Social Inadequacy: Why We Feel It and How to Address It

Two people in suits shake hands, smiling, in a cafeFor people who define themselves as socially awkward, the perceived risk of being seen in endlessly negative ways—inadequate, ugly, boring, stupid, anxious, depressed, empty, arrogant, fat, pathetic, etc.—is always present. When I think about people in therapy who see themselves as socially awkward, I find little correlation between how I experience each individual as a social person and how they think of themselves. Every one of them seems to have characteristics that I enjoy and admire, and they are often (but not always) in occupations of respectable social status. However, for the “socially awkward” person who supposedly “knows” how little they have to offer to the world, the facts of their occupational status or character are irrelevant.

What I have come to recognize about many people in therapy who feel severely socially awkward is that they share the belief that when they were growing up they missed out on learning the rules of social discourse. As a consequence, they are intensely anxious about how they will be responded to if they are socially off the mark. For example, Robert, an attorney, worries about phone calls and what to do after you say hello. Paula, an information technology manager, panics about being in a social situation and not knowing how to approach someone. Tanya, a college graduate, unemployed for the past year, keeps asking “what are the rules, how long do you talk with someone at a party and how do you get yourself out of a conversation?” Everyone worries about silence and eye contact.

While many of us might experience similar social concerns, a “socially awkward” person believes that their anxiety and inability to navigate these situations will be blatantly evident, and they expect to be responded to with rejection and disgust. Even when there are no evident responses that confirm their fears, such people continue to experience bad feelings about how they behaved and consequently justify their continued self-attacks and self-hate.

Parental Expectations

A major source of the feelings of social inadequacy and the consequent self-hate that people often express is related to parental expectations. Both Tanya and Robert had parents with very high expectations. Robert talked about his parents pushing him to work harder at all the extracurricular activities they insisted he engage in: “They thought I was a virtuoso and kept pushing me to do more with the violin. My mother kept telling me what a wonderful writer I was and that I should try and get published. But she also insisted on critiquing any creative writing I tried.”

Tanya described how her parents pushed her to succeed in high school so she could get into an Ivy League school: “They would compare me to their best friends’ son and list all his achievements. On the surface, they seemed to be saying they thought I had what it took to be superior. But I never felt I could really be good enough, no matter how well I did. I upset them when I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them by not getting in.”

Paula also was negatively affected by her parents’ expectations. They wanted her to “be good.” The worst thing she could do was make anyone outside the family think any negative thoughts about her. This would shame and humiliate her parents and result in physical or verbal abuse. The most Paula could hope for from her parents was to avoid anger and criticism. She recalled: “My mother would scream and berate me if I didn’t smile the right way at a neighbor. I remember, when I was about 9, she dragged me from the Thanksgiving table at my aunt’s house because I didn’t say ‘please’ when I asked for the turkey. I was a very scared kid and never knew when I was going to get hit or criticized. I never knew what the right thing to do was. I still don’t know.”

The Importance of the Audience

Robert and Tanya needed to be high achievers so the parents could feel pleasure and ego satisfaction about their parenting. By pushing achievement on their children, the message, consciously and unconsciously, was that you must do more, be better, and shine or you will hurt and disappoint me. For all three people in therapy, the ultimate authority on how they were doing as children was the social audience their parents looked to and empowered. Most important, the incredible power of the “audience out there” cast the final judgment on how the parents were doing.

Without audience approval, the parents felt inadequate and humiliated and put the responsibility for these bad feelings onto their child. The parents held the child responsible for their own feelings of inadequacy, which were then attributed (projected) to the child who was designated as inadequate. The child not only felt the shame of insufficiency, but experienced the badness of having socially hurt, disappointed, and shamed the parents. It is no surprise, then, that for the humiliated, “inadequate” child, the social world would feel like a constant source of scrutiny with the mission of detecting and identifying the guilty party.

Developing Feelings of Social Adequacy

These three individuals have great certainty and strong emotional attachments to their belief that they are socially inadequate people. While they typically begin therapy with some hope that they can do something to improve their experiences, feelings of hopelessness often outweigh the hope. The journey to feeling more socially able begins with people becoming aware of the ways in which their social awkwardness has been shaped and confirmed by their early and continuing life experiences. While this provides a rational understanding of how their feelings of social inadequacy developed, it does not alter the strong emotions that arise when they find themselves in social situations.

I often hear about their intense anxiety in social situations and how they become panicked. With intense agitation, they scan faces of others to detect the expected negative reactions. If I wonder how it would be if I helped them to strategize for a social situation, the response is usually negative: “It won’t work; I’m too anxious; it’s useless.” I believe this is an expression not only of hopelessness but of the self-hate that the person feels. If I can help the person reflect about this and put his self-hate into words, it can help break through the paralysis and allow the person to agree to try and practice some new behaviors before a social situation.

Even when a person may bravely go to the party and try out a strategy, it is unusual for the person to feel that he or she has had success. As Robert told me: “It was horrible. I saw a woman standing alone near the bar and I went over to her and introduced myself and asked her name and how she came to be at the party (like we planned). I couldn’t make eye contact very well, but I tried. She did answer my questions, but then this other girl came over and started talking to the first girl and I panicked. I couldn’t say anything and left.”

The example above illustrates how, even with a strategy, it is difficult to succeed with the plan. What is even more difficult is to change the negative feelings about one’s self that influence our social behaviors. With considerable work, repeated experiences of small successes can lead to incremental but steady changes in behavior and self-perceptions.

I am going to list some steps that represent what happens in the therapy process that can help in altering self-defeating behaviors and feelings of self-hate and social inadequacy. To undertake these steps, with or without the help of a therapist, requires commitment to tolerate frustration and painful unwanted and intolerable feelings. There must be a willingness to fail and try again repeatedly.

Steps to Changing Feelings of Social Inadequacy

  1. Gain knowledge through self-reflection to hypothesize how your “social awkwardness” has been shaped and confirmed by your life experiences.
  2. Self-talk to remind yourself of (1) positive qualities, (2) feelings that seem intolerable, and especially (3) your resilience, i.e., ability to withstand those intolerable feelings. (After all, you are still standing and functioning, and have had many encounters with those feelings, and you’re still here.)
  3. Develop strategies to help manage behavior in social situations, e.g., what to say when approaching a stranger at a party or subjects to talk about on a date. (Google your questions if you can’t come up with your own strategies.)
  4. Try out behaviors and be prepared to fail.
  5. Learn to see failed attempts as success. This means overriding old patterns of self-attack and bad feelings and allowing yourself to feel courageous for trying.
  6. Try out behaviors again and be prepared to fail again.
  7. Keep trying to feel successful for trying.
  8. Repeat steps 1 through 7 as long as necessary until you begin to feel more positively about yourself and more able to tolerate your unwanted feelings.
  9. Come up with a new thought which reflects positive feelings about yourself.
  10. Come up with a new thought about yourself as someone who is feeling a little more socially adequate.
  11. Allow yourself to consider that you can change and be aware of your anxiety about change.
  12. Keep repeating steps 1 through 11.
  13. Never stop working on developing positive feelings about yourself.
  14. Never stop working on your ability to tolerate unwanted feelings, change your behavior, and feel positive about yourself.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dell

    Dell

    June 23rd, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    I am not a parent but I would think that one of the worst things to ever hear from your child would be that the things that I said or did to them, or even unrealistically expected of them was what caused them to be uncomfortable around other people.

  • rather not say

    rather not say

    May 23rd, 2015 at 3:10 PM

    I said this to my parents and they said I either made it up or over dramatized everything. It was painful and led to a 3 – year separation, but I came to the conclusion that they needed to maintain their facąde that they were great parents in order to live with themselves. Now it makes me feel sorry for them and has empowered me to be a better patent to my own children.

  • Julie

    Julie

    March 19th, 2016 at 4:34 AM

    I’m right there with you and feel I could have written your comment. :) I also had a 3-year estrangement from my parents and now have an affable relationship with them because I have realized their capacity and their inability to move beyond their own limitations. They’re incapable of giving me what I needed from them, and that’s OK. I’m now able to do it for myself and I can give my children what my parents couldn’t. It’s a great position to be in. :)

  • Leila

    Leila

    June 23rd, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    It has to be awfully lonely and sad to forever feel this terrible about yourself and about your life. I can’t imagine going through life feeling this bad about myself to be honest with you.
    It’s okay to sometimes feel a little down anbout who you are but living day to day like this and never feeling anything except pity and fear for yourself, I just can’t hardly imagine life being anything but horrible like that.

  • Janna

    Janna

    June 24th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    One thing that I saw that really stood out for me was the step that reminds us all to never stop thinkingof ways that we are good, and the things that we do and have to offer which are positive. This is so important whether you have feelings of being socially inadequate or not. We all go through our days wondering how we could do this and that better, and for some of us this takes a real beating on us. Why not instead of that look at the things that we know we contribute to others, the things that they appreciate us for and the many times we do something good for others that no one else could? All of these things should be worth noti ng and are the things that we can use to help us know that no matter what we feel about ourselves someone else sees us in a totally different light and in a way that is useful and beneficial to them in a good way.

  • lori beth

    lori beth

    June 24th, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    Have you ever had that feeling of not wanting to leave the house because you are so sure that you will never measure up to the other people who will be hanging around? I feel that all day every day, never feeling up to stuff, like I will not pass muster because of… whatever, you pick the subject. I know that I am hard on myself but it seems so pointless to even try anymore because I know that I am never going to feel good enough about me or what I have to offer to others to have a whole lot of friends or to ever truly be comfortable in social settings. I don’t really remember if I have always felt this way or if there was some sort of trigger that made all of this start… well, of course there was but I just can’t pinpoint anything exactly. Maybe if I could get to the root and figure out when that little seed of inadequacy was planted then I would have an easier time on some of this.

  • Mike

    Mike

    August 2nd, 2015 at 11:51 AM

    Hi Lori, research what makes us tick and how we were programmed (very much like a computer). Reading and researching that helped a lot. There is a book called “Lonliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” that I would recommend. It’s by John Cacioppo.

  • Julian

    Julian

    June 25th, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    How can you ever be a success when you have to plan to fail? Can this be right?

  • parker g

    parker g

    June 26th, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    I have given up on trying to make everyone else happy and have decided that the alternative to that is to make myself happy. Why should I care about what other people think about me especially if they don’t even know me? Whay should what they think even matter? I am who I am and that’s what I’m going to be, and I don’t need anyone telling me that this is right or wrong. I have lived too many years trying to live up to what I thought that others wanted or expected, and now I am ready to step past that and live life like I want it to be.

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    June 27th, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    Yay parker g!! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!!

  • Leighton

    Leighton

    June 28th, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    I have given this a whole lot of thought after reading this and have come to the conclusion that the sadest part of all of this is that we wouldn’t be this way if there weren’t others who were constantly trying their best to make us feel bad about ourselves. I know that I can’t lay it all on other people but you do have to admit that there are those people who seem to find your weakest point and they will push and push until they know they have you. That makes enyone feel terrible and it should make them ashamed of wanting to always jab another person with that. being on the receiving end of that has always made me feel inadequate and I hate that others can so easily make me feel that way.

  • Mike

    Mike

    August 2nd, 2015 at 11:45 AM

    A great article! I’d add one step to the self-talk that I practice myself in other situations (I’m not socially awkward, but I have other issues stemming from my upbringing)—-4)remind yourself that your feelings of anxiety at that moment are aimed at your parents and NOT anyone in that room.
    I also found again, in my own situation, that by learning how the brain works, the “old brain” and “the new brain”, helps me to become conscious that my thoughts are ingrained in my old brain/fight or flight response, developed from my stress of childhood and relationship/fear of my caregiver.

  • Julie

    Julie

    October 10th, 2015 at 3:27 PM

    Interesting article. I consider myself to have social anxiety, never diagnosed but meet all the criteria. As a child, l was taught to “be seen, and not heard”, and l believe I learned quite well. Even now l have trouble mingling, or making small talk, if l get the courage to go at all to gatherings. I can’t recount a story to others, so l politely comment briefly as others tell theirs. It becomes so frustrating. I’m not sure l can learn these skills, been trying for years.

  • Diane

    Diane

    October 22nd, 2015 at 8:59 AM

    I married a Stanford/UC Berkekey Ph.D. He has so many massive social networks- FB, Stanford, former students as friends. He has it made socially, financially, professionally. I struggle daily with self worth. My social anxiety is about half under control, but I still struggle when he comments: oh, my friend just became mayor of Blah blah, or “look at this student… Doesn’t she look great after 10 years!!” I have to validate myself every day and never assume he wants to keep the marriage going. I am ok just for this moment. i am good enough, my higher power loves me and I will be ok.

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