Having a Difficult Past and Getting the “Worthlessness” Monkey Off Your Back

Amy Eden looks at how to navigate feelings of worthlessness stemming from a difficult past.

As you grow, and gain joy in your healing and growing-up-in-adulthood process, it’s just as important to embrace dark moments in your growth as it is to bounce and leap into the joy-filled ones.  The expression two steps forward and one step back is diminished by its age and use, but is a remarkably wise expression.  Remember it.  Go easy on yourself, curb that little puppy that’s known as perfectionism, and observe the darkness when it slides in.  You’re bigger than it.


When you have a Sad day–or just a Sad morning–it’s not fun, but it’s normal, even if your recovery is going great (occasional sadness isn’t a sign of failure!)  For us, a Sad day isn’t just annoyance at the coffee grounds exploding all over the kitchen floor or our jackets getting ripped on some invisible nail sticking out, it’s a dizzying, punishing, inescapable feeling of worthlessness.  It seems to come out of nowhere.  And it laughs at us like the biggest, nastiest bully you ever met.  It mocks our progress, our confidence:  “Ra ho ha ha ha–look at you, smug, thinking you’re all ‘normal,’ great, and joining the rest of the good people, feeling on top of the world, huh?  Think again. You’re still you.  You’re still the crap you started out as.  Get real, honey!  Step off the sidewalk, into the gutter where you know you’ll be more comfortable.

That voice is mean and scary. Too familiar (oh  how I wish it weren’t). It’s a version of the voice we heard while growing up, the voice of a person who conditioned us as children to keep meek for their benefit and operate in survival-mode, not growth mode. It takes work, but you can get to a place of laughing at that silly bully voice and even to a place of heading it off before it walks down the street.


Would you be surprised to know that the top executives, business owners, chefs, and those tall, gorgeous types you might be passing on the street this morning are struggling against such feelings?  Shame?  Worthlessness?  They are.  So are the law enforcement people, the high school teachers, the cafe owners, the yoga instructor, the yoga student, the dry-cleaner clerk, the bagel and coffee slingers, the bus driver, the college student and retiree on the bus, etc.  Any grown-up child of alcoholic or addict parents is.  It’s true.  We’re not alone.


5 Questions to Ask the Monkey on Your Back

That deep, seemingly unshakable sense of worthlessness that we all know well is an aspect of our mental and emotional make-up that will resurface now and again to varying degrees — so, what do we do when it strikes?

1.  Who are you? Identify it.  Acknowledge that shame is happening.  Put a label on it.  “I’m feeling shame.” Or, “This is that worthlessness ACoAs sometimes get.”

2.  Who do you belong to?  Remind yourself that your deep shame and sense of being good-as-garbage is an inheritance–it’s not the real you.  The shame has to do with the emotional manipulations of your parents.  The shame is a mirage.

3.  Why don’t you sit over there?  Use your imagination to separate from it. Try to imagine it as something coming from outside you, trying to get in as opposed to something within you.  Use some kind of imagery to distance yourself from it, like seeing it as exhaust wafting toward you from a passing bus that you hold your breath to avoid inhaling. Or a floating bubble that you can blow away with a puff of breath.

4.  Why did you come?  Once you’ve observed it you can investigate it. Be an investigative reporter. Since it’s there, you may as well ask it why. “Why this visit?”  And, “Why now?” And, “What’s your agenda?” And, “Are you here to help me avoid something I’m scared to do/don’t want to do today?”

5.  Did I eat something?  Consider your diet.  Did you have chocolate, coffee, soda, or sweets–too much–the day before?  Or did you skip meals?  Unbalanced eating will trigger anxiety.  Did you sleep well?

More often than not, you’re going to start feeling more like yourself by the time you reach #2 or #3.

Other things that may trigger you:

  • Interactions with your family
  • A fight with your partner
  • A difficult therapy session
  • An insight or revelation about your childhood that brought up feelings
  • Or…when things are going well. It might sound counter-intuitive that we’d encounter a spell of worthlessness when things are great in our lives, but sometimes we absentmindedly reach for the “comfortable” old, familiar bad feelings, despite the fact they are bad feelings.

The good thing is, bad feels bad.  That’s the tip-off that you need to investigate your feelings. And you learn from it.  You grow.

Be kind to yourself.

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Amy Eden

Amy Eden is a writer, speaker, and workshop facilitator based in Petaluma, CA. She is the author of the book, The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion, available May 2015 on Amazon.

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