“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This quote lived on a wall in my high school, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. (Fact-checking site Quote Investigator says this isn’t something she actually said or wrote in those exact words; however, she did say something kind of like it, with the same core idea, in 1935.)
I used to roll my eyes at it pretty much every time I passed. Because back then the leap from being judged by others to feeling inferior or lesser because of that wasn’t really a leap at all. It didn’t feel like a process or conscious choice. Instead, it was something I’d trip over constantly.
I felt inferior to other people a lot back then, when I was a teenager. And I don’t remember consciously consenting.
Instead, it was something I’d internalized about myself, when I was unaware it was even happening — most likely spurred on by nitpicking from two perfectionist parents and feeling very much like an extra child in a large family.
I was supposed to be a boy, and I had the nerve to be a girl, their third female child in a row. My little brother exists because they were forced to try again, because I’d gone and failed to be male. By the time they got to raising me, my mother was tired of teaching “little girl things” like crafts and sewing — so I was left on my own a lot, to watch bad TV and read books. Meanwhile, my little brother was lavished with attention, so pent up was the demand for “boy activities” like hockey.
I grew up feeling like a second-rate family member. Like my big purpose in life was to stay out of the way and not cause too much trouble.
At a certain point, I managed to fail at that, too (by asking strange questions and writing risque stories).
Predictably, none of this was a strong emotional base to approach the world from. I struggled with feeling inferior to my peers, too — even as I excelled at academics, music, and art. I always felt lesser than other people in a way that was too scary for me to really fess up to or even contemplate for too long back then.
And every day that stupid Eleanor Roosevelt “quote” (which was apparently more of a paraphrase) would remind me — I was complicit in my own suffering somehow. I had clearly consented to it. Because I was certainly feeling inferior.
Finding That “Consent Point” Within Yourself Is Much Harder Than It Sounds
It wasn’t until many decades later that the process became clear to me. That I could slow it all down to the point where I could interrupt it and reason with it.
It wasn’t until many decades later before that point of consent became clear.
And it wasn’t until then that I even had a fighting chance of opting out of those feelings.
Does that mean that I don’t have days when I feel like the scum of the earth because someone has been unkind to me? No. I still have days like that every now and then. But those days are more of the exception and not the rule.
Anyway, if it’s something you’re still struggling with, I just want you to know that it’s hard. Really damn hard. Finding that “consent point” within yourself is much harder than it sounds — particularly if inferiority has become a reflex for you (as it had been for me). And while you might feel like a failure because it’s taking so long, I just want you to know that I’m proud of you for even trying. A lot of people have no idea what this kind of struggle even feels like.