How To Recognize An Inferiority Complex (And 5 Steps To Overcoming It)

I remember the first time I felt inferior. It was after my first fight. I might have been nine. I hadn’t wanted to fight; I’d only wanted to keep playing with my cousins in the warm summer sunshine as we always did on Saturday afternoons. But the neighborhood pest had other plans, and when I told my family about the nuisance, their response was “Deal with it.” I had no idea what they meant till it dawned: they wanted me to fight. To stand up for myself. Maybe even protect my visiting cousins.

I was utterly baffled. All I wanted to do was play. I thought parents existed to sweep away annoyances like that entire situation.

There was tussling and pushing, and at one point – when I’d thought the display was over – I turned my back to the pest…who promptly punched me very, very hard in the back and ran.

I spent the rest of the day angry at everyone. I also had a rotating series of images of how I should have pulverized the pest if only I had…

“If only I had.” The call-phrase of never being good enough, and even that assessment is a lie. You’re always good enough. The truth is that thoughts of inferiority bring with them the insidious malaise of never feeling good enough.

I withdrew a bit from the world that day. In my eyes, what I thought I presented outward as “me” apparently wasn’t good enough in a world that meant to take, interrupt, and harm whenever the mood struck it.

Fast forward to decades later. A life lived never feeling good enough… until one day a television program, of all things, showed me who I’d allowed myself to be. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Family” featured the captain returning to the comfort of home after a brutal defeat by an unbeatable enemy. He’d been captured, tortured, and changed into something he’d never wanted to be: a literal weapon against his own principles. During the episode, his estranged brother finally got him to lower his emotional shields and tearfully deliver these lines:

Jean-Luc Picard: “They took everything I was. They used me to kill and to destroy, and I couldn’t stop them. I should have been able to stop them. I tried. I tried so hard… but I wasn’t strong enough! I wasn’t good enough! I should have been able to stop them…”

The captain of the Enterprise, reduced to wracking sobs.

“Not good enough.” It was as if a bell went off for me. I’d never before put the words “inferiority complex” to my life, but there it was. I’d spent years believing myself better than others, stronger than others, but never quite putting myself in situations where I’d actually have to prove it. Even my writing career was sabotaged by thoughts of being “afraid of success,” which was only code for not putting in the proper effort to see the work move forward where others had the power to reject it.

Self-sabotage is the watermark of the inferiority complex. It is crucial to avoid being stuck below that line, to climb far above it, and sometimes all it takes is a bell going off.

Bell One

The highly competitive tend to suffer from an IC (inferiority complex). The need to constantly prove one’s edge over others shows fear of constant failure. When we realize, however, that nine times out of ten we’re not in competition with anyone even when we think we are, we open ourselves to a new level of freedom in our actions. The lens we use is not diffracted among a million competitive bodies, but is instead focused on our tasks, our goals, our own unique, non-transferrable dreams. The prize is self-satisfaction, not a false face of strength.

Bell Two

Do you constantly compare yourself to others? You can cook… but everybody loves Bertram’s lasagna better. You’re in a relationship… but everyone thinks that other couple is cuter. That story you wrote was amazing, folks tell you. Yes, you say, but nowhere near as good as Stephen King. And on it goes, until you begin to notice people no longer compliment you on things.

It’s very awkward contending with the habitual self-deprecator. People withdraw, which then makes the deprecator feel justified in the flawed assessment of their perceived worth. The bell on this one went off for me when I heard this line from Prince’s song “Hello”: “I’m unique in the respect I’m not U.” We’re all our own special versions of everything, and just as there’s no need to feel we’re in competition with everyone, there’s no need to measure our worth by invisible, intangible and constantly-changing yardsticks set against other people.

Are you good enough for you? Can you become better… for you? YOU are your own unit of internal measurement and, even better, you’re like a TARDIS from Doctor Who: human sack on the outside, infinitely bigger on the inside.

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Bell Three

We’ve all been around that person who feels the need to voice their displeasure. Of what? Everything! Anything someone else finds pleasant is trash. With every meal there is something just slightly off. John isn’t as nice as everyone thinks he is. And there is certainly no way anybody actually liked that movie.

Casting aspersions to the winds lends someone with an inferiority complex the illusion of elevated status, and is perhaps the hardest bell to recognize because it’s the easiest drug to self-medicate with, taking far less effort than opening oneself to actually liking what everyone else does. It takes less focus to negate. If you’re not good enough, the IC whispers, ever vocal, ever present, nothing else will be either. Even when you like something, it tells you to find spurious fault and voice that finding.

The ding? More lines from that same Prince song, Hello:

4 U words are definitely not shoes
They’re weapons and tools of destruction
And your time is boring unless U’re putting something down

Don’t be that person who bores everyone by being a litany of “well actuallys,” “not reallys,” or “I can’t believes” – because the reverse is where truth lives: you actually can, it really does, and you easily believe.

Ding.

Bell Four

Green-eyed Monster? Check. Constantly finding yourself jealous of, well… you have no idea what, but it damn well makes your brain twitch – is a clear sign of an inferiority complex, one that will likely mark you as a bitter, lonely, frightened person prone to lashing out in a variety of ways, some passive, some quite aggressive. You live under the constant terror that someone will find out you’re not good enough, as if there’s some inherent “You must be this tall to enjoy the fruitful rides of the Earth” signpost that remains forever taller than you.

There. Is. Not.

Jealousy is the fear of someone taking something from you. You’re the little kid; they’re the big kid. They’re smarter, better looking, more successful, more grounded, more WORTHY than you, so it’s your job to make sure you clang alarms as often as possible whenever there’s a hint of a usurper around.

But jealousy reduces people to things. Possessions. It’s a total negation of another’s inner light, their hopes, their future, their potential. Jealousy harms those acting out an IC by keeping them small-minded and blinding them with a false sense of control: if the alarm goes off enough then surely the beloved possession will adapt to avoid predators, which is how the IC-minded person sees the other’s interactions with the world: everyone and everything conspires to take an IC’s possessions away.

Sometimes that possession started out as a bright, playful, sunny day, something we all think is effortlessly ours.

Final Bell

If life is a playground, there are people who are faster than us. Doesn’t mean we don’t play tag. Stronger than us. Doesn’t mean we don’t grab the rope for tug-of-war. Smarter than us. They’re the ones we learn new playground tricks from. There’s somebody who’s funnier than us, can eat then twirl without getting nauseous like us, or has way more friends than us.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that in a playground lineup every person looking at the back of someone in front of them has someone they don’t see at their back. Someone is always ahead of someone, someone is always behind someone.

Until we realize it’s not a line. It’s a circle.

And we get to spin at will inside it.

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