When I was a little girl in the 1960’s, my mom once told me if she’d been born a black person she’d likely be dead by now.
She was raised in a small town in south Alabama where she observed overt racial discrimination on a daily basis. If you know the book To Kill a Mockingbird, my mom’s upbringing and early life was very similar to that of the character Scout Finch.
A sensitive little girl, my mother was raised by her single father after the death of her mom when she was three. Like Atticus Finch, her father was the town attorney.
She told me many stories about growing up during the Depression in a small Alabama town, a life that was in part idyllic. But other aspects of small-town life in the 1930’s was downright bleak and archaic.
Black people were treated as second-class citizens — or worse. As a child, my mom recognized the gross disparity in how people with different skin color were treated, and she hated it.
When she grew up and later moved to Atlanta, she was deeply moved by the work of Dr. King and the courage of those who were fighting for racial equality. She knew in her gut that treating an entire race as inferior simply because of skin color was immoral.
And she knew if she’d been born black, she wouldn’t have been on the sidelines or held her tongue against discrimination — hence her prediction that she’d likely be dead.
Imagine being rejected by society as unworthy simply because of the color of your skin.
Imagine an entire race of people being told they are inferior human beings.
I know it’s happened throughout history in various cultures. But one must wonder what it does to the psyches of generations of people treated as inferior. Can an inferiority complex be passed down through generations? I’m sure it can.
Most of us have not experienced the emotional trauma of being rejected by society and treated as unworthy. But all of us have suffered with an inferiority complex from time to time. Some of us feel inferior all of the time.
An inferiority complex simply means you don’t feel worthy in some area of your life — or in all of your life. You don’t feel you measure up to society’s standards or to the standards of people important to you. Your self-esteem and self-confidence are low, and you make up for feeling inferior in your behaviors and life choices.
Either you compensate for your feelings of inferiority by over-achieving and people pleasing, or you withdraw and become antisocial because you feel so unworthy and uncomfortable.
Neither reaction is healthy or productive. In these situations, the motivation for overachievement or asocial behavior is founded in low self-worth — a very shaky and tenuous foundation. When that foundation is weak, you will never feel good about yourself or your abilities.
An inferiority complex can develop in a couple of ways.
1. Primary feelings of inferiority are rooted in childhood experiences. If something in your childhood triggered ongoing feelings of weakness, fear, or helplessness, or if you were constantly put down, compared with siblings, or verbally abused, then you grow up feeling inferior and weak.
2. A secondary level of inferiority arises in adulthood when we have some goal or measurement we fail to live up to, or we compare ourselves to other people who appear to have something we want but don’t have. Sometimes we create a goal to relieve the primary feelings of inferiority from childhood, and if we don’t reach the goal, it only piles on more feelings of worthlessness.
I know in the past, I’ve felt inferior . . .
- around people who had more money
- around women who were prettier
- because I didn’t feel as smart or skilled as someone
- because I didn’t have the same level of education as someone
- because I hadn’t achieved the same level of career success as someone
- because my kids were misbehaving or didn’t achieve something that validated me
- because my house wasn’t decorated as nicely as the home I was visiting
- when a guy paid more attention to my girlfriend
- when my kids know more about technology than I do
- when my marriage failed and I didn’t live up to society’s ideal of a good marriage
- when I was around people who had more “normal” families growing up
- when I wasn’t as extraverted as some of my friends
Maybe you recognize some of these in yourself as well. I can look at my own list of past and present feelings of inferiority and recognize those triggered from childhood events and others that developed as a result of adult experiences.
I know intellectually that I AM worthy and not inherently inferior for any of the reasons I’ve listed. I KNOW that I’m a whole, complete, worthwhile human being.
But sometimes I simply don’t FEEL that way. And it’s the feelings that drag us down, isn’t it? In spite of understanding that money, beauty, intelligence, material things, or accomplishments don’t define our worthiness, sometimes we just don’t believe ourselves. We can’t internalize it or accept it as true.
So how do we release an inferiority complex to feel empowered? Here are a few ideas:
1. Make your list
Make your own list of where you feel inferior just as I did above. List anything that currently or in the recent past has impacted your feelings of self-worth. Be honest with yourself. Inferiority feelings can mask as jealously, defensiveness, anger, or sadness.
2. Identify the trigger
Look at each item on your list and think about whether it was triggered by primary childhood experiences, secondary adult experiences, or both. Write down any triggering events you can remember, even if it’s your best guess.
3. Identify your behaviors
Now think about how you react and respond to your feelings of inferiority. Are you an overachiever? A constant people pleaser? Overly self-deprecating? Shy and withdrawn? Again be honest about the relationship between certain unproductive or negative behaviors and your feelings of inferiority.
4. Perform triage
Within the areas where you feel inferior, which are the most debilitating and painful? It is usually the childhood experiences, our primary inferiority complexes, where we feel the deepest wounds. Quite often these deep and long-lasting feelings of inferiority need extra attention and care. Consider working with a licensed therapist or counselor to help you work through the pain.
I love what Monnica T. Williams, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, has to say about working through past pain:
“Confronting the totality of our painful experiences is the only way to gain mastery over the past. It allows us to objectively revisit what happened so that we can reassess it from a more mature and objective vantage point. It allows us to gain a more complete picture of the events and come to more appropriate conclusions about the cause and meaning of what happened. This understanding allows us move past the futile urge to reenact these experiences and allows us to recreate an internal understanding of who we really are in a more functional and accurate way.”
5. Revisit your values
Remind yourself of what is most important in your life. What are your guiding principles, your core values? What makes you feel worthy and authentic? Rather than comparing yourself, focusing on your flaws, revisiting your failures, or wishing for something you don’t have, place your attention on how you are living in alignment with your values.
Measure your worthiness again this. If you aren’t living your values, what can you do to change that? It’s hard to feel inferior when you are living your values.
6. Remind yourself
Remind yourself that as inferior as you might feel about someone or something, most people aren’t focused on you or your perceived defects. And if they are acting superior toward you, they are either insecure themselves or simply immature.
People are either in a state of healthy self-acceptance and therefore aren’t focused on your inferiority; or they feel inferior themselves and are busy worrying about their own inferiority complex.
7. Recognize the self-evident truth
Thomas Jefferson so eloquently states the truth of our inherent worthiness in The Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
We are all deserving of the same dignity, kindness, and love as any other person. There may be various cultural and societal standards we feel we must live up to, but at the end of the day we all put our pants on one leg at a time.
8. Practice radical self-love
The only true way to drop an inferiority complex requires that you view yourself the way my mom viewed black people — as inherently worthy. Embrace your worthiness by practicing self-love. This is a daily choice.
You wake up loving yourself and you go to bed loving yourself. Throughout the day, you choose to redirect your thoughts away from your inadequacies or failures. You choose to see the best version of yourself. Initially your painful feelings will undermine your efforts. But the more you practice self-love, the more love you will feel.
The truth is you are not inferior to anyone. You don’t need to view yourself through the lens of self-judgement and comparison. You are a unique and amazing individual just as you are. Decide to drop the inferiority story and embrace the person you are, the values you hold dear, and the people in your life who love and appreciate the authentic you.
Have you suffered with an inferiority complex? How has it manifested and what have you done to drop it? Please share your experience in the comments below.