dynamic, we are always children whose fate is dependent on some higher being and are challenged to view ourselves as mature, autonomous beings who are ultimately responsible for our own fates. We must recognize that we are the true makers of our own lives. My mentor once told me that this requires us to view God not as our father but rather our equal.
We also live in a modern society that, in many ways, has perverted our views of individual responsibility. Especially today, we live in such a culture of blame and victimization that we do not share accountability for our own welfare—both physical and spiritual. Moreover, we’re also in danger of developing a culture of dependency on government.
To achieve spiritual maturity and understand our purpose in this world requires that we first accept our personal responsibility toward our own lives and then recognize how it plays into our collective responsibility toward one another, the recognition that in one way or another all of our decisions impact others.
This kind of spiritual maturity can take years to develop. It involves accepting our mistakes and understanding what it means to be a soul having a human experience. Achieving this level of consciousness is not easy in this world because it’s been ingrained in us that so much is outside of our power—whether in the hands of government or some unseen force or an omnipotent god—while the reality is that we are complete, capable and powerful beings, with the power to create and live our own lives, the lives of our choosing. The moment that we can accept that we are truly the architects of our lives and our world is the moment we can truly take responsibility and realize our power to change the world.
As a society, we’re continuously fed the idea that happiness is the end goal, some permanent state of being to be actively pursued and capable of being achieved and maintained. It’s this very notion, however, that leads people down the rabbit hole of the unending pursuit of happiness, which, in many cases, leads to its very converse. Is it any wonder that, as I look around, the people I know who place the pursuit of happiness above all else are the most unhappy, unsatisfied and self-destructive people I know.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with being happy. It is an extremely powerful emotion that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing. It’s the precursor to joy, which is an essential aspect of self-love. Yet, what makes us most human is our ability to experience a wide range and varying degrees of emotion. Happiness, which by its nature is ephemeral, is just one point along the emotional spectrum.
When we can embrace all of our emotions while recognizing and accepting their transience, we can be our most evolved selves. This isn’t easy to do when our understanding of emotions is so narrow. In embracing our emotions, we must do so without judgment and with immense compassion since we tend to judge feeling certain of them as wrong or bad. In accepting them and the fact that they are a part of us, we are able to transcend and evolve, achieving a level of self-actualization not possible when we deny or limit our emotions.
As a child growing up with an Asian “Tiger Mom” (well before that was even a term), displays of emotion — especially extreme emotion — were not tolerated. As I got older and hormones took over, emotional suppression became my coping mechanism. I didn’t attempt to negate my emotions, but rather I figured out a way to compartmentalize them. I came to understand emotions as fluctuating states of being over which I had some level of influence as opposed to being ruled by them. While this allowed me a measure of emotional maturity at a relatively young age, it denied me the experience of feeling certain emotions to their greatest depth.
Fifteen years of marriage to a husband from a culture that doesn’t shun emotion — and seemingly encourages outpourings of it — taught me the power of all emotions from passion to rage to excitement and anger. The greatest lesson I learned in opening myself to it all is that you are what you feel — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not difficult to understand why we want to escape certain emotions. We’ve been sold the happiness myth for so long that it’s difficult to embrace anything else because it’s too uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
For many years, the emotion I didn’t allow myself to experience was anger. I believed it was a waste of energy to get angry. Yet, when I gave myself permission to experience it and to own it, I realized that I had denied myself something that can be incredibly constructive and powerful. Rather than suppress anger, which is how it can morph into something perverse and violent, I sat with it and it offered me a solution to a situation I had found myself in that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to resolve, at least not without a lot of compromise on my end (which would’ve been the passive/aggressive Asian approach). Since then, the moment I find myself feeling anything that seems remotely unfamiliar or strange, rather than push or rationalize the emotion away, I let it be so that it can become me. Once it becomes us, it doesn’t overwhelm us, but rather finds a place within our hearts alongside all other emotions.
I’m not suggesting giving yourself permission to act out in anger or to punish others when you’re feeling sad. Acting out of an emotion is not how we discharge it. Rather, it’s one of the many ways in which we deny the emotion because we’re forcing it outside of ourselves when it’s very much a part of who we are. When we break something, slam a door, or even threaten others, we’re keeping the emotion from really entering us. This is understandable because it can feel so foreign and strange and we’ve been taught we shouldn’t feel things like sadness, anger or anxiety. However, so long as these feelings remain outside of us, they’re never really dealt with or accepted, so they sit there until the next trigger — or until we manage to stop telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel such emotions and invite them in.
So often our emotions become amplified because we’re instructing them to be something they’re not, which results in the pain that so much of our world is in.
We are so much more than many of us have allowed ourselves to believe. In not giving ourselves permission to experience fully what we are capable of as sentient beings, we have denied our true nature. Only when we allow such a profound connection to ourselves can we recognize our tremendous creative power. This demands that we be able to embrace those emotions that we’ve been taught were bad, or strange or wrong, just as we embrace the “positive” ones. The moment we can accept them is the moment we realize we have nothing to fear.