The car left skid marks as it careened off the main thoroughfare and onto the side of the road. With wheels screeching and brakes squealing, it came to a hard stop. Just then, the door flung open and an irate woman got out. She came racing across the street, her index finger wagging frantically in the air, and shouted at the top of her lungs, “You get that Bonnie Gentry off my porch. I told you never to bring her around here. You are to stay away from her.” Those angry words, seared into memory, were from my friend’s mother and they were directed at me.

It was a pleasant spring day for swinging on a front porch, which is what several of us girls, all in our early teens, were doing that day. We were likely talking about school, boys, and teenage gossip before the degrading encounter stopped us in our tracks. I don’t remember the specific content of our leisurely conversation, but I do remember what happened next. My friend’s mother ordered me to leave and not return. “You get off my porch,” she shouted, wild eyed and red faced. She looked as if she meant business.

As I headed obediently and hastily down the steps, I gave a parting glance to my friend, whose crestfallen expression conveyed stark embarrassment at her mother’s harsh words. Each step I took pounded the humiliation deeper into my heart. Step one, I felt my cheeks burning hot. Step two, my heart began to beat fast. Step three, tears began stinging my eyes. Step four and onto the sidewalk, I wanted the ground to pull me in and cover me.

Thankfully, one of the other girls had chosen to leave with me. As we walked home, I sobbed out my confusion and hurt as we both wondered out loud what I had done to cause such disturbing treatment. I never learned what this enraged mother had against me. All I did learn was that I wasn’t good enough for her daughter or her porch.

Years later in college, I encountered a similar criticism from a relative of one of my friends. “She’s not good enough for him,” she pronounced to my friend when learning that I had a crush on an upstanding boy whose parents she knew. When my friend shared the comment with me, I felt that stinging hurt again as my cheeks flamed in embarrassment, my heart began to beat fast, and tears welled up in my eyes. Only this time, I cried most of my tears later and privately as I lay awake that night reliving the sharp criticism.

In my own mind, I, too, believed I was unworthy. Locked inside my heart were many reminders that it was so. I had lived on Railroad Street and then on Main Street above the state liquor store. My school clothes and shoes came from the five and dime. The plastic heels on my faux suede penny-loafers, purchased through sacrifice from hard-working parents, were loud and obnoxious as I clacked ungracefully through the halls of grade school. The indecorum was so distasteful that my fifth-grade teacher singled me out in angry retribution in front of my classmates. While in high school, the football coach told me to marry a sugar daddy because he didn’t believe I would ever amount to much. Unworthy. I simply was not fit. Not fit to swing on my friend’s porch. Not fit to date an upstanding young man. Not fit for my fifth-grade teacher. Not fit, not fit, not fit.

Granted, many of my behaviors were in need of serious correction. I was not a perfect child or teenager. Even though the feedback was cutting and demeaning, feedback is a gift in many ways. Perhaps I modified my behavior and pushed harder in life based upon the critical reactions of others. I probably owe gratitude to some of my critics for pointing out my flaws. Even so, I would have gone further and faster if the comments would have been softened in love and caring for my well-being. Instead, they were wrapped in disgust, disapproval, and judgment.

I’ve since learned that our own need to be critical is more about us than the other person. Those who criticize others with such vehemence are filled with their own deep-seated insecurities. Self-loathing fuels the attacker to put someone else down so they can feel better about themselves. It’s a pity I didn’t realize all of that way back when I allowed my spirit to be crushed under the weight of belittling comments by others.

For too many years, I walked around with entrenched feelings of unworthiness. Such firmly rooted shame did not promote the elegance of emotional regulation. If someone treaded on these negative inner feelings by making an insensitive comment, I came out fighting. In so doing, I allowed the hurt I was feeling to eclipse my joy.

Many of us carry the sting of harsh criticism within our souls. This open and unreconciled wound lives in a private cocoon insulated by coping techniques. We learn how to protect ourselves from some of the hurt, but deep inside we don’t feel worthy. After all, we have many reminders that we are not good enough.

The journey to joy requires bringing to light the feeling of unworthiness, examining it for what it is as a negative influence in our life, and mindfully shifting it to its polar opposite. The polar opposite of unworthiness is worthiness, and unconditionally so.

Unconditional worthiness is a liberating state of mind. It comes with feelings of accomplishment, connectedness, belonging, competence, gifts, power, strength, and virtue. Getting to this positive internal state begins with a conscious awareness of how important worthiness is to mental well-being. This step is an acknowledgment that every human soul is sacred and, indeed, worthy.

Once conscious awareness is internalized, moving to unconditional worthiness becomes a daily and even moment-my-moment practice of shifting from the negative to the positive—from unworthy to worthy. As we interact with people on a daily basis, we get to choose which way we want to feel. Choosing unworthiness is negative and takes us to our small place of shame and dispiriting inadequacy. Choosing unconditional worthiness keeps our joy intact as we begin to see ourselves as strong and empowered. It is based on the premise that we can alter our lives for the better by altering our attitude of mind.

When I discovered unconditional worthiness, I no longer sat in the boardroom of the Fortune 100 company I worked for and doubted my right to be there. My worth is the same as every other person’s worth, despite fancy pedigrees, wealthy backgrounds, and unbroken families.

Tell yourself how worthy you are. Believe it and then tell your children and those you love how worthy they are. They need your belief in them to ward off the critics who put others down in a pathetic attempt to bolster their own shaky feelings of self-worth.

Worthiness is a state of mind and a way of being all you are meant to be. It begins with an unconditional belief that we are all worthy. Even me. Even you.

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