The Roots of Inferiority

When Eleanor Roosevelt made her now famous quote “Nobody makes me feel inferior without my permission” she missed an important aspect of human behaviour and that is that we have an unconscious mind that the Self employs creatively and powerfully in times of threat to our wellbeing.

The implication from Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote is that the person who encounters a ‘put-down’ from another person consciously internalises it and, thereby, allows the other to define his worth.  Carrying this understanding to its logical conclusion it would equally be true to say that “Nobody makes me feel good without my permission”.

It appears to me that a deeper observation is required which looks to answer the question: “What is it that leads a person to react and seemingly internalise another person’s comments – derogatory or complimentary – as being about him?  The mature person knows that whatever another person says is one hundred per cent about that person, belongs to and is for that person.  For example, if somebody calls you “A moron” and you are in a solid place of knowing and valuing Self, you will in a kind and firm way return the verbal missive (missile!) to the person with the mature response: “I’m wondering what makes you say that?”  Because the person is more used to people reacting to his judgemental behaviour he is likely to be surprised by the mature response and attempt to make light of or play down what he has said.  The pity is that he misses an opportunity to explore the source of his verbal taunt and to discover what is the behaviour saying about himself.  A possibility is that he feels ‘small’ within him self and any difference to what he feels, thinks, says and does touches (not causes as Eleanor Roosevelt would have us believe) the raw nerve of what is already there within.

When you understand the behaviour of the person who uses a ‘put’ down as arising from his own internal sense of misery and inferiority, it follows that the person who is at the receiving end of the ‘insulting’ comment and who feels humiliated by the message also has an inner disconnection from his own true worth.  It is a case of darkness meeting darkness, inferiority meeting inferiority and quiet desperation meeting quiet desperation.  The person’s aggressive reaction or physical and emotional withdrawal or self-harming responses are all protective ways of trying to ensure that the person does not attempt a’ put-down’ again.  What Eleanor Roosevelt needed to ask: “What is it that has led a person to perceive himself as inferior even before another person’s derisive comment?”

The answer to this question lies in the early years of that person’s story when he experienced harsh criticism and emotional abandonment from a significant adult – parent or teacher or grandparent or childminder – and nobody championed his sacred worth in the face of those serious threats to his wellbeing.  The frequency, intensity and endurance over time of these rejection experiences are important indices of the severity of the neglect experienced. 

Children are dependent on parents, childminders, grandparents and teachers to love, cherish, nurture, care, support, empower and play with them.  They are not in a place to put food in their mouths, a roof over their heads and provide safety for themselves from physical, sexual, emotional, behavioural, intellectual and social threats to their wellbeing; on the contrary, they depend on the significant adults in their lives to do that.  However when parents plus other adults become the sources of threat, children, unconsciously, necessarily and creatively develop protective responses in order to attempt to reduce the threats to their precious presence.  A powerful protective response is to unconsciously ‘take on’ the critical messages and see oneself as described.  This strategy means that a child who experiences constant criticism and is labelled as ‘lazy’ or ‘no good ’or ‘a nuisance’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’ and etc. sensibly begins to perceive himself in the ways that the parent ( or other adult) sees him, because it would be highly emotionally – even physically – threatening to protest that “I am not any of the things you say of me; I am an individual and worthy of unconditional love”.

I am reminded of a woman in her mid-thirties telling me how she could not stop herself from doing ‘bad’ things – no matter how hard she tried.  We discovered that her mother constantly told her that she was “bad, bad, bad”.  As an adult when another adult labelled her as ‘bad’ it confirmed what she already felt about herself and she would either react aggressively or just avoid that person from thereon.  This all happened unconsciously – she did not connect her present adult responses to her experiences as a child and the harsh rejection experienced from her mother.   This failure to make the connection is clever because it means she stops herself from re-experiencing the misery of not being loved by the most important person in her life – her mother.  Making the connection could only happen when she experienced – for the first time – an unconditional holding and deep and genuine cherishing of her presence; otherwise she would have needed to maintain her deep sense of inferiority and worthlessness.

Given the foregoing we need to be sensitive about what comes from our mouths so that we are not reinforcing the inferiority felt by the many hurt individuals we meet.  Each one of us has the opportunity to counter the rejections individuals have experienced by responding to each person with unconditional regard and enduring kindness.  Remember kindness is a two-way street!

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author/International Speaker and Director of three NUI courses in UCC on Communication, Parent Mentoring and Relationship Studies. Contact Margaret for details on courses – 021-4642394