The One Fear That Will Teach You Everything You Need to Know

Eyes close-up little boy

by Brandon Nappi

All fears can be boiled down to one single fear. It’s the fear of not being enough. For most people, the marching band of “not enough” will parade its way down the main street of your headspace several times a day without your permission, interrupting your plans. The playlist of this raucous and persistent band includes the following thoughts set on repeat:

I am not…

smart enough
funny enough
good enough
spiritual enough
forgiving enough
attractive enough
thin enough
popular enough
strong enough

The repetitive stream of “not enough” seems like a thoroughly convincing and a completely accurate summation of our innermost value. We conclude we are broken beyond repair and settle for strategies to hide this painful truth from others for as long as we can. Is there any other option for those of us who think, “If people really knew me and glimpsed just how broken I really am, they would sprint away with a mix of disappointment and disgust”?

To manage the sometimes intolerable pain of “not enough,” we hide behind distraction and facades. Some of us shop, exercise or self-medicate. Others become addicted to accomplishment and activity. For some, appearance or screens dull the pain of feeling of inadequacy. To bolster this inherently unpleasant and unstable situation, we can become bitterly judgmental of others, ironically elevating ourselves. Of course, comparing your best self to your friend’s worst self is not only unfair, unhelpful and unkind, in the long run, this judgment only fuels your intuition that you are in fact irreparably broken. From this perspective, we are all addicts clawing for the next fix to make our craving disappear.

It’s tempting to hate this voice of negativity and resent its rants. The common temptation is to go to war with “not enough.” Arming yourself with positive thinking and the law of attraction, we attempt to think our way toward healing. This makes a certain amount of logical sense: “I’ll simply replace one negative thought with another positive thought.” While this may help for a time, ultimately positive thinking as a method to counteract “not enough” sets up a battle of thinking in which you attempt to replace the negative thought with the positive one.

Not only is this exhausting, it’s a never-ending war. Einstein’s often quoted wisdom is instructive here: “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Hatred doesn’t eliminate hatred. Warfare does not end warfare. Thinking is not healed with more thinking.

This fear of “not enough” has something important to teach us. This inner voice of criticism doesn’t need to be conquered; it simply needs the same thing that every other being needs: our compassionate presence. When the inner critic appears, observe it with curiosity and kindness. Watch it with your mind’s eye. Carefully notice each thought. Lean in to look carefully at the very thought that seems to want to hurt you. Thoughts are only thoughts. They only have the power we give them. Even more, remember that you are not your thoughts. Who you are is vastly larger than any thought form. Of course, it’s one thing to know this as a concept and another thing to know this directly through experience. Mindfulness practice provide a direct taste of this freedom as we give ourselves to the practice of being present. There is unspeakable power in your presence. The very act of observing your thoughts of “not enough” itself is healing.

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that we are infinitely lovable. And though we often forget, we have an infinite amount of love to share — even for your inner critic. This is the powerful reality that every great spiritual tradition is naming each in their own way. The good news is that you don’t have to feel this for it to be true. This one fear of “not enough” is the hidden voice of the world calling out for love.

Some teachers through their wisdom show us who we want to be. Other teachers show us through their ignorance who we don’t want to be. Still other teachers, teach us by offering countless invitations to practice in action what we value in our hearts. “Not enough” is this kind of teacher.

“Not enough” is our teacher inviting us to share our compassion and our loving presence. The world, like the inner critic, is longing for our love. What a gift that within all of us is one single fear that teach us everything — to practice presence and love in all we do. Is there any greater lesson?

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 50 transformational programs annually to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

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