Feeling inadequate in some way at some time may be a universal human experience. But when feelings of inadequacy – feelings of low self-worth, incompetence, powerlessness, and even shame – seem to interfere with one’s ability to maintain relationships, succeed at work or in school, or feel happy and at peace, therapy may be useful. There is no particular diagnosis for feelings of inadequacy, but depression and anxiety might be associated with such feelings, as might a dependent personality disorder. Survivors of abuse, who may sometimes be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, may experience feelings of inadequacy.
Feelings of inadequacy often have their roots in childhood experiences, whether being subject to a critical parent, cruel peers, shaming authority figures, or, perhaps, having not had an opportunity to engage in positive, challenging experience in which a child can prove to herself her own competence and adequacy. Feelings of inadequacy may also be triggered or worsened by messages in the prevailing culture, which often offers standards of beauty, strength, fame, power and wealth that are essentially impossible for most people to attain.
In 12-step traditions, there is a proverb that we ought not “compare our insides to someone else’s outsides.” When we look at other people, we may see them as happy, successful, empowered, and good; then, we compare this image to our own internal experience, and our own perceived failings, and we feel inadequate. Of course, the truth is, we have no idea what really goes on in most other people’s lives, and we often overlook our own strengths and successes, so such comparisons are bound to do far more harm than good.
Inadequacy can be caused by a number of factors. Individuals who struggle with childhood issues of neglect, abandonment or abuse may feel inadequate to their adult partners even if they are highly valued. If infidelity or abuse is present in an intimate relationship, it can create feelings of inadequacy for the victim. People who enter a relationship with an extremely low level of self-esteem may look toward their partner to fill that void. However, this rarely happens and ultimately, the individual feels even more inadequate as a result. Parents also have difficulties with inadequacy. If a parent feels like they are not meeting the needs of their children, financially, emotionally or physically, they may feel like they are not serving their children as well as they should. Adults who were made to feel inadequate as children themselves, may set unrealistic goals for themselves in their role as a parent, thus continuing the cycle of failure and perpetuating the feelings of inadequacy.
A supportive and encouraging work environment can build self-esteem, but a hostile and negative work environment can create significant feelings of inadequacy. Workplace harassment or bullying can undermine an individual’s self-confidence and cause them to begin to doubt their worth and abilities. Even something as innocuous as being passed over for a promotion can create a feeling of inadequacy at work. Some careers are highly competitive and under-achievers or those less skilled are singled out for the lack of contribution to the organization. Regardless of the intent, these actions can have serious negative consequences on a person’s self-esteem and feelings of adequacy.
Therapy can help us to develop a more realistic image and more realistic expectations of ourselves. It can also help us discover activities, relationships and experiences that can build our sense of competence. Finally, it can help uncover childhood experiences that may underlie our negative feelings and help heal those experiences through the process of insight and catharsis.
Therapy for inadequacy involves identifying the source of inadequacy and designing a plan to gain a sense of control or power in that area. If a person struggles with workplace inadequacy, a therapist will work with them to set goals that will develop their job confidence. For instance, if they are in a highly competitive sales job they do not like, the therapist and client may explore other avenues that the client could pursue that bring fulfillment without competition. Relationship inadequacy can be addressed by setting goals to feel empowered within the relationship. If an individual allows others to control them or verbally abuse them, they may work with their therapist to learn how to express their emotions and be more assertive. Additionally, therapists will help clients identify their assets and expand upon them. They will teach clients how to acknowledge their strengths and minimize their weaknesses so that they can feel confident and adequate, regardless of their limitations.
Jessica, 44, enters therapy for a moderate, persistent depression, recently exacerbated when she lost her job. The therapist helps Jessica uncover deep feelings of inadequacy, which they together trace to her childhood; her father was emotionally abusive, and her mother was stifling, keeping her home all the time and preventing her from engaging with peers. Her marriage, which ended in her 30’s, repeated some of this patter; her husband was cruel to her and often distant. Jessica feels she has nothing to offer the world, and the therapist works with her to discover her strengths, including her generosity, persistence, and honesty. Jessica begins to build on these strengths and soon renews a sense of hope and purpose.
If there is something important you'd like us to consider adding to this page, please feel free to suggest your ideas.
Last updated: 12-15-2013