You’re with someone you’ve just met, and within seconds you feel that there’s something wrong with you.
Up until meeting this person, you were having a pretty good day, but now you’re starting to question everything from the way you look to the accomplishments you’ve racked up over your life so far. Let’s say the person is the mother of one of your children’s playmates. Not only does she seem perfectly outfitted, but in simply introducing herself, she’s made it clear that she’s got an important job and a perfect family life, and that she associates with all the right people.
It’s easy to get thrown into a personal purgatory of self-doubt in these situations. Whether it’s a social contact or a business interaction, people who want everyone to know how big they are can make the rest of us feel pretty small. Just think how much better you’d feel if you could brush these situations aside and go on about your day without doubting yourself and your life.
It turns out that when armed with a simple set of detection tools, you can not only help yourself feel better but also recognize the weaknesses in the façade of those practically perfect people.
The psychology behind this process stems from the theory of the Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who coined the term inferiority complex.
According to Adler, people who feel inferior go about their days overcompensating through what he called “striving for superiority.” The only way these inwardly uncertain people can feel happy is by making others decidedly unhappy. To Adler, this striving for superiority lies at the core of neurosis.
We now think of this striving for superiority as a feature of narcissistic personality disorder, that deviation in normal development that results in a person’s constant search to boost self-esteem. The two kinds of narcissists are the grandiose (who feel super-entitled) and the vulnerable (who, underneath the bravado, feel weak and helpless). Some may argue that at their core, both types of narcissists have a weak sense of self-esteem, but the grandiose narcissist may just be better at the cover-up. In either case, when you’re dealing with someone who’s making you feel inferior, there’s a good chance that narcissism is the culprit.
Narcissism doesn’t always reach pathological levels, but it can characterize people to more or less of a degree. Using the concepts of “overt” and “covert” narcissism instead of grandiose and vulnerable, some personality researchers believe that they can learn more about the type of narcissism you might spot in everyday life. University of Derby (U.K.) psychologist James Brookes (2015) decided to investigate the way that people high on these tendencies actually feel about themselves in terms of both self-esteem and self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s ability to succeed.
Using a sample of undergraduates—an important point to keep in mind—Brookes analyzed the relationships among overt and covert narcissism, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. The two forms of narcissism were not related to each other, supporting the idea that these two subtypes have some validity. Examining which was more related to self-esteem, Brookes found that those high on overt narcissism in fact had higher self-esteem: Their need to feel “special” seemed to play the most important role for these self-aggrandizing individuals. Covert narcissists, for their part, had lower self-esteem scores.
Looking at self-efficacy, the overt narcissists also won the day compared to their more hypersensitive and insecure counterparts. In particular, for overt narcissists, the need to have power over others seemed to give them the sense that they could accomplish anything.
The Brookes study provides some clues, then, into what makes up the narcissistic personality. It can also offer insight into the ways you can interpret the actions of narcissistic friends, coworkers, or partners through examining their insecurities:
- The insecure person tries to make you feel insecure yourself.
When you start to question your own self-worth, is it typically around a specific person or type of person? Is that individual always broadcasting his or her strengths? If you don’t feel insecure in general, but only around certain people, it’s likely they’re projecting their insecurities onto you.
- The insecure person needs to showcase his or her accomplishments.
You don’t necessarily have to feel insecure around someone to conclude that inferiority is at the heart of their behavior. People who are constantly bragging about their great lifestyle, their elite education, or their fantastic children may very well be doing so to convince themselves that they really do have worth.
- The insecure person drops the “humblebrag” far too often.
The humblebrag is a brag disguised as a self-derogatory statement. You’ve all seen these on Facebook, as when an acquaintance complains about all the travel she has to take (due to the importance of her job), or all the time he has to spend watching his kids play (and, by the way, win) hockey games. (The “Facebook gloat” is a bold-faced brag which is easier to spot but may very well have the same roots.)
- The insecure person frequently complains that things aren’t good enough.
People high in inferiority like to show what high standards they have. You may label them as snobs, but as much as you realize they’re putting on an act, it may be hard to shake the feeling that they really are better than you. What they’re trying to do, you may rightly suspect, is to proclaim their high standards as a way of asserting that not only are they better than everyone else, but that they hold themselves to a more rigorous set of self-assessment criteria.
Returning to the Brookes study, there can be aspects of overt narcissism that actually do work in helping the insecure feel more confident in their abilities. However, this comes at the price of making everyone else feel less confident. I wouldn’t recommend bolstering your sense of self-efficacy by putting down everyone else.
To sum up: Being able to detect insecurity in the people around you can help you shake off the self-doubts that some people seem to enjoy fostering in you. Taking the high road, and not giving in to these self-doubts, may also help you foster feelings of fulfillment both in yourself and in the insecure people you know and care about.