Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
Someone Who Feels Inferior

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/inferior.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This brief YouTube video offers perspective on "shame-based" (psychologically-wounded) people::

      This article offers useful responses to someone who seems to feel significantly inferior. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

      HOW would you describe the feeling of inferiority? How would you define it for an average pre-teen? Some shame-based (wounded) people feel inferior in general, and others feel inferior in a particular role (like love-making, cooking, or parenting) or a local situation (like public speaking, a new job, ...).

      If you know someone who seems to feel inferior in some way, keep them in mind as you read. Feeling inferior ("I'm not a good / smart / strong / creative / attractive / fun / etc. a you are.") often causes behavioral symptoms. Can you name some? How about...

  • avoiding eye contact,

  • over-apologizing

  • frequent nervous chuckling and/or stuttering,

  • hunched posture, and/or nail-biting;

  • a lot of "Ums," "Uhs," and "I don't know's," and...

  • notable pessimism and uncertainty. 

Can you think of other telltale behaviors? Note that inferiority (shame) can cause local or chronic anxiety ("worry").

      Reflect - when you're with an adult or child who's burdened by self-doubt and inferiority, what do you usually feel? Compassion? Scorn (disrespect)? Impatient? Critical? Frustrated? Superior? Responsible? Guilty? "Nothing"? If you feel "uncomfortable," can you say why?

      What do you usually do? Repress your feelings? Chide the person? Reassure them? Lecture? Counsel or advise? Use humor? Pretend? What would it take to feel comfortable with them? What do you need? Paradoxically, logic ("You have nothing to feel inferior about!") or reassuring ("You're such a great person!") will usually make the other person feel misunderstood, flawed, and worse.

      If you know someone with symptoms of low self esteem, keep them in mind as you consider these...

  Response Options

  • Review these response-basics until they become automatic. Then Imagine how these responses might feel...

  • KEY - Check to see that your true Self is guiding you. If not, make attaining that your first priority.

  • Check your attitude. If you feel "I-up" (superior), that suggests a false self rules you. That attitude will probably come across no matter what you say, and may cause or amplify their feeling inferior.

  • Remind yourself that their feeling inferior is their problem, not yours. You aren't responsible for fixing them (unless it's your child, or you're broadcasting superiority).

  • Identify what you need now with this person - e.g. to vent, to inform, to "help," or something else. Beware of offering help that isn't asked for - that can feel like a put down!

  • Ask if s/he is open to some personal feedback. If not, respect that. If so, try responses like these if they feel right...

"(Name), when you chuckle so much / avoid eye contact / apologize so often / slump / put yourself down / etc. I feel _________________."

"You seem to feel 1-down / uneasy / self-doubting / apologetic / self-critical / when we're together (or in general)."

"Why are you apologizing? You haven't bothered me."

"(Name), when you often have trouble giving me eye contact, I feel __________."

"Do you know that I respect you as a dignified, worthy person?"

"I feel at times you have trouble respecting yourself. (Is that so?)"

"Am I doing anything that makes you feel 1-down / put down / uncomfortable?"

"(Name), who do you feel most comfortable with?  Least comfortable?"

"I'm sad you have trouble recognizing and enjoying your talents and gifts."

"In your experience, how do people gain self respect and self confidence?"

  • Overall, remind yourself of these ageless wisdoms. 

      How do these responses compare with your normal way of reacting to "inferiority"? Notice the pattern: these responses are brief, direct, sincere, honest, and respectful. No long explanations, illustrations, apologies, shoulds, ought to's, need to's, have to's, or moralizing. How do you feel a shame-based person would react to responses like these?


      This is one of a series of illustrations on effective responses to annoying social behaviors. This article offers ways of understanding and responding effectively to someone who feels local or chronic inferiority. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      See also these effective responses to defensiveness, depression, and insecurity

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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