Do you often feel inadequate, like you’re not good enough or unworthy?
Maybe you never seem to measure up with all your creative and ambitious coworkers?
Or maybe you tend to feel bad about yourself because your spouse is so patient with the kids and you lose your temper so easily.
It could just be a general sense of not feeling worthwhile enough that seems to pervade most areas of your life.
Whatever inadequacy looks like for you, it’s a painful thing to live with. But it’s also a tricky thing to understand, much less change.
Of course, there are a few well-known causes of inadequacy:
Unhelpful comparisons with other people aren’t doing you any favors when it comes to feeling inadequate. As Teddy Roosevelt said: Comparison is the thief of joy.
And a habit of self-criticism often fuels the sense of inadequacy.
And of course, early life experiences and trauma can obviously lead to a feeling of inadequacy later in life.
But in this article, I want to dig a little deeper into some underlying psychological causes of why you feel inadequate. Specifically, I’m going to walk you through a handful of subtle habits that may be maintaining your feelings of inadequacy.
1. Your emotional expectations are unrealistic
I think a lot of us know that unrealistic expectations are dangerous, especially for other people:
Expecting that your boss is going to be super supportive and nurturing all the time is a good way to end up frustrated and irritable at work.
Expecting that your spouse will always be compassionate and give you their 100% undivided attention is a good way to end up disappointed and unhappy at home.
Of course, lowering those expectations to a more realistic level (and keeping them there) is still a challenge. But the point is, in most areas of life, we at least understand that we should look out for unreasonable expectations with other people.
But a major source of feeling inadequate and unhappy comes from our expectations of ourselves. More specifically, our emotional expectations are way too high.
An emotional expectation is an assumption you have about how you should feel emotionally.
Here are a couple quick examples:
You assume that after criticism from your manager at work, you should be able to “just shake it off” and not be bothered by it anymore. But hours later when you’re still stewing about it and feeling anxious, your expectation gets violated which leads to you feel angry or guilty with yourself for still feeling bad.
You lose someone important in your life. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one or maybe you get broken up with by a romantic partner. Your assumption is that you should feel sad for a couple weeks but then move on after that and feel happy again—which to you means, not feeling sad anymore about your loss. Well, months go by and you still think about and remember the person you lost, and when you do, you feel sad. But because of your expectation that you shouldn’t feel sad after a couple weeks, you feel anxious that “something’s wrong with me” because you can’t seem to “let go.”
In both cases, here’s the problem:
When your emotional expectations are unrealistic, you end up feeling bad about feeling bad, which is what really makes us feel inadequate.
Your emotions are not something you can control directly. So it makes no sense to hold yourself accountable for how they should operate.
Drop your emotional expectations for yourself and you will start to feel more and more okay with yourself.
2. You rely on reassurance to feel good
A big part of inadequacy is low self-confidence.
Think about it: It’d be pretty tough to feel inadequate about yourself if you were very confident in yourself, right?
So one way of looking at the causes of feeling inadequate is to ask yourself, What habits in my life lead to losses of confidence?
And while there could be many sources of low self-confidence in your life, a subtle one that people often miss is reassurance-seeking.
Reassurance-seeking is the habit of relying on other people to feel good.
A few examples:
Whenever you feel anxious or worried, you immediately call up a best friend, sibling, or parent hoping for some reassuring words to alleviate your fears.
Anytime you feel indecisive or uncertain, you “check” with a variety of people to make sure it’s not a bad decision before you actually do anything.
When you feel sad and down, you immediately make plans to be around other people and use them as a way to cheer yourself up rather than sitting with your sadness and trying to understand it first.
There are two big problems with reassurance-seeking:
- It leads to poor quality relationships and resentment among the people who are closest to you. Despite what they tell you to your face, nobody wants to be relied upon as your primary means of emotional support.
- It kills your emotional confidence. Emotional confidence is the ability to sit with and manage your painful emotions rather than immediately trying to avoid them or “fix” them. But when you’re in the habit of always alleviating your painful feeling by having someone else reassure you, you’re effectively teaching your brain that you can’t handle difficult feelings on your own.
Sometimes you feel inadequate because you really are inadequate: You don’t know how to handle feeling bad.
And one of the most common sources of genuine inadequacy is that you don’t allow yourself to practice managing difficult feelings on your own. Which means you never get to build emotional confidence.
And if you’re not confident that you can handle your own feelings, I mean, why wouldn’t you feel inadequate?
3. You dwell on past mistakes
Imagine you have to go through life constantly accompanied by a grumpy little leprechaun who’s constantly reminding you of mistakes you made in the past and what a terrible person you are because of those mistakes.
Now imagine how that would feel—day-in and day-out to be criticized and reminded of your past mistakes.
Even on your best days when things are going really well and you’re feeling good and happy and content, all of a sudden the little guy would pipe up and remind you of that tone time you cheated on a test in college. Or that time you cheated on your first wife and your marriage blew up.
Even if you “knew” intellectually that those things were in the past, being constantly reminded of them would make you feel pretty terrible, right?
For a lot of people who feel chronically inadequate, it’s not a thought experiment… that’s their life!
Of course, it’s not a grumpy little leprechaun that’s doing it—they’re doing it to themselves by getting stuck in the habit of rumination or dwelling on past mistakes.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about your past, including past mistakes. In fact, it’s one of the primary ways we avoid making more of the same mistakes is by analyzing what went wrong and making a plan to avoid it in the future.
This is called healthy reflection. And it’s different than unhealthy rumination because of one key variable… It actually helps!
After you’ve made a mistake, taking some time to reflect on it will probably be helpful. But the law of diminishing returns sets in pretty quickly with reflecting on our mistakes:
Spend a few hours thoughtfully reflecting on a mistake… It’s going to be painful, but you’re probably going to learn a lot, which in turn will increase your odds of not making the same mistake again.
Spend a few hours multiple times per month thinking about a mistake… Well, you might still learn a thing or two, which could be helpful to some degree. But it’s unlike your return on investment for that thinking time is even close to as high as it was for the first few hours. But it’s still going to be just as painful.
Spend a few hours multiple times per week for years thinking about your mistake… At this point, it’s basically all side-effects (guilt, shame, regret) and no benefit.
The lesson here is pretty straightforward:
Thinking about past mistakes is a good idea if it’s actually productive and leading to new insights and better behaviors.
Unfortunately, many people get stuck in the habit of ruminating on their past mistakes well past the point where it’s productive, which means they get to feel bad about themselves and inadequate without any compensating upside.
The next time you find yourself dwelling on a past mistake, ask yourself this question: Is continuing to think about this actually helping anyone?
4. Your values are unclear
Famous New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famously said…
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
I always think about that line when I talk to people about the importance of values for emotional health.
To be clear, I don’t mean religious or moral values necessarily. What I mean is personal values—the things that matter most to you in your life. It might be something like honesty or justice, but it could also be something like spending quiet time in nature or being a good listener.
Values matter because without them—without a clear idea of what’s important to us and which direction we want to be heading—it’s really easy to get lost. Specifically, it’s easy to end up making all our decisions in life based on how we want or don’t want to feel, rather than basing our choices on what we really want out of life.
And this brings us to inadequacy…
Feeling inadequate is often the result of living someone else’s life instead of your own:
- You work in a career that you don’t really enjoy or find meaningful because it’s prestigious and looks good to your family, friends, and society.
- You defer important decisions to your spouse or coworkers because you feel unsure of yourself.
- You marry someone because they “check all the boxes” but you don’t actually enjoy being around them that much.
Feeling inadequate comes from knowing deep down that you’re not living the life you really want.
Just like inadequacy can come from a comparison between yourself and other people, it can also come from a comparison between your actual life and the one you really want to be living. And if there’s a big discrepancy there, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel a lot of inadequacy because you’re not living up to your own standard.
So, what do you do if that’s the case?
Well, a big reason why we don’t live up to our own standards and values is because we actually aren’t very clear about them what our personal values are! On the other hand, when your personal values are clear, they exert a much stronger motivating pull on you. And once you’re more motivated to live life on your own terms, feeling inadequate tends to fade.
If you want to feel less inadequate, start living the life you really want. If that seems daunting or confusing, start by getting to know your values.
All You Need to Know
If you feel chronically inadequate, there’s a good chance one or more of these underlying causes is to blame:
- Your emotional expectations are unrealistic
- You rely on reassurance to feel good
- You dwell on past mistakes
- Your values are unclear
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Liza Summer.