When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” —Lao Tzu
Internally, deep down, many people have the experience that they are damaged, broken, or simply “not enough.” Such thoughts and the beliefs that fuel them usually have their origins in the messages they received from others starting early in life. How we react in the present is strongly influenced by childhood experiences and internalized beliefs.
These beliefs and the resulting feelings are often so distressing that we protect ourselves by keeping them unconscious. Occasionally, there may be some vague awareness of their existence, but due to the discomfort they generate, they tend to remain hidden—from oneself as well as from everyone else. They also affect (or perhaps infect) most all ongoing relationships.
One way in which beliefs and feelings of inferiority are disguised and kept at a distance is through the defense mechanism of reaction-formation. Reaction-formation protects against too-painful thoughts and feelings by turning them into their opposites—for example, presenting an attitude of arrogance to compensate for underlying feelings of inadequacy—I’m not “less than” others because I am “better than” others!
This occurs whenever we judge others in a negative way: we are implicitly putting them down, making them inferior, and by comparison elevating the way we see ourselves by virtue of being “superior” to them—in a given circumstance, related to a particular quality, or in general.
Feelings of superiority often manifest in the need to be in control over people and situations. The need to control can also be a way of unconsciously compensating for feeling out of control. Attempts to control exist on a broad continuum, from aggressive and overt—threatening, intimidating, arguing, demanding, and asserting, to indirect—manipulating, steering, suggesting, and cajoling.
Frequently, the need to be in control takes the form of a need to “be right.” For some personalities (most of us know at least one), it is standard procedure to exert control through the need to be right, believing and acting as if they know what’s best, regardless of the situation.