I don’t know where my own feelings of inadequacy come from, but I know they’ve been with me from an early age. As I’ve grown older and evolved as a person, these feelings, too, have evolved, and expressed themselves through different manifestations. I no longer feel inadequate about the things that made me feel inadequate when I was seven—I feel inadequate about “40-year-old man things” now.
Charlie Kaufman’s thoughts in the opening scene of the movie Adaptation are such a great representation of feelings of inadequacy. Probably one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances, all the more impressive since he’s not even in the scene.
If you’re here because you want to learn how to overcome feelings of inadequacy—I’m sorry to disappoint you, I don’t have the magic cure. And if someone tells you they have the cure, you better run for the hills. Because everyone sometimes struggles with feelings of inadequacy, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum.
What I can share with you is a different approach to dealing with your feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, so that you react to them differently when they come up. That you don’t let them drag you down, or prevent you from doing the things you want or should do. So that you can take criticism from others without taking it personally. So that you can trust others and feel like a capable human being, to feel you’re good enough.
Understanding the 3 elements of inadequacy
Let’s first take a closer look at what we’re dealing with. These feelings aren’t constant. They change. There are three factors that determine how
- The trigger
- Your state
- Your response
The trigger could be all kinds of things:
- Maybe you’re in a meeting and everyone had something smart to say, except you, and now you feel like an idiot.
- Or you parked your ten year old Toyota between a new Benz and a BMW, and the guy getting into that car, pretty girl on his arm, is half your age and twice as handsome.
- Or you visit your kid’s friend’s house and see the look in your kids’ eyes when they realize that your little apartment would fit into the dining room of their nice mansion.
- Many parents experience inadequacy because they feel they can’t provide properly for their kids, be it financially or emotionally.
- Or it’s something your sibling brings up, or even just the way someone looks at you during a conversation.
- Or it’s falling short of your own unrealistic expectations.
The truth is, the world is full of triggers, some internal, some external.
On a good day, parking between a Benz and BMW might not trigger your feelings of inadequacy at all. You go on happily with your day. But if you’re already in a poor emotional state, if your mentality is already fragile—something as silly as that little scenario can make you feel inadequate. It’s just a much more fertile breeding ground for self-directed negative emotions.
You can think of your state as your immune system, and of triggers as bacteria. Bacteria (triggers) are always around, and if you have a healthy immune system (are in a good mental state), they don’t do harm—but if your immune system is compromised (if you’re in a bad emotional state), the triggers can get to you much easier.
You feel the sting of inadequacy. How do you react to it? Do you build yourself back or, or do you tear yourself down further? On a good day, even if you got hit by that feeling, you might get yourself together through positive self-talk and focusing on the present moment. On a bad day, you might now mentally exaggerate the meaning of this incident, and come up with a long list of other things you feel inadequate about, compare yourself in different areas against others, until you feel like a complete failure.
It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re not alone with these feelings, and it’s not just losers who feel like they’re not good enough.
Everyone struggles with feelings of inadequacy
It’s easy to look at other people’s seemingly superior life and think of yourself as a failure. The Instagram influencer, the bestselling author, the neighbor driving the latest car you want but can’t afford, the coworker who’s seven years younger and just got promoted over you. Surely these people don’t feel inferior?
Mental health professionals who explored this question arrived at a different conclusion: We all sometimes suffer from low self-worth. The earliest study on the subject was conducted by Edna Frances Heidbreder and published in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1927, under the title The normal inferiority complex.
She found that intense feelings of inadequacy are “merely an exaggeration of normal tendencies”, and “not something which an individual either possesses or lacks, but which he possesses to a greater or lesser degree”.
Basically, the only two types of people who don’t feel inferior are psychopaths and idiots, and neither feels much of anything else.
How social media affects your self-esteem
Other, more recent studies, like this 2022 study on the causes of inferiority feelings based on social media data by Yu Liu et al found that the causes are manifold, and are different across different areas of life across different cultures. There’s professional inadequacy, personal inadequacy, social inadequacy.
Feeling inferior in a relationship
A subset of personal inadequacy, for example, is when a partner feels inadequate in a love relationship, which will often lead to feelings of jealously, as a 2012 study by Karakut found. In those cases, a person will often enter a relationship, expecting that the romantic partner will enhance their self-esteem, when in fact the relationship often aggravates their feelings of inadequacy: because they’ll imagine that their partner sees them the way they see themselves.
Sometimes we face a difficult situation and don’t feel up for the challenge. That, too, can make us feel like we don’t have what it takes.
There’s a pretty pathetic moment in Steven Pressfield‘s memoir “Govt Cheese”, where he visits his ex-wife, planning to tell her about his plans for his new life, and how she is going to be a part of it, how he’s going to buy a house and how they’re going to live in there together. But ultimately, what happens is this:
For Lesley’s part, I can see that the nightmare of finding me before her is turned on its head by her care for me. She knows me. She’s seen the worst and she’s seeing it again now. It must break her heart to see someone she once loved enough to marry, enough to speak the word “forever,” now so far gone and grasping so excruciatingly at straws.
In short: Everybody feels inadequate sometimes. Some people more than others, but we’re all somewhere on the spectrum, and there are ways to manage these feelings.
Now that we know what feelings of inadequacy are made of, let’s look at how we deal with them.
Dealing with feelings of inadequacy on 3 levels
Let’s recall the three contributing factors that can make you feel inadequate: trigger, state, response.
In general, trigger is the factor that’s the most out of your control. There are a few exceptions:
- If you have toxic people in your life, the best thing you can do is to part ways with them.
- If there’s something that your dad always tells you that makes you feel you’re not good enough, then have a conversation with him and ask him to stop doing this. (This might or might not work—but it’s worth a try.)
- If what triggers your inferiority complex is being unable to live up to your own unrealistic expectations, then work on adjusting your expectations. Realize that the media often promotes unattainable standards of beauty, wealth, fame, and ability, and if you set those standards as the benchmarks of your own adequacy, you’ll never feel worthy.
- If it’s scrolling through the glitzy lifestyles of Instagram influencers, and then comparing your own life with them, then get off Instagram—there’s nothing to be gained from doing this to yourself and going where your feelings of inadequacy get triggered.
But ultimately, life is full of potential triggers, and most of them are out of your control. In fact, there’s one factor that determines what turns potential triggers into actual triggers, and that’s your emotional and mental state.
Your state is much more within your own control. Your state also affects how much a potential trigger actually triggers you. There are many things you can do to put yourself in a better state, but these are typically more long-term approaches.
Meditation can help you become more self-aware and not believe everything you think. Most of us overidentify with our thoughts: We think we are what we think. But there’s really more to us than just our thoughts.
Think of your mind as a shoreline. The wind blows, and the water rises and falls, ebbing and flowing. These ebb-and-flow emotions and the thoughts they generate are normal, almost inevitable. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, a best-selling author and clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, “our minds are prone to ‘intrusive thoughts’”—all kinds of uninvited thoughts, particularly those that pull us down and make us feel we’re not good enough. Meditation helps you counterbalance the hold these thoughts have over you.
Exercising is not just good for your physical health, but also for your mental health. Your physiology and your psychology are interconnected.
There is a great deal of research that shows the positive impact of exercise on self-esteem. For example, one study from 2016 found that people who exercised regularly had higher self-esteem than those who did not exercise. A 2020 study concluded that aerobic and resistance training can reduce common mental disorders. There’s a whole body of research which suggests that exercise can have a positive impact on self-esteem—and I can tell you from personal experience that I find this to be true as well.
Breaking a sweat helps reset your hormonal balance, and will give you a better night’s sleep. Speaking of which…
Sleep is one pillar of good self-care, and there is a great deal of research that demonstrates the importance of sleep in maintaining mental health. For example, sleep deprivation has been linked to increased stress levels, anxiety, and depression. Sleep is essential for regulating mood, emotions, and cognitive function. There are several studies that suggest a link between sleep and self-esteem. For instance, research shows that both too little, as well as too much sleep is related to low self-esteem.
In 2020, Sebastian Butz and Dagmar Stahlberg published a study in Behavioral Sciences, which was based on a seven-year research program, and found that sleep deprivation was associated with decreased self-compassion and increased self-criticism. These studies suggest that getting enough sleep is important for maintaining a positive self-image.
Spend time in nature
If you don’t spend time in nature regularly, you might consider changing that. It helps to not just improve the quality of your thinking, but also the quality of your emotions.
“Spending time in nature has cognitive benefits, but it also has emotional and existential benefits that go beyond just being able to solve arithmetic problems more quickly.”— Cynthia Frantz, professor of psychology, in Nurtured by nature
Human beings evolved in a natural environment over hundreds of thousands of years—it’s only recently that some of us have become so sheltered that we spend most of our time in artificial environments. Giving our body and mind the experience they’ve been optimized for through the course of evolution will lead to greater emotional well-being.
Connect with others
Ironically, maintaining a positive social support network can be harder for people who suffer from low self-esteem, because they tend to assume that others view them the way they view themselves.
Here’s an anecdote from my personal life that vividly illustrates this: When I was around 10, I once had three classmates come over, two of them were often giving me shit. But they were just the type that gave everyone shit all the time. I knew this, and yet, I felt that somehow the shit they gave me was more real and justified.
Anyway, we went into the living room where my father was, and he made a joke that totally cracked my three classmates up. They later told me: “Your dad is so cool.” I had a very complex relationship with my father, but let me just share with you what my heavily emotional response was: “Makes you wonder how I turned out to be such an asshole, right?!”
The tone of my voice left no doubt that I actually meant what I said—this wasn’t a funny joke. They all looked at me puzzled: “Wtf? No. What’s wrong with you?”
The truth was that I saw myself as an asshole, so much so that I behaved like one.
But that’s enough of the past, the point here was just to illustrate why it can be difficult to maintain your own social support network.
You want to build and maintain healthy friendships. That means making an effort to reach out to others more often, show them you value them. Hear them out, share your authentic self with them, rather than wearing a mask of fake happiness.
Make an effort to reach out to people in your social support network—connect with them regularly. Let them know you value their friendship, let them know how much you appreciate them. Also, connect with others outside of your social support network. Get to know other people in your neighborhood, at work, in your favorite grocery store. There is always something to learn from others, and they will likely value the effort you make to connect with them as well. And most importantly, protect and nourish your relationships with your loved ones, whether they’re family members or romantic partners.
I don’t know why, but I’m pretty sure our brains are somehow hard-wired to help others. You can find volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood or through sites like VolunteerMatch, JustServe, DoSomething.org, or International Volunteer HQ.
I once spent a good amount of time working in a flood relief initiative, and it was deeply satisfying work. The sense of camaraderie among the volunteers was tremendous, and every day, seeing the people on whom our work had an impact was deeply satisfying. No place for feelings of inadequacy.
Dr. Juli Fraga reported about a 2017 study which showed that helping strangers improved the self-esteem of teenagers, and it’s likely that these effects would also hold up if someone would conduct the same study with adults.
Journaling can help you process what you experienced throughout the day. It’s one of the most valuable writing habits you can practice, as well as a great self-awareness exercise. It gives you a chance to reflect on the events of the day, from a more disassociated point of view, and review your day more consciously.
Whether you prefer a standard diary, a creative journal, a bullet journal, or whichever suits you best is up to you. What matters most is that you do it consistently, rather than how you do it. There’s so much potential for personal growth in journaling—if you’re not already doing it, start today! Even just jotting down a few words about your day, and how you felt, the best and worst part of the day, or what you wish for tomorrow—anything that comes to mind. And then do the same again tomorrow. Over time, you’ll build a habit that you can refine and fine-tune.
One of the best ways to build self-confidence is to actually become more competent. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can always learn more. We’ve never lived in a better age for people who want to learn new skills.
Start learning one new skill, and more importantly, keep at it. Consistency is key here. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you move forward—what matters is that you make consistent progress. A micro-commitment of 15 minutes per day is more powerful than a one-off “I’m going to learn coding” sprint where you spend every waking hour for two weeks digging into online coding classes, only to abandon it all afterwards. In fact, the very act of consistently dedicating yourself to learning a new skill will help you feel more adequate, and overcome imposter syndrome.
Realize that it’s never been this easy to master new skills. I know a man who, in his 30’s, got interested in working with wood. He had no background or experience in that field, but was deeply passionate about it, and kept doing woodwork in his spare time, educating himself through YouTube videos, websites, and books. He’s now one of Thailand’s top artisan furniture makers, working for top-tier clients and being uncompromising about the work he does. (You can check out Faisal’s fantastic work here.) There are tens of thousands of people like this—people who just followed their curiosity and passion, practiced and eventually build highly valuable skills.
Compare yourself to your past self
Rather than comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to a past version of yourself. Have you made progress?
If the answer is yes, then take a deep breath and breathe a sigh of relief, but also ask yourself: What can I do to make even more progress in the future?
If the answer is no, then that’s okay as well. You know where you are and where you would like to be—the question is, what can you do to move closer to the ideal version of yourself?
Your response to feelings of low self-worth is what’s most within your control. It’s where you can deploy specific mental tactics. It’s what you can do when you feel a sting of inadequacy.
Talk yourself up
Next time when you feel the sting of inferiority, take a few deep breaths and practice some positive self-talk. Tell yourself:
“This again? Oh well, one day you’ll learn. Yeah, right now you might feel like a screwup, but remember that you’re an amazing person. [Insert evidence of your awesomeness here.] Ok, you haven’t done as well as you wanted to in this situation, but you can learn and improve.”
Self-compassion goes a long way in those moments of weakness, self-doubt, and incompetency, when we typically resort to harsh self-criticism. Much of this is based on childhood experiences: criticism that cut deep when we were young leaves an imprint, and we replay and remix that criticism throughout life. Many people find that the voice of their inner critic resembles the voice of an actual person who castigated them at some point in their life, be it a parent, teacher, or other kind of authority figure or peer from childhood.
Another tactical approach to dealing with feelings of inferiority in the moment is to say: “Oh man, I really screwed that up. Obviously I can’t do this yet.”
That simple brief word “yet” at the end of that sentence is the game changer that can help you build a growth mindset:
It helps a lot if you have evidence of awesomeness prepared, rather than having to think it up in a moment of weakness.
What’s your evidence of awesomeness?
Make a list of accomplishments. Write down things that show your value as a human being. For me personally, it’s the love my wife, my daughter, my closest friends have for me. It’s certain professional accomplishments. It’s how I overcame specific challenges in life. Be very specific here. For example, write:
“I’m proud of how I build a business from scratch, in a foreign country, made good money, learned a ton, and served many customers well. I remember one customer in particular, Peter, who was deeply moved and said it was a life-changing experience for him.” In that case, I actually remember having a conversation on a boat with Peter where he shared these things with me.
We all have accomplishments we’re proud of. It’s all about the emotional impact of the accomplishment for you personally, not about how it would measure up externally.
Write down a few of them so that you can easily access them when you need them. (And go revisit that list every once in a while, and keep adding more evidence.)
At the risk of sounding like an obnoxious motivational guru: These moments when you feel really worthless are a great opportunity to practice accepting yourself, with all your flaws and shortcomings. Think of it the way the army thinks about training their special forces: Hard training, easy fight.
Carl Jung once wrote that “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” If you can practice self-acceptance in those moments when you’re least accepting of yourself, you’re giving your subconscious mind a powerful message.
So in that moment when you feel inadequate, give yourself the validation you seek from others: “Yes, I didn’t do this the way I want to do this. Maybe I’m really unable to do it. But I still have so much to give and share with the world, so much that I can contribute. I’ve overcome so much, and I can achieve so much more. It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to be unable to do this thing. I still love myself, my entire self, with all my shortcomings and flaws.”
Feels cheesy? That’s ok. Embrace yourself, the entire package, with all the cheesiness and cynicism you can muster up. The goal is not for these words to change your state completely; the goal is to get better at emotion regulation.
You’re good enough
Remember, everyone feels inadequate sometimes. It’s all about how you manage these feelings; do you let them balloon out of proportion and completely throw you off track, or do you handle them competently and use coping strategies that help you be the best version you can be?
You’ve learned about the three factors of feelings of inadequacy: trigger, state, and response. You want to become aware of your triggers, develop habits that elevate your state, and practice your response next time you get hit by feelings of inferiority.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is. But that’s also a good thing: because there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you. If you do put in the work, you get the rewards, and you can free yourself of the impact these feelings of inadequacy have over you. What’s more, by simply putting in the work, you’re setting an example for yourself—you’re showing that you’re good enough, and that you’re worth the effort.