The Neurobiology of Feeling Unlovable

The Neurobiology of Feeling Unlovable

I had the privilege of teaching “The Neurobiology of Feeling Unlovable”– and what relational psychology, Buddhism, and modern neuroscience teach us that we can do about that – to my colleague Rick Hanson’s meditation group for the last two Wednesdays. When we’re not caught in the suffering of feeling unlovable, it’s fascinating to learn just how those afflictive pockets of inadequacy, unworthiness, failure, shame, get so deeply embedded in our neural circuitry in the first place. In these uncertain times, when we’re especially vulnerable to the fear and self-doubt and second guessing creeping in, it’s skillful means to learn how to re-program our body-brain’s conditioning and generate new neural circuits that support our feeling lovable, loved and loving.

May you find the reflections and tools in this month’s e-newsletter useful and helpful in cultivating a steady sense of your own self-worth and feeling lovable, loved, and loving.


Here’s a simple exercise to evoke the sense of contraction we often experience at a cellular level when we experience an unexpected hurt, rejection, or disconnect. I learned this one from Stuart Eisdendrath, M.D. and Ronna Kabatznick, PhD, at a daylong on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They use this exercise in their MBCT groups at UCSF.

Allow yourself to sit quietly for a moment, eyes gently closed. When you’re ready, imagine yourself walking down the street on the sidewalk someplace familiar to you. You’re fine, humming along, and then across the street walking toward you, but on the other side of the street, you see someone you know and you wave hello – and they don’t wave back. They don’t wave back. Stay quiet for a moment. Simply notice what happens inside as you perceive and react to not being seen nor responded to by them.

There is an automatic, unconscious, “separation distress response” when someone we are connected with turns away, or in this case someone we want to connect with doesn’t respond. There’s a uhh!! in our body, coming from the brainstem that triggers a moving toward or a pulling away or a well, fu– you! Or often an even larger cascade of feelings and stories that try to make sense of what just happened. If any part of the story goes in the direction of “It must be me; I must be bad,” we’ve tapped into an old embedded shame circuit of feeling unlovable, unworthy, undeserving. As a therapist, or even as a vulnerable human being, I encounter these deeply tormenting feelings of unlovableness all the time. It’s almost endemic in our Western culture.

The more I understand the neuroscience of attachment trauma, especially from reading Bonnie Badenoch’s Being A Brain-Wise Therapist or Louis Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, the more I respect the power of our earliest relational experiences to live on in implicit memories that can de-rail our trust in ourselves from time to time, even when we’ve experienced genuine love and acceptance in our lives later.

I’ve written here before (September 2008 Healing Heartache) about how, from a neuroscience of attachment perspective, when the earliest, earliest experiences of reaching out for connection, like when we’re six months old, are met with non-response, indifference, disregard, dismissal, or with anger or critical blaming-shaming, that experience of reaching out gets paired with a feeling of hurt or rejection or confusion. We withdraw back in to ourselves for protection. We begin life primed to reach out and connect — and we learn to fear wanting or needing connection. The visceral experience of that hurt or rejection is encoded in neural cells around our heart. We literally feel the sensations of heartache or a broken heart.

If our experience of reaching out and being met with nothing or with pain, and then our retreating for protection is repeated often enough, the amygdala, which is both our fear center and our emotional meaning center, begins to encode a memory, a warning, around our yearning paired with an anticipation of hurt and rejection. That neural pairing becomes an unconscious implicit memory even before we have the self-consciousness to create a story about being unlovable. That pairing can become a self-reinforcing recursive loop. Our brain becomes so used to firing in this repeated pairing it generates a kind of neural cement.

Then, as a child continues to grow and explore the world and wants to connect elsewhere in new relationships, new experiences, if the same parents who responded to the child’s early yearning for connection respond similarly to the child’s yearning for exploration, with disregard, neglect, or overt criticism and shaming, the child’s self-concept of its desires and of its self begins to go negative. “There must be something wrong or bad with me for wanting this.” And the child again withdraws into a protective shell, only now isolated in fear of relationship because of fear of rejection and fear of feeling shamed – unacceptable, unlovable. The same process of encoding experiences as memories of the future now encodes the shame experience in the neural circuitry; with enough repetitions, more neural cement.

We can feel this neural cement viscerally as a limbic collapse – eyes down, head down, chest collapsed. If no other relationships come along to do the attending to and attuning to our inner experience with interest and curiosity, not judgment and not blame, but interest and curiosity and empathy and acceptance, these circuits stay split off, operating unconsciously. The encoded neural circuitry not only isolates the child as a person; it isolates itself within the brain, not integrated with later experiences of acceptance and love. We grow up and learn to relate as we do, but these buried circuits can still be triggered in relationships when our yearning for connection meets a wall, leaving us vulnerable to perceived or real slights and rejections.

These unconscious internal working models then influence all future perceptions. They filter those perceptions. They even distort our perceptions. And how this impacts adult relationships now is fear of rejection and fear of shame can lead us to avoid or block intimacy – even unconsciously. And if shame blocks us or cut us off from receiving interest and mirroring of our goodness and empathy and acceptance of our intrinsic worth from others, there’s no change and no healing. We can no longer go there or admit that there’s any there there to go to.

Tara Brach, the founder of Insight Meditation Society in Washington, D.C. and clinical psychologist, describes the Buddhist path to healing shame beautifully in her best-selling Radical Acceptance: Living Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. Acceptance and love are what heal what she calls the “trance of unworthiness.” And they are the only things that heal feeling unlovable. Our culture strongly encourages us to develop self-esteem through accomplishment and achievement. And while mastery and competence actually do re-condition our early conditioning in important and helpful ways, it is acceptance and love that re-wires the circuits of shame. And mindfulness of love and acceptance, taking in the acceptance and love of others, is what re-programs our circuitry.

Modern neuroscience can now explain this movement, this healing process. A person must have, or generate, many, many experiences of feeling accepted and loved. This could happen in therapy or healthy intimate relationship or with an attuned friend or beloved benefactor, or a devoted pet. That feeling accepted and loved must be experienced viscerally in a felt sense in the body. Then when a sensation or feeling or memory of hurt or shame comes up, that old painful experience is now paired with the already positive experience of feeling seen and known and cared about and loved by an accepting other. The new experience is strong enough to pair with the old memory, o fire new neuronal connections in the brain. Each time the new experience of acceptance and love holds the old toxic memory of unlovability or shame with love and awareness, acceptance and compassion, synaptic connections are modified and the old implicit memory pattern begins to change. If the new experience of love and acceptance is large enough and steady enough, with enough repetitions of pairing, neural firing and modification of synapses, over enough time, the felt sense of love and acceptance becomes the super-highway of response and the old shame becomes the back country road we don’t have to go down anymore.

Phil Shaver at UC Davis reports research findings in his new Handbook of Attachment that demonstrates when people pro-actively remember people who love them and intentionally hold that felt sense of being loved in their consciousness, they are less likely to react to an external stressor than people whose brains have not be so “primed”. (We learn how to “prime” our brains in the Exercises below.)

Another study by James Coen of Duke University demonstrated that a sense of love and security “calms jittery neurons.” Women research subjects agreed to be scanned in an MRI scanner while being administered a slight shock to their ankles. The women alone in the scanner felt the shock and felt pain; the women holding the hand of the lab technician felt the shock but felt less pain. The women holding the hands of their loving husband felt the shock but felt no pain.

We know that the felt sense of being loved triggers oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that sends of signals to the pre-frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that regulates all of our emotions and all of our body sensations to send its own neurochemicals down to the amygdala, the fear center and calm down the fear response. A neurochemical, “there, there, it’s OK, it’s OK, you’re OK.” Self-acceptance also calms us down and helps us see things clearly, undistorted by fear or shame. I heard at a neuroscientists’ retreat at Spirit Rock in January that self-reported levels of self-acceptance correlate with oxytocin levels in the brain. These positive experiences of love and self-love, acceptance and self-acceptance, establish a new positive recursive cycle in the brain. We begin to foster and create the circuits in the brain that steady a sense of feeling lovable, loved and loving. See Exercises to Practice below to learn how to generate these circuits in the brain.


Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary to
to re-teach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within; of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of the earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
– Galway Kinnell
Ten Poems to Open Your Heart, Roger Housden

* * * * *

The Guest House

This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness come
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you
out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
– Rumi, The Essential Rumi p.109

* * * * *

Last Night As I Was Sleeping (Excerpt)

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt – marvelous error! –
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
– Antonio Machado, version by Robert Bly
Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Roger Housden

* * * * *

Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.
– Eric Hoffer

* * * * *

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; ;no need for complicated philosophy. ; Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness.
– HH the 14th Dalai Lama

* * * * *

Constgant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindess causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.
– Albert Schweitzer

* * * * *

Kindness is more important that wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.
– Theodore Rubin

* * * * *

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness I there, as well as how much space.
– Pema Chodron


A teaching story from the Buddhist tradition: If you put a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water, stir it up, and then taste the water: Ick! Salty! If you put a teaspoon of salt into a clear freshwater lake and stir it up, and then take a glass of water from the lake and take a sip of the lake water, the salt has dissolved in the vastness of the lake and you can’t taste the salt anymore.

With enough kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, we can absorb whatever gets stirred up again and again from the mucky bottoms of our psyches. With enough acceptance and trust in the goodness of our own true nature, the old afflictive fears of being unlovable hardly ripple.

I heard a similar metaphor just last week from a therapist in one of my consult groups. She advises her clients to “dissolve a drop of vinegar in an ocean of honey.” Like Machado’s bees making honey out of his old failures. It’s the large perspective of a spacious mind and the larger container of a loving heart that allows us to re-program our brains and experience ourselves differently.

Yet another metaphor for the same concept: Years ago I took a two week rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Our guides were committed to leaving each night’s campsite as pristine as we had found it. We packed out our trash and we packed out our poop. But peeing in the mighty Colorado that flows at 33,000 cubic feet of water per second was the way to go. “The solution to pollution is dilution.” When we cultivate a sense of love acceptance vast enough and steady enough – A Heart as Wide as the World is Sharon Salzberg’s phrase, we can be in a state of mind where any yuck at all is duly noted and recorded but doesn’t have to hijack us into an old swirl of self doubt or self recrimination. Held and soothed in an embrace of a deep compassion and acceptance, shame becomes barely a blip on the radar.



Paul Bowman, my consultant when I was a young therapist, shared with me his stance toward his patients: “There is nothing you could do or say that would cause me to turn away from you.” Would that every person impacting our life could convey that sense of acceptance of our being, if not always our behavior.

These exercises are guided meditations that have the power to evoke new experiences in the parts of our brains and bodies that hold old memories of shame, failure, feeling unlovable. The pairings of the new neural firing with the old memories over time re-wires the brain, creating the neural platform for a steady self- acceptance and self-love.

1. One-Minute to Feel Loved and Loving

This exercise is from Patricia Ellsberg, who teaches guided meditation in James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course. It’s from Heart Math, a research organization in the Santa Cruz Mountains that researches how to reduce stress by calming and smoothing out our heart rate variability. And since we do know that neural cells around the heart are activated under stress and they are calmed and soothed by feeling positive emotions such as acceptance and love, there is lot of scientific research backing up how this exercise works. It’s called a one minute practice, and it takes exactly one minute.

Place your hand on your heart. Even the warmth of your hand touching your heart center will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and start to calm you down.

Then take three deep breaths into your heart area, breathing in well-being or trust or safety or love or joy, breathing that experience into your heart and feeling it in your heart. Then remember a moment when you felt truly happy and safe, held in love and acceptance by someone; it could be a small moment with a beloved or a pet or a child or a benefactor. Feel the felt sense of feeling loved, feel loved, and let that sink in for the next 45 seconds.

Repeat this exercise many times a day. You’ll begin to feel its effect immediately and those effects begin to last longer and longer.

2. Taking Refuge in Loving Kindness before Practicing Mindfulness Meditation

A way to re-wire the circuitry of feeling unlovable is to being any formal meditation practice period by taking refuge first in feeling loved and accepted – by the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, a circle of loving friends or the community of like minded fellow seekers. Even a simple “May I have compassion for myself as I endeavor to be aware” can be helpful.

Taking a page from Phil Shaver’s research, we “prime” the brain to feel safe before experiencing any stressor. Otherwise, if there is any shame or guilt embedded in our circuitry at all, as we open to the experience of vast choiceless awareness, old afflictive memories could arise that, unless held immediately in kindness, compassion and then equanimity, could simply close the heart and we experience a terrifying void or a terrify emptiness rather than benevolent freedom.

So anchor in a sense of feeling loved and lovable first. Then focus on the breath, steady the awareness on the breath, open your awareness to vast spaciousness. If the mind wanders or gets startled or emotionally hijacked, no judgment, no shame, come back to felt sense of love and safety first, feel safe again, trusting again, held in love again, and then return awareness to breath. The loving kindness practice steadies the mindfulness; the safety allows us to stay open and equanimous.

3. Feeling the Resource of Loving

Another exercise is to imagine yourself loving someone or something. Sit comfortably; gently close your eyes. Imagine yourself sitting with or holding a beloved partner or friend or child or pet, or sitting with a benefactor and letting yourself feel the love in your heart for them. Feel the love and compassion and acceptance and safety and trust in your body, in your heart, and feel it flowing from you to them. And when that feels present and steady, without changing anything in the love that you’re feeling, simply now hold yourself or any part of yourself that needs to feel more love and acceptance and simply continue to send the loving accepting feelings to yourself, feel the steadiness of the love you’re offering. Rest in it. Let it transform you.

4. Healing Through Loving

This exercise begins as Exercise # 3 did, and then extends it in a different direction. Imagine yourself sitting with or holding a beloved partner or friend or child or pet, or sitting with benefactor and let yourself feel the love in your heart for them. Feel the love and compassion and acceptance and safety and trust in your body, in your heart, and feel it flowing from you to them.

When that feels present and steady, holding that experience as the new larger perspective, bring to mind a time when you were less than loving, you may have been oblivious or resentful or hostile or clueless about what to do. Remember a time like that you may not be too proud of, and then, from the place where you know you can be loving, begin to imagine a different outcome. How would you do it now if you could do it differently? It may not have happened differently, perhaps it could not have happened any differently, but it can happen differently now in your imagination. Imagine yourself being as loving and kind as compassionate or happy or equanimous as you can imagine. Just let the new outcome unfold, and check in with yourself. Be mindful and aware of your experiences as it shifts with this new outcome.

Know that while we cannot re-write history, exercises like this do, in fact, re-wire the brain and that transforms our ongoing sense of our selves as lovable, loved, and loving.

5. Parts Party

This guided visualization, developed by Virginia Satir, allows us to access and integrate various parts of ourselves with understanding and compassion. This exercise take a bit longer to describe but not much longer to actually do. I’ve been using the parts party to check in with the state of my state every 3-4 months for the last 20 years. Always something new and valuable to pay attention to, learn from, integrate into a fuller, richer sense of all of who I am.

When you’re ready, you imagine you’re outside a theater, a stage theater where they present plays. Imagine the building, the doors, the posters outside. When you’re ready, walk up to one of the doors, open it, walk into the lobby; walk on through the lobby to one of the doors into the auditorium, open that door and walk into the empty theater. Walk all the way down to the first or second row and take a set in the center of the row. Now you’re seeing an empty stage in front of you. All is quiet.

Now imagine the first figure to come out on the stage is your wise guide, standing in the center where you can see them clearly. This is a figure that to you represents wisdom, acceptance, compassion; it may be your Larger Self that you feel completely safe with

Now we’re going to imagine other characters on the stage one by one. All of the characters embody a particular quality about your self. So it could be someone you know, yourself at a different age, someone you know from the movies or history or literature, could even be a certain character or an animal.

The first character embodies a quality about your self you really, really like, any quality at all, just something you feel very positive about yourself. Take a moment to let that character on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.

Now a second character comes on stage embodying another positive quality about yourself you really, really like. Take a moment to let that character materialize on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.

Now a third character comes on stage embodying yet another positive quality about yourself that you really, really like. Take a moment to let them materialize, remember them, jot them down.

Now you have three characters on stage that embody qualities about yourself that you really, really like, and your wise guide. Take a moment to remember them all.

Now, you bring a fourth character to the stage that embodies a quality about yourself that you really don’t like all that much. In fact, you wish it weren’t true, but you know it is. And this character embodying a negative or afflictive quality about you comes on stage; take a moment to materialize this character, remember them, jot them down.

Now you bring on a fifth character that embodies another negative or afflictive quality about you; take a moment to materialize them and remember them, jot them down.

Now you bring on the last character, a sixth character embodying just one more negative or afflictive quality about your self, a quality you don’t like very much and wish weren’t true but it is. Take a moment to materialize them, remember them, jot them down.

Now you have on stage your wise guide, there characters embodying positive qualities and three characters embodying negative qualities. In your imagination, ask eah character in turn, what special gift they bring to you by being part of you. What lesson do you get to learn from them by their being a part of you. Ask each of these characters, the positive ones first, then the negative ones, and listen carefully to what they have to say to you; each one has some wisdom or learning to offer.

Now, in your imagination, briefly thank each of these characters for coming to be with you in this way today…. Have them exit off the stage one by one, the wise guide last. Then imagine yourself getting up out of your seat, walking to the aisle, walking back up the aisle out of the auditorium, through the lobby and back outside the theater. Turn around to look at the theater where this all happened. Then slowly come to awareness again of sitting in this room, your breathing, and when you’re ready, open your eyes.


Happiness is an Inside Job, by Sylvia Boorstein. Ballantine Books, 2008.

Sylvia is a beloved meditation teacher and psychologist who gently, clearly says the heart of her practice is to cultivate kindness and tenderness toward one’s self (and then everyone near and dear, then everyone far and hard) so that when life’s inevitable challenges knock you over there is an immediate steady “there, there” so the mind can return to calm and clarity and wisely discern what action is wise to take.

Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, by Bonne Badenoch. W.W. Norton, 2008.

The most accessible text yet on how our relationships develop – and change – the structures of our brains and how the neural circuitry of our brains can become both plastic enough to re-wire and evolve or rigid enough to prevent any learning or growth at all. Intended for therapists, I have found Bonnie’s comprehensive yet clear and concise descriptions of how the various parts of our brains mature (or not) and interact (or not) for our well-being and resilience (or not) the easiest to digest and incorporate into my own thinking and clinical work of any author so far. Chapter 8 on Embracing Shame is particularly relevant for this month’s newsletter.

Compassion: Conceptualizations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy, by Paul Gilbert, ed. NY: Routledge, 2005.

Among other findings, the importance of self-compassion in treating depression, shame and guilt. That training in self-compassion stimulates brain processes for feeling loved, supported, wanted and included.