How do we practise with feelings of unworthiness?

A student asks:

Could you talk about Dharma practice and practising with having a sense of ‘shame’ (not for an action) – but more a lack of a ‘right to be here’ – a deep-rooted feeling of unworthiness or even self-loathing. What could help?

Lama Shenpen replies:

This is a very pertinent question. I am increasingly aware that for a lot of my students this is a big problem. It is potentially a big problem for Dharma coming to the West. The problem is that when people feel this way, they tend to bring it into their Dharma practice and into their relationship to the Dharma teacher and Dharma colleagues. It affects the whole development of Sangha here in the West. So what are we really talking about here?

As you specify, this is not talking about the healthy sense of shame one feels when one has acted in a negative way that is against one’s own sense of what is good and right. That kind of shame leads to reform, the resolve not to do the same thing again, a sense of decisiveness and determination and all the positive actions that might follow on from that. It is the opposite of defensiveness, shamelessness, self-justification, and so on.

But the question is not about that kind of shame. It is about a kind of shame that leaves us feeling dis-empowered, tense, cut off from others, hopeless, despairing – a dark place – a bottomless abyss of self-hatred and loathing.

The interesting thing is that this might happen in the best of people, the people devoted to helping others, to following a spiritual path, who make few demands on others, who are patient with others, kind in every way to others. But at the same time they can be so hard on themselves internally that they typically get sick or become depressed and/or workaholics – driven by some deep uneasiness about their right to be here at all.

Psychologists and therapists might well have theories to explain this and ways to undercut it and bring about healthier ways of responding to life. There are many different methods bubbling up all over the place these days and I am very impressed by what they can achieve. NVC (Non Violent Communication – taught in the Awakened Heart Sangha as ‘Awakened Dialogue‘) itself can help sometimes – making those inner voices more vocal so that one can really examine the feelings and deep underlying needs of each voice that seems to be in conflict with others within one’s personal mandala.

I think that this kind of shame is a kind of anger. It is a ‘no’ to something and an attempt to obliterate it. Instead of really linking into the conviction that one’s true nature is fundamentally good, one has bought into the conviction that one’s most basic nature is fundamentally bad and it would be better if one didn’t exist at all.

Whatever the conditioning that has brought that about, the solution to that will always be the same – turn towards that part of yourself that has become convinced of this. It needs to be held in your kindly attention and encouraged to talk about it. You don’t have to agree or disagree with it, you just have to be there for it and let it be. Let it open out and just talk about not existing. What is its deep underlying need? Is it some kind of longing for love and attention, acknowledgement that it does exist and that it has all sorts of deep underlying needs.

I think when the shame is very strong it is very hard to do this kind of exercise. There is such a sense of complete impossibility for things to be otherwise than ‘better if I didn’t exist’ that probably having someone else around just giving it the right to be there would help a lot.

There is likely to be a tremendous resistance to just being with that part of oneself. People have typically learnt to cope by overriding that part of themselves and just ‘getting on with things’.  Their inner voices might be saying things like:  ‘don’t be a wimp’, ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’, ‘you are making things worse’, ‘don’t stir things up’, ‘what is the point?’ and so on.

It is all thinking. It is a kind of thinking that is somehow deeper than the thoughts that come and go, the thoughts that are its manifestations. It’s an underlying conviction that is shaping the thinking one the surface.

Underneath it all is a hidden assumption about the nature of the universe. Put crudely it goes like this: ‘I am separate and cut off from the rest of the universe. Perhaps the universe is good but it’s not me and if it’s good then I am bad. If I am good then the universe must be bad – either way it’s all hopeless’.

The emotional feel of this kind of world view is overwhelmingly dis-empowering. Yet it feels as if it’s somehow true. Intellectually you think to yourself ‘No it’s not like that. Nobody is cut off and bad like that – so how can I be?’ But the emotion remains. No light seems to get in.

If you try to meditate with this kind of attitude you find yourself splitting into two – one side judging and disparaging the other. It is not good to sit for hours and hours in that state of mind thinking that anything helpful is going to happen.

You have to find a way of really convincing yourself that this is only a pattern of thought – a mandala that you can step in and out of. It is just a thought and the feeling that goes with it, which is often some kind of fear, is just a feeling arising from habitual patterns. It is a distorted feeling and not to be taken as a spur to action.

This doesn’t need to be unpicked particularly. That could be quite complicated. But as you practise there will be tiny moments of recognition, no more perhaps than the sound of a hand clapping. But as it claps there is a burst of energy – a sudden possibility opens up that shows you a way forward. That is truth – that is what is genuine about you.

Even the feeling of heaviness associated with self-loathing can be seen as simply sensations, the habitual negative thoughts as just thinking.  A possibility of being simple about the whole thing presents itself.  A possibility of opening into something vaster, yet more intimate –  the light at the end of the tunnel. The whole thing might not even need to be unpicked after all.

So my advice is to keep finding ways of connecting into the goodness of just being alive – constantly noticing chinks in the armour of beliefs about your ‘self’ and letting them convince you of the way forward.

The other voices may rant on or even rage and your body might still tie itself in habitual knots at the most inconvenient moments – but that is just habitual patterns related to a wrong view of the world. It’s not really the world as it truly is. It is not you as you truly are.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Lama Shenpen’s students are all studying and pratising the Living the Awakened Heart Training  – a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at

If you are willing or able to make a donation or offering in appreciation of Lama Shenpen’s teaching and wish to support her activity, please do so here