Not Good Enough

Not directly a part of Cultural PTSD, but an important factor at work in creating unhealthy cultural contexts is the internalized sense of not being good enough that plagues many perfectly capable adults all over the world.

I’ve been working in the mental health field for over 20 years. One of the core beliefs I’ve run into time and time and time again is some version of “I’m not good enough”. I’ve worked with all kinds of people, people with a huge variety of personal histories and a huge variety of cultural influences. My clients have come from a wide range of socio economic levels, and have come from a plethora of shapes, sizes, colors ages, and genders.

Some of these people have been lucky enough to have grown up in stable, loving, peaceful, supportive environments. But no matter how confident, how accomplished, how self accepting, or how supportive an environment, it seems like when we get down to the core levels, almost all of us have some nagging thoughts, beliefs, worries, doubts. We worry we aren’t good enough.

So, this feeling of being in some way inferior runs deep. Why?

Obviously we can look around at the world and now parts of the universe, and we can wonder at its vastness and feel small and probably inferior. And although some of that probably bleeds over into these core beliefs, that’s more of an existential issue and deserves a longer, more existentially focused response.

What I’m focused on in this piece is the pretty much universal sense that individuals have about their “ranking” next to other people. I’ve talked with hundreds of people over the years exploring their core beliefs about themselves. Just about everybody has these nagging doubts about their self worth at times.

Even narcissists have these beliefs. A commonly accepted theory about narcissism is that it comes from a profound sense of inferiority. People inflate their sense of self trying to compensate for the deeply held and deeply disturbing core belief that they are “not good enough”. Their core belief about not being good enough is so painful, they suppress it and are not conscious of it at all. Instead they over compensate and begin to form new beliefs that make them feel superior. These beliefs then become deeply entrenched. Doing that is adaptive in some ways, but it impairs their ability to see others as fully human. It takes effort to truly see and understand other people, and when we are self absorbed, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to truly see others for themselves.Closely related to this is the ever popular Dunning Kruger Effect.

For the rest of us, this nagging sense of not being good enough may occupy a smaller space in our minds, we may have mostly eradicated or made peace with the idea. But it’s still there or it’s been there at some level, right?

Resolving these beliefs takes different course for different people. Spiritually, some people achieve a pretty good internal sense of peace about these inferiority beliefs. Others (I think the majority) are in part driven towards achievements in order to refute beliefs about their inferiority. This is evident throughout the larger culture around us. We need to prove ourselves, prove our self worth. Indeed the need to achieve appears to correlate positively with people’s sense of self as inferior to others.**(I know I need to find citations for this- they will be forthcoming).

Again, why is this so?

A Developmental Leftover

I’ve come to believe that these beliefs come from internalized knowledge we all held as kids. At some level as children we KNOW that we are dependent on adults, we KNOW that we’re inferior to others in some ways. As children we idealize our parents- they are perfect, we are not. In a child’s world, this makes us inferior to them. Period.

I believe that we are all sort of saddled with these childhood beliefs, and we’ve simply not recognized that this is where it comes from. Numerous people I’ve worked with have really struggled with these beliefs, not knowing why they hold them so deeply. They’ve explored any traumas, slights, betrayals, losses, etc., and are still often deeply disturbed by their lingering beliefs about “not being good enough”.

Certainly traumas, slights, betrayals and losses (among other things) can and do reinforce these kinds of beliefs, and it is important to address those in therapy and help clients gain an awareness of and distance from their impacts. But until we address these beliefs also as normal developmental beliefs that need to be shed, people will still be subject to believing them, and the quality of life will suffer for them on some levels, but also for us.

Reinforced By Culture and Consumerism 

As social beings, we need to fit in, we need to feel like we belong. As discussed elsewhere, our cultural assumptions include hierarchical organizations about what to do to fit in. In other words, we are surrounded by unspoken but deeply held assumptions about who and what is “good” and who or what is “not as good”. There’s a pecking order any school child can tell you about within a classroom, within a family, within a community and within the larger cultural contexts we are associated with.  And even as we try to discard this way of thinking, we often still end up comparing ourselves against real or imagined cultural ideals. Depending on our upbringings, we may have deeply internalized senses of being other, or not as good.

Another factor is that capitalism has created a consumer culture that has exploited the hierarchical organization of status with an amazing degree of efficiency.  Most products on some level are marketed to people with the implication that they will be better people, happier, envied, admired and loved if only they buy ____.  The other bit of the implication being they are not currently envied, admired, or loved enough.  There are better people out there who have____,and they are happier than us.

Even if we shake the marketing off consciously, it’s still there, a slippery slope just waiting for us to feel tired and insecure and in a moment of weakness,  maybe slip down the slope and buy that ____.

Why This Matters On A Collective Level

The impacts of feeling inferior can and do

1) Cause us to be fearful of others. We fear being found out as inferior, we fear being mistreated because we feel inferior, we fear we will fail, we fear will disappoint, we fear we will not be loved, etc etc. It’s hard to feel secure when you feel inferior. We will not get to know those who we fear.

2) Cause people to attempt to oppress and put down others. Discrimination and oppression come from trying to compensate for our worries, one of those being that we are not good enough We try to prove our worths by imagining that others are inferior to us.

3) Promote an atmosphere of a win/lose mentality. People who worry they are inferior can and do build large egos and become overly competitive in their quests to prove themselves and that they are “in charge”. This leads to a win/lose mentality, and an over focus on “winning” instead of sharing equitably, and even worse, it serves as a rationale for people to strive to win “by any means necessary”.

4) Lead to people becoming greedy. Status and wealth become ways by which people “prove” to themselves and others that they are worthy.  Greed leads to scarcity mentalities, over use of resources, excessive focus on status, and all kinds of other ills.  Simply put: Greed and fear are the two most destructive forces at work in the world.

5) Foster a sense of helplessness. People who fear they are inferior may not speak up when others cross boundaries and trample on their rights or the rights of others. think in terms of “Who am I to put out a solution?” They may not contribute to the world in ways that live up to their potential. If people do not contribute due to feeling inferior, that causes us as a whole lose out on what could be valuable input or innovative solutions.