A drooping, dying sunflowerInadequacy—not being good enough—is experienced by everyone at one point or another. But when feelings of inadequacy—low self-worth, incompetence, powerlessness, and even shame—begin to interfere with the ability to maintain relationships, succeed at work or in school, or feel happy and at peace, exploring the underlying issues that incite those feelings may help.

Roots of Inadequacy

There are many events in life that can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, from childhood neglect to workplace harassment. Most often, feelings of inadequacy are rooted in childhood experiences, like having had overly critical parents, cruel peers, shaming authority figures, or, perhaps, having not had opportunities to engage in positive, challenging experiences that help children gain feelings of competence and adequacy. Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, codependency, and posttraumatic stress can also contribute to feelings of inadequacy.

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In adulthood, workplace harassment or bullying can undermine an individual’s self-confidence and cause that person to begin to doubt his or her worth and abilities. Parenting, too, can produce feelings of inadequacy as many parents struggle with feeling like they cannot adequately provide for their children financially, emotionally, or physically. Those parents who were made to feel inadequate when they were children may set unrealistic goals for themselves in their role as parents, thus perpetuating feelings of inadequacy as they fail to meet those high standards.

Feelings of inadequacy may also be triggered or worsened by messages in the prevailing culture, particularly in the media, promoting standards of beauty, strength, fame, power, and wealth that are impossible for most people to attain. We may see other people as happy, successful, empowered, and good, and when we compare this image with our own perceived failings, we feel inadequate. In reality, we have no idea what really goes on in most other people’s lives and minds, and we often overlook our own strengths and successes, so such comparisons are bound to do far more harm than good.

Signs and Symptoms

The experience of inadequacy leads people to view themselves negatively in a number of ways, and they often assume that other people view them in the same manner. Some people enter intimate relationships with the expectation (often subconsciously) that their partners will fill that void, or that simply being in a relationship will cause them to view themselves as adequate. However, feelings of inadequacy may in fact be heightened in a relationship, as they suspect their partners judge them as they judge themselves. In truth, gaining feelings of competence and self-esteem are personal processes that cannot be provided by other people.

People may attempt to mask or hide their feelings of inadequacy from themselves and from others in a number of ways. Some people may isolate themselves socially or otherwise close themselves off to the advances of others for fear of being truly “seen.” Others may develop compulsions, such as over-spending or overeating, as a way to cope with feelings of inadequacy. And some people project their feelings of incompetence onto others as a way to avoid difficult emotions, or they may attempt to control others or their environment in order to regain a sense of control when inadequacy leaves them feeling powerless. People who abuse their intimate partners, for example, may do so because feelings of inadequacy compel them to blame their partners for any personal and relationship challenges and use abuse as a form of power.

People who feel inadequate may also experience:

  • Anxiety, particularly with regards to performance
  • Heightened sensitivity and self-criticism
  • Reluctance to accept or trust in the affection of others
  • Low self-worth
  • Perception of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • The inability to accept praise
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • The inclination to conform or succumb to peer-pressure

How Therapy Can Help Inadequacy

Therapists help people uncover and address childhood experiences that lie at the source of negative feelings in order to recover from them. Working with a therapist, people identify their assets and expand upon them; clients learn how to acknowledge their strengths and minimize their weaknesses so that they can feel confident and adequate, regardless of their limitations.

Inadequacy can keep a person from tackling many of life’s challenges, from career changes to relationship difficulties. Through therapy, a person can learn to develop more realistic expectations for oneself, and discover activities, relationships, and experiences that can build a sense of competence.

Case Example

Inadequacy and depression: 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 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 30s, repeated some of this pattern as 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.


  1. Cowan, G., & Mills, R. D. (2004). Personal inadequacy and intimacy predictors of men's hostility toward women. Sex Roles, 51(1), 67-67+. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/225366434?accountid=1229
  2. Lashbrook, J. T. (2000). Fitting in: Exploring the emotional dimension of adolescent peer pressure. Adolescence, 35(140), 747-57. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/195929251?accountid=1229