Most people feel inadequate at some point in their life. Indeed, it is quite natural to feel that way. After all, there is always someone smarter, wittier, or richer than you. Even a brilliant professor will feel inadequate in the presence of genius. And that intellectual genius may in turn feel inadequate when surrounded by beautiful, strong athletes. Unfortunately, some allow these feelings to eat away at their self-esteem and dominate their life.
First, a distinction needs to be made between those who feel inadequate in some specific way and those who feel a general sense of inadequacy. For example, a shy girl who has just started at a prestigious college may feel socially inadequate but intellectually superior. Or a man whose wife constantly humiliates and belittles him may feel an inadequate husband and yet a loved and respected father. Much more serious is the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong – that you are inadequate, period.
But why do people develop these feelings in the first place? Sometimes, the problem stems from the unreasonably high demands placed on them in childhood. So, to take an obvious example, if a child with learning difficulties was raised by mellow, laid back parents who attached no value to education, he would be unlikely to develop a sense of intellectual inadequacy. However, if that same child was adopted by two Oxford professors whose house was filled with artists and writers, he probably would feel inadequate – no matter how much he was reassured. As for the more general sense of inadequacy, this often stems from things like abusive and neglectful parents or constant bullying at school. People raised by extremely poor or socially dysfunctional parents may also retain a sense of inadequacy throughout their lives.
The nature of society can also play a part. If, for example, a frail, sensitive boy was born into a macho society on the brink of war, he might feel a deep sense of inadequacy. In a different place and time he would not. Deeply religious societies can instill a lifelong sense of inadequacy. In strictly Catholic countries, such as 19th century Ireland, teenagers were taught that masturbation was a sin and that the sexual act itself should only take place within marriage. Naturally, when they then failed to live up to these teachings, a sense of guilt and sinfulness followed.
The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler was very interested in this sense of inadequacy, believing that it played a major role in human psychology and behavior. Originally a colleague and follower of Sigmund Freud, Adler gradually came to believe that Freud overestimated the importance of sex. Influenced in part by Nietzsche, he argued that it was really the sense of inferiority and the desire to compensate for this feeling that motivated people.
Adler used the word "overcompensation" to describe this. Someone feels inadequate in some way – physically weak, for example, or poor, or ugly. This in turn leads to an "inferiority complex". Naturally, such feelings are deeply unpleasant and the individual wishes to be rid of them. But it is not enough for him to be the equal of his neighbors; he must surpass them. So, to take a simple example, imagine a 17-year-old boy living in a tough, working class neighborhood in which most of the men earn a living through manual labor. The boy is small and weak and easily pushed around. This makes him feel inadequate. But it is not enough for him to build up his muscles, or to simply reject the whole idea of machismo in the first place. Instead, he joins a gym, then takes up boxing and, eventually, turns into an aggressive bully.
Overcompensation can be a trap because it often leads to some form of self-betrayal. To stick with the hypothetical example, imagine if, underneath, the man was not an aggressive bully but actually quite gentle and kind. His desperate need to fit in, to prove himself and, above all, to be rid of the sense of inadequacy, has forced him to live an unnatural life.
First, it must be remembered that there really is no such thing as normal. Those who feel inadequate or inferior in some way tend to view the human race as a kind of monolith: everyone, barring the odd outcast, is assumed to be rich, successful, and happily married. This way of thinking is especially common during adolescence. Teenagers tend to assume that their peers are far ahead of them: stronger, more popular, more experienced sexually, more certain what they want to do with their lives, and so on. Unfortunately, though rationally we learn that this is nonsense, at a subconscious level we often continue to believe it. And such feelings are made worse by social media.
So, if you feel inadequate, ask yourself this question: inadequate compared to whom? Think of someone you feel inferior to. Do you believe they are perfect? Of course they aren't. They too have their weaknesses, failures, and insecurities. Everyone is made of the same basic stuff and all are doomed to the same fate. Think of the greatest figures from history. All had their faults: Aristotle defended both slavery and the subjugation of women, Einstein cheated on both his wives, and Winston Churchill was a depressive alcoholic!
The worst thing you can do is to try to copy those you admire. Either you will fail miserably, or, just as bad, you will succeed. And if you do succeed, what kind of an achievement is that? You are now nothing but an imperfect copy of someone else. And you are therefore living a completely inauthentic life – a life of self-betrayal.
Instead, you must first accept your limitations. OK, so you aren't as beautiful as your sister. Maybe you don't earn as much as your friend or live in as nice a house as your neighbor. But these are merely superficial comparisons. People spout all kinds of irritating clichés to those who feel inadequate. And these phrases are repeated so often that people cease to listen. Yet they are quite right: you really should just be yourself, and it really is what's on the inside that counts.
The key is to derive your self-esteem from a different source. Instead of basing it on how you feel you compare to others, base it on whether or not you live up to your own sense of honor. What do you believe in? What are your principles? Maybe you hate bullying and rudeness and go out of your way to be kind and polite. That is admirable. That has come from within you. Cultivate these principles. In doing so, you will cultivate and assert your own individuality. Just be true to yourself. Be your own person: someone who doesn't follow the crowd or seek approval and, above all, someone who compromises their principles for no one – that is where you should find your self-esteem.
If you do struggle with feelings of inadequacy, take consolation from the fact that you are not alone. Part of the problem is social media. Never confuse this with real life. People post photographs of themselves at their best: sun-tanned and laughing with their friends. They rarely put up photographs of themselves pale and overworked, neither do they post photos of themselves arguing with their boyfriend or slouched in front of the TV lonely and depressed!