Archive for the ‘Obstacles to growth’


December 19th, 2007

Inferiority complexes

Julia is attractive, smart and sweet natured. She could have almost any man she wanted and succeed at any career she chose. Yet Julia has a low paying, boring job and has had a string of relationships with men who treat her badly.

Julia suffers from a huge handicap that is ruining her life—she believes she is inferior to other people. An inferiority complex produces feelings of helplessness instead of the normal drive to action. It causes a person to focus on their faults and weaknesses and to dismiss or disregard their strengths.

But why would someone who is so obviously not inferior believe that they are? Many things can cause a sense of not being good enough, which can last all our lives and lead to shyness or even social phobia, depression, failure, fear, tolerating abuse, pessimism, feelings of alienation and loneliness, self-loathing, self-destructive behaviour or even suicide.

We are most susceptible to developing a negative self-image as children and adolescents because our growing brains are wired or rewired by our experiences. Young humans are genetically programmed to absorb information (even negative information about ourselves). When young, we also have little if any critical judgement (so when someone gives us a message about ourselves we are inclined to believe it even if it is wrong). And because we have little power or independence, we must endure what others inflict on us.

So how might someone come to believe they are inferior?

  • Females often come to have poor self-esteem when parents want a male child and are disappointed or even resentful when they get a girl. And despite feminism, sexism still exists in some quarters.

  • If a child grows up without enough attention and affection, if they do not receive enough love to show them they are ‘good enough’ then they can come to assume that they are not good enough.

  • If parents pamper and coddle a child and hinder its maturity, if they force a child to grow up too soon by overloading it with responsibilities and demanding more than it is capable of, if parents are domineering and controlling, then inferiority complexes can develop.

  • If caregivers are critical and never satisfied with what a child does, or if the child is always compared to someone else (such as a sibling) who is ‘better’ or if parents play favourites and one child is neglected in favour of another, the child can come to feel they are worth less.

  • Some people are born with sensitive natures and are highly susceptible to external influences so they are more affected by the negative judgements that all of us experience.

  • Dysfunctional families of all sorts produce negative self-images because if no one has ever loved you it is easy to feel unlovable and if you are treated with disrespect you come to feel you don’t deserve it.

But even if we develop a healthy self-image early on, it can still be undermined by later life events and by people other than our family:

  • Social pressures to be and act a certain way are immense and if we don’t measure up to expectations we can feel like a reject. If we don’t fit the accepted standard of masculinity or femininity for example, our self-image can plummet. We all need other people to confirm us and if our self is negated by rejection or lack of social approval our self-esteem suffers.

  • If we exist in an environment (at school, college, work, social group or relationship) where we are criticized, humiliated, judged, put down, rejected, ignored, or unappreciated, we can come to question our worth or competence.

  • Anything that hinders the development of our personality, sense of achievement and self-worth encourages the development of a sense of inferiority.

  • If our personality is unassuming and unassertive we can attract people who want to dominate or take advantage of us (to increase their feelings of superiority), which in turn increases our feelings of inadequacy.

  • Anyone who is ‘different’ or who comes from an ethnic or religious minority or who is the target of racism, sexism, ageism, or any form of bigotry can come to absorb the external attitude of disrespect.

  • Anyone who suffers any form of abuse, bullying, sexual assault or crime can feel powerless, victimized and therefore ‘less’.

  • Sufferers of chronic illness or disability can also come to feel ‘sub standard’ if that is how others treat them.

  • The brutality of the dating game with its often heartless rejections, betrayals and exploitation can severely damage self-esteem.

So what can be done about these self-defeating beliefs and attitudes that so limit our lives? It is difficult to change things absorbed as an impressionable child but it can be done:

  • Firstly we need to recognize that we have taken in other peoples’ criticisms and made them our own, made them part of us. We have accepted as truth, other’s judgements, opinions, and impressions of us, which by their very nature are subjective rather than objective.

  • A belief in our own inferiority is a false belief that defies reason and logic (in the same way that a belief in our superiority to every one else would be false). We need to search out the causes of these faulty ideas and beliefs and correct them.

  • The picture we have of ourselves influences everything we do, think, and believe—so change the picture.

  • Train yourself to watch for and correct your faulty self-talk and self-judgements every day.

  • Get rid of unrealistic expectations of yourself (which often originate from a desperate need to please an unpleasable parent).

  • Accept that like everyone else you are ordinary but still unique and that there is nothing wrong with being ordinary.

  • Read biographies of the great, the rich, famous and successful. No matter what their achievements, without exception you will find they are all flawed and fallible, just like the rest of us. And many are dysfunctional, selfish, greedy, cruel or criminal. Even the ‘superior’ are really not so superior.

  • We need to know what our core, unconscious beliefs are as demonstrated by our behaviour. On several occasions an artist friend of mine seemed about to find real success in his career but each time sabotaged himself (by falling into a debilitating depression or failing to get works finished in time of an exhibition for example). Only in therapy did he realize that he had subconsciously absorbed his father’s belief that art is basically useless and not a career for a ‘real’ man. For years his love of art and his ambition to succeed had been at war with a core but hidden belief that what he was doing was worthless.

  • We need to carefully examine our past for the source of our inferiority feelings. What incidents, words, or individuals made you feel worthless? Think about it, write it down. Examine the details, other’s points of view, their motives. Were they right or not? Even if they were, that was then and this is now.

  • We need to recognize that our parents, teachers, employers, peers, or who ever gave or gives negative evaluations, are not necessarily all-wise, just, loving, caring, or accurate. They may well be foolish, unfair, naïve, and wrong.

  • Judgments made about you in the past (especially as a child or adolescent) no longer apply because you have grown and developed and are different now.

  • Recognize that other peoples’ motives are not always benign. People who put you down may well be driven by envy, greed, narcissism, power lust, or cruelty.

  • Work out exactly what negatives you have taken in and what you say and think to reinforce them. Then replace each negative with a positive. If your mother labelled you as lazy for example, reassign that label as relaxed or laid back. But if you decide that you mother is right and you are lazy then you can either change or simply accept laziness as a part of who you are and not attach any criticism to it.

  • Get to know yourself so that you can be objective about other people’s view of you. If someone criticises you for being ‘cold’ for example and you know you are not you can more easily dismiss it. If you don’t really know yourself another’s judgment can cause self-doubt.

  • Just because we think or feel we are a certain way doesn’t mean we are. Many people have inaccurate self-images. Some people think they are great singers, drivers, or artists for example when no one else thinks so. Some people believe they are much better than they are and some think they are much worse than they are. So believing you are inferior does not make you so.

  • Don’t automatically prejudge others as ‘better’ and yourself as ‘worse’. Assume that everyone is equal. Let go of judgement—everyone is just whoever they are (including you).

  • Don’t be fooled by external appearances. How many apparently good and decent people turn out to be scoundrels? People wear social masks that hide who they really are so don’t let an attractive/successful mask trick you into comparing yourself unfavourably. And remember most judgements of you are also based on flimsy external impressions.

  • When people judge you negatively remind yourself that most people are wrong a great deal of the time.

  • Make yourself a project and work on increasing your self-esteem and assertiveness.

  • Most people overcome feelings of inadequacy by striving for achievement and accomplishment. For those with an inferiority complex fear of failure can prevent them from trying to do anything much. So starting small is a good idea—a hobby class, a small project around the house or garden—any goal that can be easily completed. Then set another goal and another until a sense of mastery begins to build.

  • Try an experiment. Pretend a director has hired you to play a part in a movie. Your character is self-assured, confident, efficient, well liked and respected. Now walk around as though you are that person, get inside their skin. How different do you act and feel?

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