INADEQUACY, WORTHLESSNESS, AND THE DENIGRATED SELF: "WHY ARE YOU JUST NOT AS GOOD AS EVERYONE ELSE?"
Steve described an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and worthlessness that set the framework for his daily life. In his mind, he was lesser than, not good enough, and innately inadequate for many of his formative years. When describing the overriding negative perceptions that he had of himself, he said:
You know, I interpreted everything in a . . . really negative way. My business was failing not because I was paying too much rent and I was on a side street and, you know I made some business decisions that weren’t very smart ‘cause I (was) you know a first time business owner. I was failing because I was a . . . bad (occupation), I was a bad uh business person, I was ultimately a bad person because I wasn’t providing the way I should have and I was a failure . . . totally negative thoughts that I’ve had my whole life.
Steve was unable to evaluate himself or events in his life without these negative self-appraisals. The concrete facts of his circumstances seemed irrelevant when held beside his view of himself as inferior and incapable. Even though there was a part of him that knew he had good qualities, that he was intelligent and capable in many arenas of his life, the underlying lack of confidence he felt undermined any of these positive attributes. Furthermore, the comparisons that he drew between himself and everyone else were equally unfavorable, because he imagined everyone else to be better than he was:
I’ve always felt uhm, less . . . accomplished than everyone else. I’ve always felt less uh competent than everyone else, I’ve always felt less uhm, you know less in every way almost than everyone else. And . . . even though I’m you know I’m I’m I’m I’m not stupid and I I’ve scored very high on IQ tests and all that, I’ve always believed that I’ve been kind of faking it. That I- that I- that I’ve gotten along as long as I did because I’m just smart enough to to figure out h- mmm- how to make sure nobody knows what I know. The real truth.
The real truth in Steve’s mind was that he was inadequate and incapable. Instead of being able to appreciate his good characteristics, they felt more like a false self (Winnicott, 1960), a front that he was able to put on to hide the “true,” more flawed reality of his identity. This likely added an additional level of guilt, because any accolades he received would only reinforce his own sense that he was an impostor, playing the role of a successful (or good or accomplished) person. When I asked Steve what “the real truth” was, he replied,
Well that truth was that I’m, I’m I’m not the the the the great kid that they think I am or the great guy that I am. That I’m not uhm . . . you know, uhm . .
. you know a- a- attractive or or or mmm you know . . . worthy of someone’s desire that I’m not (clears throat) uhm . . . good at certain things that I know I’m good at.
When faced with evidence of both positive and negative qualities within himself, even though Steve could acknowledge the good things, they somehow mattered less; the negative always won out. As he put it, “I don’t focus on what I . . . do well. I focus on the things that I don’t do well.” Steve gave the example of his writing to demonstrate his point further:
Instead of focusing on the positive aspects of . . . what I do, I focus on the fact that I don’t know about structure and I don’t have the technical writing skills that so many other peo- that everybody else—in my mind—everybody else has except me. So I’m getting away with it because I’m . . . writing things and people are commenting about them all the time. But they don’t really know. You know. Uhm, it’s an insidious thing. You know it’s and it’s I’m not completely over it. I mean I you know I still . . . deal with it I still battle it.
Living with the sense that everybody else possesses the good qualities that Steve felt himself to be lacking, compounded by the fact that he felt he was “getting away with” passing for a good person set the stage for an immense amount of interpersonal anxiety and fear. For, if Steve believed that he was really faking it and that he was just good enough to fool the people around him, there would be an omnipresent threat of being found out and humiliated once people discovered the secret “truth” of his badness. Steve spoke at length about feelings of anxiety and fear that he carried with him throughout his childhood and into adulthood.