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Fear of Inadequacy and What to Do About It

Four basic options for keeping yourself from drowning in a sea of self-doubt.

If you’ve ever felt inadequate (and of course you have), what did you do about it?

If you’re like me, you probably grasped for reassurance. For example, when I feel like my peers are getting ahead of me, I automatically and unconsciously scramble for reasons why I’m actually better than them. When I feel people’s disapproval and disappointment, I instantly reach for any even half-convincing reason why I’m actually A-OK.

Nowhere does my creativity shine more vividly than in my ability to come up with credible reasons that I’m not inadequate, ways to keep myself inspired whenever I start to feel a little shaky. I keep reasons on hand like air in a scuba tank for times when I feel like I’m being pulled down.

I’ve also accumulated a lot of buoys to keep my spirits up — friends who affirm me, role models who, by association, make me feel like a winner, accomplishments that convince me of my worth, things to tell people I do with my day so they’ll be impressed.

I like to float near others who I can hold underwater, people I don’t respect, about whom I can say, “Well, at least I’m not like them.” Standing on their heads, I can usually prevent that sinking feeling, the fear that after all, it turns out I am inadequate.

I often avoid people who could pull me down and justify doing so by coming up with reasons why they’re inadequate too.

I’ve hustled for lots of things in my life. I’ve worked to keep my family happy, to learn about the ways of the world, to make it a better place, and to form meaningful bonds with wonderful people, but if I’m honest about it, I’d have to say that a substantial amount of effort has gone into keeping that suffocating, sinking fear of inadequacy at bay. I’ve been treading water all life long, trying to keep my self-esteem above water. I’ve done it so long I can easily forget that I do it. Something in me is always monitoring the water levels.

Now, if you read my confession and feel a little disdain for me, good. I aim to highlight the way we handle fear of inadequacy, and also how we avoid highlighting it.

Compensating for feelings of inadequacy is shameful or taboo, a little like masturbating to fantasies of sexual prowess. In the privacy of our inner thoughts, we may be able to comfortingly convince ourselves that we’re a big deal, but if someone were to walk in on us, we’d be exposed for what we’re doing and forced to see ourselves conjuring up compensatory fantasies. Then, we feel deeply ashamed and humiliated — doubly inadequate.

So do I feel deeply ashamed and humiliated for having worked so tirelessly all life long to avoid feeling inadequate? I sure have at times. Not much anymore.

A lot has changed for me over the years. I meet my standards for adequacy better than I used to, but I’ve also lowered those standards so that they’re meetable. In my youth, I used to whipsaw erratically between thinking I was a total loser or a god. By scaling back my standards and meeting them better, I whipsaw less.

Less, but I still do it. As the Grateful Dead sing, “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me; other times I can barely see.”

These days, I’m convinced that I’m not alone. My guess is that most, if not all of us, tread water to keep our sense of adequacy afloat.

This universal need to keep inadequacy at bay deserves more attention than it gets. In business they say, follow the money. In social life, I say, follow the self-affirmation. It is the currency of a hidden economy that drives a lot of what we do. I say, pay attention to affirmationomics — the supply and demand for affirmation, and even brave some reflection on how affirmationomics drives your own behavior.

We are of two minds about the quest for affirmation. Culturally, we whipsaw between disgust and exultation about the quest. We often think of it as a shameful abnormality, the pathology of the rare egomaniac. We call it narcissism, self-obsession, hypersensitivity, insecurity. But we also treat the quest for affirmation as a human right — dignity, respect, equal adequacy for all.

I’d like to dampen that whipsawing too. I think of affirmation as a staple of human life that we all strive to acquire and maintain, not that there’s necessarily enough to go around, nor should there be since some behavior is truly inadequate.

I think of it as mojo-maintenance or keeping our spirits up. “Spirit” originally meant breath, as in respiration, the physical energy we need to do anything. But “spirit” is also in the word inspire, a word I’ll use here to mean supplied with psychic oxygen, the breath of self-affirmation that fuels our ambition, hopes, and efforts.

More than we notice, the inspiration we all seek is really all about us. Inspiration isn’t about how we feel about the world, but about our place in it, feeling good about ourselves, feeling that we’re adequate or more than adequate, our heads well above the waterline. Inspiration is personal mojo, a sense that you’ve got what it takes. That’s how you feel when your spirits are high, your psyche well oxygenated and ready to meet the world.

To stay alive we need respiration; to feel alive we need inspiration. Unlike respiration, inspiration is in iffy supply. It’s rare that we feel at risk of running out of air, but inspiration? It comes and goes. We don’t always know where our next inspiration will come from.

Because air is in ready supply, we rarely notice ourselves breathing it. We also don’t notice ourselves gasping for inspiration, but for the opposite reason. One way or another we’ve been gasping all life long. It’s a habit. We forget that we do it, and we want to forget since striving to feel adequate is regarded as shameful.

I look back at my life as like bobbing in the deep sea, treading water as efficiently as possible, always to keep my head from sinking below that waterline, sinking into a sense of inadequacy. I’ve been treading water a long time – so long I forget that I’m doing it. I’m pretty good at it by now. I rarely feel much at risk of drowning, thanks to lifelong practice.

I look around in all directions and I see us all doing it, bobbing in the choppy waves of life, treading water, trying to keep our inspiration alive and afloat. Some of us are flailing, some are drowning, some are so sufficiently buoyed and boosted that they make it look easy, but all of us are at risk of sinking nonetheless. We’re all doing something to keep afloat.

Still and to this day, when I begin to fear that I’m inadequate, I start scrambling for inspiration as though I were drowning, gasping for air. I don’t notice myself doing it, though others might. For example, they might hear me begin to recite excuses for myself, nervously celebrating my deeds of daring do, putting other people down, paddling away from anyone who might dunk me, saying whatever I need to hear to keep my head above water.

A few weeks ago, The New Yorker carried an in-depth analysis of what’s driving Trump supporters and more generally the political mood these days. The author George Saunders steers toward his best guess with this confession, which inspired mine:

In college, I was a budding Republican, an Ayn Rand acolyte. I voted for Reagan. I’d been a bad student in high school and now, in engineering school, felt (and was) academically outgunned, way behind the curve. In that state, I constructed a world view in which I was not behind the curve but ahead of it. I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was (as indicated by the tests on which they were always creaming me), but I was . . . what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage.

Though he doesn’t say it outright, Saunders suggests that these are times when it would be easy to feel inadequate and to unconsciously compensate by identifying with winners. The seas have gotten choppy and many are grasping for that orange Trump buoy, a “success,” who by association enables people to hold their heads high.

When we hear things like, “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys,” we’re unlikely to identify with the turkeys. When we hear that Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds,” we’re unlikely to identify with the mediocre minds. Quote dictionaries and Facebook memes are populated with such self-bolstering aphorisms.

And of course, it’s sometimes true that we’re being held back by others, which makes it credible for us to claim that we are. Not all accusations of suppression and oppression are “playing the victim.”

But it’s obviously not as simple as “I’m an eagle and anyone who gets in my way is a turkey.” Nor is it as simple as “we’re all eagles,” as though everyone is adequate.

There are better and worse performances at all tasks. We all know it, and there’s no reason why you would be exempt from putting in worse performances. You are as capable of inadequacy as the next person — me, for example, since I’m not exempt from inadequacy either.

Fear of our own inadequacy drives us to scramble and scrounge, gasping for inspiration, but if we admit that the fear is a universal problem, we can get better at toughing out those dispirited moments and then decide more prudently what to do when we feel inadequate.

When you’re feeling inadequate there are four basic responses:

  1. Ignore it: It’s a false alarm, you’re doing fine.
  2. Change your situation: You’re not cut out for what you’re trying to achieve so go do something else.
  3. Change your performance: You are cut out for what you’re trying to achieve, but your performance is inadequate, so it’s time to work harder and smarter.
  4. Change your expectations: You are cut out for what you’re trying to achieve and your performance is adequate. You’re just expecting too much inspiration. Lower your expectations to fit the challenges you face.

My inspiration water gauge is like any alarm system — say, a smoke alarm. The four solutions treated as a response to the alarm go like this:

  1. There are false alarms — times I fear that I’m inadequate when I’m not.
  2. Sometimes the smoke alarm goes off and I have to get out of the house.
  3. Sometimes I have to stay in the house and work harder to put out the fire.
  4. And sometimes I have to just recalibrate the alarm, adjusting it to fit the tasks I’ve taken on.

The first option is what comes naturally. If feelings of inadequacy cause us anxious grasping, we try to ignore the alarm or shut it off completely. We shouldn’t do that any more than we should pull the battery out of a smoke alarm.

There are formulaic ways to claim that any one of these four moves is the always-correct solution. For example:

  1. Ignore it: Always hold your head high. You deserve to feel adequate no matter what you do.
  2. Change your situation: Never stay in any situation that makes you feel inadequate.
  3. Change your performance: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Be courageous. Never give up.
  4. Change your expectations: Always accept everything. Make peace with who you are no matter what you are.

I’ll argue that there is no formulaic solution that always works. The only solution I know is attention to this universal challenge and the four sometimes-appropriate ways to deal with it. One way or another, all of us are treading water to keep our heads above it.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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