Many people have grown up in an environment where their parents, siblings, family members, teachers, peers, and similarly significant persons told them that they are not good enough. Some of these messages are explicit, while others are covert and very subtle, sometimes to the degree where the child is not even aware something wrong is happening.
Here, we will look at four common childhood reasons why a person grows up into an adult who feels or believes they are just not good enough.
1. You were treated like you’re worthless or sub-human
Sadly, many parents and other authority figures see a child as a subordinate or a piece of property. As a result, they treat their child harshly and damage them, sometimes permanently. Often the child is treated as a slave or a pet. They are abused physically, sexually, verbally, and in other ways. Many children are raised in a way so that their main purpose is to meet the parent’s needs and not vice versa as it is actually supposed to be. And if they fail, they are punished, manipulated, shamed, and guilt-tripped into obedience.
Unsurprisingly, such children grow up with a skewed sense of self and a broken self-esteem, all of which manifests in all sorts of psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems.
2. You were held to unrealistic standards and falsely blamed
Adults often hold children to highly unrealistic standards. Standards that they themselves would never be able to meet. One example of this is school: the child is expected to be perfect at every curriculum otherwise they are labeled as “problematic” or “sick” and consequently traumatized further either by punishment, rejection, or medication.
One can find similar examples in a child’s family life where parents expect the child to meet a certain role that they consciously or unconsciously assigned to them. They are also forced to follow nonsensical or even contradictory rules. They are often forced to take responsibility for things they are not responsible for, which leads them into developing chronic guilt and shame that haunts them long into adulthood.
3. You were compared to others
Parents and other authority figures often compare their child to others in order to make them feel bad about themselves and change their behavior. “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?” “Timmy is such a good boy; I wish I had a son like him.” “Suzy is such a nice girl and you’re just a spoiled brat.”
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults, “When caregivers negatively compare their children to others and place them in unnecessarily competitive environments, this adds to the children feeling insecure, cautious, flawed, distrustful, and not good enough.”
Such a person grows up with a compulsion to constantly compare themselves to others and either feels “inferior” or “superior” than others.
4. You were taught to feel helplessness
Some children are raised to stay dependent way beyond their years. They are often infantilized, disallowed to make decisions that they are capable making themselves, and are micromanaged. Without being allowed to experiment, explore, make decisions, and make mistakes, such children grow up believing that they are overly incompetent.
Such a person constantly feels that they have way less control over their life than they factually do because they were meticulously controlled as children. In psychology, this phenomenon is sometimes called learned helplessness.
The underlying mechanism here is that the parent consciously or unconsciously raises the child in a way so that the adult-child won’t become fully independent and will stay close with the parent to continue to meet their needs. This dynamic stems from the parent’s own ancient, unresolved fear of abandonment.
The effects of such childhood environment
As a response to these childhood adversities, people develop various psychological defenses and survival mechanisms. Some become people-pleasers who self-sacrifice because they were raised to take care of others and repress their true needs, emotions, interests, and preferences. Others become highly narcissistic and see other human beings only as objects to use. Others can never stay in the moment or stop to relax, as it always feels like they have to do or have more. Some others get stuck in a constant state of feeling like a helpless victim and live a very passive life.
Something always feels wrong: you feel not enough, your life feels not enough, there is always something to worry about, you always feel you have to try extra hard, it is difficult to find true contentment, and so on.
Most people don’t even recognize their childhood adversity and their inner pain as such. Letting go of old defense mechanisms and roles can be enormously challenging, to the degree that a lot of people are never able to do it. However, those who strive to better themselves and overcome their painful upbringing eventually are able to see some rewards of their strenuous self-work, all of which bring an authentic sense of happiness.
Did you recognize any of this in your own upbringing? How did it affect you? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.