John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Core Belief: Inadequacy

After hundreds of hours of doing therapy with people who struggle with depression and anxiety, one of the core pains I hear again and again is the bone-deep notion that one is inadequate. This is when you have the sense you simply aren’t good enough, or that you’re deficient or defective in some way.

This type of belief has at least three powerful consequences.

First, you’re more likely to find evidence to support your notion of not being good enough when you size up situations, and you’re more apt to reject evidence that contradicts it. Beliefs bias our perceptions.

Second, if you belief, deep down, that you are truly inadequate, you’re much more likely to experience strong, crippling emotions such as despair, sadness, hopeless, and shame. Beliefs influence our emotions.

Third, you’re more likely to develop compensatory strategies for the belief, even if you are not aware of the particular psychological functions that these behaviors serve. For example, you work extra hard in virtually at all endeavors, accepting nothing less than perfection. It’s as if you’re engaged in a constant series of personal tests of self, always trying to prove that the belief is not really true. Unfortunately, perfection is difficult to achieve, especially if you strive for perfection in all things. Conversely, someone else with this belief may take the opposite strategy: he or she may try to avoid endeavors where there is a risk of failure. This strategy helps you avoid being reminded of the belief. In other words, it helps you avoid painful emotion that accompanies the belief.

Once the inadequacy belief is installed into the psyche, it’s resistant to change. Our psyches are built in such a way that we seek consistency in our views of ourselves, even if those views are erroneous, painful, or maladaptive. The notions that we hold about ourselves go stronger as time goes on, no doubt from sheer repetition of concluding and re-concluding that, once again, we come of short.

So what can we do about it? One of the things I ask my therapy patients to do is to explore the validity of the conclusion. Beliefs about self often start when we are young. Unfortunately, we may draw conclusions about ourselves using child or adolescent logic; we do not have the wisdom and experience that we will acquire in adulthood. Yet, even after we acquire such wisdom, we seldom go back and edit the self. Rather, we take our earliest conclusions for granted. They must be true because they feel true, and because we’ve always thought that way. I ask my clients to give themselves permission to examine these bone-deep beliefs through the eyes of their adult selves. Maybe you really are inadequate, but then again, maybe not. Maybe things aren’t quite as simply as they appeared to you as a child. Maybe you have learned some things about yourself as adult (or your situation growing up) that were not factored into the early--dare we say, premature--conclusions that you reached about yourself.

This is how we start.

The Power of Belief

Do you believe your abilities can be cultivated over the course of your life, or do you believe everyone gets a fixed endowment of abilities that are essentially carved in stone?

What you believe about yourself with respect to your abilities may have profound implications for your life. According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and researcher, some individuals have a ‘growth’ mindset whereas others have ‘fixed’ mindset. According to her findings, a growth-mindset is more likely to lead to success. A fixed mindset limits achievement.

It works like this. Individuals with a fixed mindsets fall into a trap of needing to prove themselves again and again. After all, if you only get so much ability, who wants to believe they were given a modest amount of it to start with? Better to establish that you’ve got plenty of ability––and then seek situations that support or prove that view, and avoid those that don’t.

This means, however, that you’ll be more likely to avoid situations where you might fail because failure would constitute evidence that maybe you’re abilities were quite as ample as you’d previously believed. It also means that if you did fail at something, you’re less likely to return to it with full effort because, hey, if your abilities are fixed in the first place, why try?

But for persons with growth mindsets, who believe abilities can be cultivated over time, failure is not something to fear. Failure is often how we learn. In other words, if you believe your abilities are elastic, why not stretch yourself? Not surprisingly, people with this mindset place a premium on effort.

Dweck points out in her book, MINDSET, that history is replete with famous persons who were originally thought to have a modest endowment of ability but then went on to become successful in some endeavor. Leo Tolstoy, Charles Darwin, and Ben Hogan are examples from literature, science, and sports of individuals who were, in their youth, viewed as nothing special. And yet each went on extraordinary accomplishments later in life.

The good news is that you can change your mindset. If a fixed mindset is holding you back--and her research suggests that it probably is--you can choose to adopt a growth mindset. Beliefs are not permanent. Beliefs can be changed. The truth about abilities is that they are, indeed, malleable.

Dweck’s research points to the remarkable power of belief, but it also makes a good case for the power of effort. The novelist John Irving has pointed out that his talents for his two passions, creative writing and wrestling, were considered, early in his life, modest at best. But a wrestling coach persuaded him not to give up, but to work hard. As it turns out, he’s written a number of highly successful and entertaining novels, in addition to being inducted into the wrestling hall-of-fame.

Our beliefs about ourselves and others have great power. But some beliefs do not serve us. Some beliefs need to be re-examined and, when possible, tested for validity. If we have restricted notions of who we can become, we will naturally limit our efforts and our persistence. But if we believe we can grow our abilities and talents, we will not be afraid to toil, even when the task is hard.

Your potential is unknown. But don’t let that stop you from reaching for it.