Recently, I was talking with a friend about how I would rate myself on a scale of one to 10. I know myself better than anyone else (obviously), and therefore I am all too well acquainted with my own personal shortcomings.
When I stammered and said, “Well, I’m definitely not a 10,” my friend immediately responded with, “We are all 10s.” It was a funny moment, but it made me think about a quote about believing that you are worthy of love and belonging by one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown: “Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging.”
Brown’s quote, which is based off of years of research on what she calls “wholehearted living,” illuminates a simple truth about us. Those of us who experience love and belonging in this world do so simply because we believe that we are worthy of it, that we are lovable. The reverse would be that those of us who don’t feel love or belonging do so because we don’t ultimately believe that we are worthy of it.
The logical next question, then, is how do we make ourselves feel worthy of love and belonging, and how do we raise children who feel that they are worthy of love and belonging?
This simple truth is comforting and yet scary to me. It’s comforting that all it takes for people to experience these important things is that they believe they are worthy of it, but it’s terrifying to think about how you can help people who don’t believe that they are worthy of love and belonging develop this belief. After all, I don’t think that all it would take to help people feel worthy of being loved is to tell them that they need to feel worthy of being loved. Those feelings of being unworthy develop over time and don’t change just because a person makes up his or her mind to change them.
Ultimately, I think that Brown’s research highlights just how relational we are as humans. We develop a sense of being worthy — or unworthy — and being loved based off of our relationships. While it’s obvious that our parents play the primary role in this, it’s not solely up to them. Think of how children as young as 2 or 3 react when they feel left out by their peers. And as we move to our adolescent years, suddenly the impact of whether our peers accept us for who we are grows exponentially. Thinking about all of the potential pitfalls for how we might begin to think that we aren’t worthy of love, it seems to be a sort of mini miracle that anyone actually survives their teenage years and still believes that they are worthy of being loved.
As we age, we find our sense of love and belonging usually through our spouse, friends and our own children. But even that seems tenuous, as our spouses and children will inevitably let us down and friends won’t always be there. Brown highlights how wholehearted living is like the North Star in that it isn’t necessarily a destination where we arrive, but instead more a path that we are guided along.
Perhaps the biggest thing that blocks us from feeling worthy of love and belonging is our shame. No one likes to admit it, but we all have shame. Shame tells us that we are unworthy of love and belonging, that if someone really knew the true me, they would reject me. What makes shame so scary is that we can either let it consume us and block us from genuine relationships, or we can embrace our faults and be vulnerable with others, giving ourselves the opportunity to receive love and belonging but also exposing ourselves to the potential risk of rejection.
That fear of rejection ultimately drives many of us to never allow ourselves to be vulnerable. While we long to be known for who we are, we are afraid that we won’t be loved because of our faults.
As a Christian, I am grateful that my ultimate belonging doesn’t rest on whether those around me accept me, faults and all. Instead, I know that it has already been purchased by Christ on the cross, freeing me to receive Jesus’ love and hopefully share it with those around me.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.