Courageous Love: Overcoming Inferiority and Superiority
Written by Sarah Engelhart, Co-founder of Joan of Sparc
There are certain moments in life when it feels like no matter what I do, some small part of me is vying to be “better than you”. Sometimes, my ego yearns for a sense of feeling superior at all costs. In romantic partnership, the cost is usually a sense of intimacy and authentic connection with the person I love. However, it is in our power to create empowered relationships in our lives, ones that are based on authentic listening, mutual respect and a profound sense of enjoyment of each other.
Exploring the causes of conflict
We all know the superficial high that comes from subtly criticizing someone, pointing out their shortcomings, or silently comparing our own “exquisite taste” to our friend’s or partner’s “unrefined palette”. The other person is slightly diminished, leaving us feeling that familiar twinge of egoic superiority.
Ok, the gig is up, I am calling us out on this counterproductive but strangely addictive interpersonal dynamic.
Behind the scenes, in the depths of the psyche, I suspect there must be some hidden feelings of personal inadequacy that make it more tempting to feel superior to another person. Perhaps somewhere deep inside I am questioning whether the other person really sees my value or whether I really am valuable at all (read: self-doubt). So when the opportunity arises to make myself feel better by believing that the other person is inadequate, it is difficult not to take advantage of it. Empowered relationships are not easy to cultivate, but when we can start listening to, and understanding the emotions underlying our conflicts we can discover ways to live with greater authenticity and connection to those we love.
Are inferiority and superiority actually interconnected?
Honestly, the weird enjoyment that comes from feeling momentarily “better than you”, is so short lived. It even comes along with other undesirable feelings like: disinterest in the other person, disconnection and potentially even dissatisfaction with the relationship. These feelings are the opposite of what I am trying to achieve by feeling superior. I would also argue that insecurity and a sense of inferiority actually get perpetuated for the person who chooses to feel superior. Although we often choose to feel superior as a way of making ourselves feel better about our insecurities, it is a hollow mechanism that only feeds more of our self-doubt and insecurity fostering dependence on needing to find more ways of feeling superior. The two sides of the spectrum (superiority/inferiority) actually seem to be interwoven, like different faces of the same coin.
Is True Love sustainable?
The funny thing about love is that in one moment we have it, and the next we have lost it, but doesn’t have to be this way.
We actually have a choice in the matter of love in our relationships; but it’s difficult to sustain love between two people when we allow ourselves to feel like we are better (or worse) than the other person. It can be hard not to “take the bait” when moments of superiority emerge, but it’s worth trying not to. Not only do our relationships benefit, but so does our sense of self worth. Which is more sustainable? A sense of self esteem that requires others to be” inferior” in order to feel good enough, or a sense of self that is intrinsically valuable regardless of what others around us are doing? Easier said than done, though.
The tricky part is that none of this is new. If you are reading this, you have probably already considered these things and have noticed that judgement, criticism and superiority can suck the life (and love) out of relationships. Clearly it isn’t so easy to break the cycle of inferiority - superiority. But there are things we can do to support our relationships and get more fulfillment out of them.
Questions to cultivate empowered relationships
In moments when I feel particularly egoic and find myself competing with my partner, I try to remember to take a moment of self-inventory and ask myself a couple of questions:
“What is the true source of my value in life?” (Spoiler, it isn’t something I have to prove to anyone).
“Is making myself feel better by being superior in this moment worth feeling more disconnected from my partner/friend?”
“Can I just tell them how I am honestly feeling in this moment and ask to be reminded of my true value?”
There is a high chance that if you are feeling insecure in the moment, you can actually just ask the other person to share a couple things they appreciate about you. Sometimes being reminded of our positive qualities can provide a healing salve for a wounded sense of self. Other times, we do not have the luxury of being reminded of our value from someone we love, but even those moments can help propel us into greater awareness of our self worth by choosing to reclaim it ourselves.
We can practice reclaiming our power and liberating ourselves from the desire to be approved of by others.
My favorite tool for navigating interpersonal dynamics when the waters get choppy is active listening. It is surprisingly empowering to practice active listening in relationships, especially when someone's sense of self worth is compromised. In moments that I find myself susceptible to perpetuating inferiority/superiority dynamics, I try to drop my current perception and just listen to see if I can discover something new.
Navigating the tricks of the mind
When we have strong emotions arise, the mind will often attach to thoughts that validate our hurt feelings. For example, if my husband comes home late from work without texting or calling to let me know, I might feel a little disappointed because I had expected to spend time with him. The sense of disappointment might trigger feelings of insecurity and then my mind will step in to confirm the feelings with thoughts like, "if he really found me interesting or if he really loved me, he would want to come home on time so we can be together." I like to think of this mental mechanism as "finding evidence" to support whatever I am feeling. I consider it a mechanism because the thought is not necessarily true, but it seems so true in combination with my feelings of insecurity in that moment.
I could spend the rest of the night feeling defensive and insecure, trying to make myself feel confident again by criticizing him so I can feel superior... or I can notice the thoughts and emotions going on inside me and make a different choice. This is where active listening is really helpful in cultivating empowered relationships. In order to really listen, I have to let go of my attachment to it being "true" that my husband doesn't really find me interesting because he came home late. If I can do that, I can talk to him about how I am feeling and listen for what is actually true for him. If I am not actively listening to him, then no matter what he says about why he was late, I might hold on to my mental constructions and still think that he doesn't see my value or doesn't really love me.
Catching myself in the moments when I am attached to a thought that validates a sense of insecurity is not easy, but whenever I do it frees me to experience authentic connection and self worth, and prevents me from spending too much of my time suffering with a negative emotional experience.
After listening to my husband fully and sharing my feelings authentically, it is helpful to communicate what my needs or requests are. In the example of him coming home late, I would ask him to let me know if he was going to be late in the future. And if it becomes a recurring issue, I could always address it again and create some new personal boundaries.
Courageous love requires work
Relationships are not one-sided. Self-inquiry, active listening and avoiding inferiority/superiority dynamics are helpful, but require both people to participate. Sometimes there are deeper issues in the relationship and the most appropriate response is to reclaim personal power through creating strong boundaries. If my partner is not respecting me fully, its appropriate to let them know that whatever has become unhealthy does not work for me or just move on from an unhealthy dynamic.
I find it to be radically empowering to become responsible for my experiences and willing to challenge myself when I believe something to be true. Sometimes after investigating a little deeper I discover that what I thought was true was actually influenced by feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. While in other moments, my intuition is accurate and I need to assert greater personal boundaries. In both cases, self-inquiry is key.
When it comes to empowered relationships and maintaining love, the more tools we have to support each other, the better.
However all the tools in the world are meaningless unless you have two people who are authentically willing to connect, be honest with themselves and put love at the center of their lives. With love, all things are possible, even overcoming the greatest difficulties.
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