A few words about high internal demands, perfectionism and inadequacy from the study psychologist on World Day of Mental Health

As I sit and think about what I want my first blog post for you to be about. In honor of World Mental Health Day, it occurs to me that I feel like society wants us to be kind of a project. People who always should evolve, always be refined, always be better, right?

Many of us carry around this image of ourselves as unfinished, “diamonds in the rough”, that need to be polished before we can… well, before what? Before we can be satisfied and before we can sit back, before we can rest and before we can just go out and enjoy looking at the autumn leaves. Some also think that even sharp edges need to be softened before one is ready to be in a relationship, before one is ready to write a thesis, before you’re ready to apply for a certain job…

This easily becomes an endless cycle of striving. And of course, we need to strive, otherwise, life would easily feel stalled and boring. We, like everything else in this world, are in a process of constant change, but that’s not the same as demanding of ourselves that it’s a process of constant growth. A process is also something that unfolds on its own, whereas seeing ourselves as a project feels more like something we HAVE to push through against all odds and with the small budget, someone higher up scraped together for us. …and at the risk of embarrassment and looks if we don’t get the project right.

In a society that carries a disease, individuals are often infected. The feeling of inadequacy on the outside easily becomes inadequacy on the inside. A culprit in the drama is of course what we see around us, what others my age do and what brings appreciation on social media. This is what you know about, but like advertising, are still influenced by, even though we know that the sole purpose of all advertising is to influence us. But a greater part of inadequacy is inherited at a deeper level, or inflicted on us in an age that is now in the past. But why is this what we see around us?

Many of us have experienced things in life that predispose us to feel inadequate. It may be parents who were very busy and on the go when we were children. It can also be experiences of bullying in primary school, that the best performers are the only ones who get praise and encouragement in class, or that we grew up in a home with mental illness or addiction. Many factors that are very common in an aspirational world affect children and young people in such a way that you feel a gnawing of not being enough.

As a child, you don’t have the tools to deal with emotionally complex experiences, and then the psyche does the best it can to keep us functioning well despite the experience. It can be about pushing away or stripping it of any emotional connection to take the feelings out on someone else. But above all, there is a strategy that we all resort to in these situations. We try to be better. And this is one very logical response in a still unfinished human being who needs their parents or a child who is ostracized in the schoolyard. This is because it is a greater risk to the psyche to deny and renounce the need of the other than it is to renounce the real experience in that situation. Let me explain more.

The psychological tendency that so many of us have to feel inadequate is fundamentally rooted in something adaptive and functioning. A response that wanted to protect us. When a child does not invariably and without doubt, can safely rest in the assurance that my needs and I are seen, heard and will be answered by my parents, a psychological crisis occurs. After all, parents are vital to a child, as a child cannot by itself, for example, provide food and other necessities for security. If the conclusion the child draws is that the parents are not always to be trusted, that they will not take care of me, then it means a life-threatening disaster. The psyche cannot draw that conclusion. Instead, the child takes it upon themselves to changing their behaviour, which is the only thing the child can influence, to influence the parents to provide for the child with the security it needs.

When we come across something that creates great insecurity and that we cannot influence, say that the parent has alcohol abuse, the logical conclusion would be to be angry at and condemn the cause of the suffering, the parent. But we are still just a child, whether we are 10 or 16, the parent is still the parent. To reject the safe image of the parent who always takes care of you and realize that there are big cracks in that image is still something most people’s psyches see as a major psychological loss or risk than blaming oneself. And also; if it’s me that’s inadequate, me that’s at fault, that’s something I can try to control. So what do we do? We try to change, to avoid behave in a way that we think might trigger an alcoholic episode or behave in a way so that Dad will love us a little bit more, and then he might choose not to drink.

The psyche concludes that we are the ones who are inadequate because then we put control in our hands. Just I figure out which way I’m wrong, only I do right or better, then things will surely change. Then I will surely feel better. Then I will feel that I am valuable enough to deserve to be cared for, the love and faithfulness of others. The trouble is, it’s a false sense of control. The same mechanism lies behind how we react to being bullied. The growing individual is strongly on being accepted by their peers in order to feel secure and develop during the school years. This is why many try to change oneself when being bullied. You think that if I change this I will fit in, and then they will stop teasing me. And if that didn’t work, maybe I didn’t change enough, maybe I need to be even better or change something else I hadn’t even thought of, and this lays the groundwork for perfectionism and diffuse feelings of inadequacy that you can’t put your finger on later in life.

This is a psychological hardwiring we take with us into adulthood, even if the need to be bullied to please the bullies or get parental protection is no longer vital. Alcohol abuse and bullying are examples, but they need not be so dramatic, even if the parents were working very hard or dealt with their feelings by saying “we don’t talk about this!” taught the child that they their own needs were not always met or that one’s feelings could be wrong. Parents are by no means bad parents, but they are in a hurry in a hurrying society and are probably carrying feelings of inadequacy from their upbringing, which make them really try to do their best for us, but not always daring to face their own or the child’s real feelings.

Many of us perform and try to make our lives look so good on paper because we use the same method of trying to feel safe as when we were children. But we are adults now, we have our security in in our own hands. We don’t even know why we do it anymore, other than it feels good when you have a lot going on, good when you’re rushing towards big goals. But achieving them rarely satisfies us with the feeling we want, as long as we keep carrying around our old feelings of sadness and inadequacy. As long as we continue to believe that the value of who we are is somehow affected by what we do, when we are already all we need to be. We are already full members of this world. We are valuable, we belong and we are worthy of being loved just as we are.

This same pattern underlies many different expressions of psychological malaise, all from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive thoughts and actions… All with the same basis, that something we experienced as a child, be it infant, toddler, school child or teenager, made us believe that we were not enough, but that the problem could be fixed as long as we were. This paints a bleak picture of our society. But I hope it also paints a picture of hope. We can influence our own well-being, just not in the way we think! The solution is not to take control of your life, trying more, achieving more… the solution is to stop, listen inwardly, allow our feelings and see why we feel so inadequate. The solution lies in talking about these experiences of inadequacy with each other and see that we are not alone. See that it was never about me. It was about a society where we have all been misled that we are adequate just as we are, where we all trying to be better, and in so doing infecting and passing on that false perception to each other.

The hope is in stopping. Talk to a friend. Caring about your respective. Saying nice things to each other yourself. Running a hot bath. Light a candle. Take a quiet walk. Petting your cat. Anything where we stop in the moment for a moment of pleasure, a signal to ourselves that all is well as it is. I am fine as I am. And over time to start believing more and more that I don’t need to prove my worth to anyone, at all least of all myself. We get rid of inadequacy by reinforcing the opposite, by acting in such a way as to show ourselves that we are individuals worth taking care of.

All the things I mentioned above are such ways, but sometimes they are not enough and we need outside help to break the patterns we have fallen into. Then the biggest and finest step we can take is to show ourselves that we are important to seek professional help. For many, this is no small step to take, but remember that the very act of reaching out to ask for help is a great healing act in itself, a act that affirms your value as an emotional person.

This post is written by study psychologist Jennifer Söderlund