I’ve discussed how and why shame-based personalities tend to fluctuate from one extreme to another, often viewing themselves as either subhuman or superhuman. I’ve also discussed how these extremes often coexist at once in one shame-based individual, leading to codependents with disguised narcissistic tendencies and narcissists with disguised codependent, needy tendencies.
Today I’m going to discuss another manifestation of codependent entitlement: Superior Inferiority. Simply put, Superior Inferiority is when a shame-based person plays games with the aim of proving the superiority of their particular brand of inferiority. The person is out to prove that they have it worse than anyone else on earth who has it bad. It can also be called comparative victimology. In past posts, I’ve discussed how once a person realizes they’ve had subservient tendencies or bad boundaries, it can be seductively tempting to make those traits into their identity and define themselves by them.
One of my favorite books on narcissism is The Object of My Affection Is in My Reflection: Coping with Narcissists by Rokelle Lerner. She has a list of types of narcissists,and goes into the concept of superior inferiority when describing a specific type of narcissist she calls “The Sufferer”:
You mean a sufferer can be narcissistic? Absolutely! For the sufferer, anguish is usually the only focus, the only awareness that makes them unique. Personal identity is constructed around being in pain, or being a victim, or being a survivor. Pain justifies a pervasis self-focus, with parasitic demands and exploitive relationships…
A sufferer often carries around a lot of emotional baggage, but letting go of the past is not an option. Without this history, the sufferer would lose his or her grounding for self-pity. In fact, the art of self-pity is perfected and provides an endless source of raw material.
Naturally, this pain is not ordinary pain. The narcissistic pain of the sufferer is laced with self-important features. “No one has suffered as I have suffered” is this narcissist’s only consolation. There may even be a transcendent dimension with religious meaning to this suffering: God sanctions the pain…
It is important to make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy pain. What needs to be faced may be painful, but this is the way of growth. In contrast, avoiding necessary pain leads to what’s been called “dirty pain.” The sufferer is a master at this kind of endless self-defeating misery. This is the narcissist’s defense against experiencing [healthy] legitimate pain [the kind that is more challenging but leads to more genuine growth – T.] while at the same time getting the attention they feel they deserve.
Eckart Tolle also discusses this. In the book A New Earth, Tolle says:
A very common role is the one of victim, and the form of attention it seeks is sympathy or pty or others’ interest in my problems, “me and my story.” Seeing oneself as a victim is an element in many egoic patterns, such as complaining, being offended, outraged, and so on. Of course, once I am identified with a story in which I assigned myself the role of victim, I don’t want it to end, and so, as every therapist knows, the ego does not want an end to its “problems” becuse they are part of its identity. If no one will listen to my sad story, I can tell it to myself in my head, over and over, and feel sorry for myself, and so have an identity as someone who is being treated unfairly by life or other people, fate or God. It gives definition to my self-image, makes me into someone, and that is all that matters to the ego.
In the book The Power of Now, Tolle says:
The first thing to remember is this: As long as you make an identity for yourself out of the pain, you cannot become free of it. As long as part of your sense of self is invested in your emotional pain, you will unconsciously resist or sabotage every attempt that you make to heal that pain. Why? Quite simply because you want to keep yourself intact, and the pain has become an essential part of you. This is an unconscious process, and the only way to overcome is to make it conscious.
He later says (emphasis added by me):
Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it. Even their – usually unsuccessful search for an answer, a solution, or for healing becomes a part of it. What they fear and resist most is the end of the drama. As long as they are their mind, what they fear and resist most is their own awakening.
This, to me, is one of the dangers of trying to fix and rescue people. Many people don’t want to be fixed or rescued. Yes, they want you to try to fix and rescue them, and they may encourage you to do so, but they are very invested in keeping you from succeeding, and that’s for ego reasons. That’s why I write about codependent entitlement, and the importance of realizing covert narcissism.
There are two reasons they want to avoid letting you fix them. First, they want to prove that their problems are unconquerable, that you aren’t good enough to fix their issues, that their inferiority is “superior” to anyone else’s inferiority issues (they take a perverse pride in how no one else can top their wretchedness). Second, if they allow your solutions to work, in their minds that makes you superior to them. You could figure out the solution to their problem when they couldn’t. So not only is their inferiority not superior to everyone else’s inferiority, since it turned out to have an easy-to-reach solution, but they also have to admit that someone else is better than them for figuring out that solution during a single conversation while they live with this problem 24/7 and couldn’t figure one out. To someone with a big ego, that’s unbearable. Shame-based people would rather preserve their ego and be miserable as a result than let their ego take a hit but be happier in the long run as a result.
Transactional Analysis, the school of psychology created by Eric Berne in his classic book Games People Play discusses this dynamic when describing a game called “Why Don’t You – Yes But.” This website describes the game:
WHY DON’T YOU, YES BUT (YDYB).
…Seven years after Natalie Phistie and Bill Winnerton got married, she and some friends are having a discussion over coffee while her husband is out bowling:
Natalie: “I’m so upset- I just don’t know what to do about Bill. He doesn’t seem to be listening to me anymore and he is always running out on me.”
Friend 1: “Why don’t you sit him down and have a serious talk?”
Natalie: “Yes, I’ve tried that but he won’t sit still.”
Friend 2: “You probably have cabin fever. Why don’t you take a vacation from each other?”
Natalie: “Yes, but we can’t afford it.”
Friend 3: “Well, why don’t you just get a divorce?”
Natalie: “Yes, but what about the kids?”
Friends (thinking): “I give up, this situation is hopeless.. .”
Natalie (thinking): “Nobody can help me.”
As you can see, this conversation is recurring. Natalie has been through it many times; her friends have been through it many times. As a matter of fact, much of their time has been spent playing Why Don’t You, Yes But, and it is the type of conversation which occurs over and over again, especially in therapy groups. It is devious and covert: on the social level, it appears to be a conversation between a person in their Adult ego state asking a question from a group of others who are also in their Adult ego states.
However, you will notice that Natalie does not accept any of the group’s suggestions. The reason for that is that, at the psychological and much more meaningful level, what is really going on is that Natalie is asking for strokes [recognition of her existence - T.] in a devious manner. But she needs a great deal of strokes and therefore must continue to ask for them. Further, because these strokes are being given in a roundabout way they are not as satisfying to either Natalie or her friends as would direct strokes be. This is why the game ends on a note of frustration.
The pay-off of this game is that it proves to Natalie is doomed just as her father said; and it proves to her friends that there is no use trying to help people because they never accept advice anyway.
“Why Don’t You, Yes But” is the preferred game for those trying to establish Superior Inferiority.
UPDATE: I want to add something to this article I forgot to mention when I first published it, but meant to include when originally writing it. Another aspect of superior inferiority can be that the person who refuses to take any advice or allow any advice to work for them, may in turn be a huge advice giver. It’s another superiority game, with two payoffs. First, they have the solution to other people’s problems, but other people never have the solutions to their own problems. Therefore they’re superior to other people in problem solving ability, since they can fix other people’s problems that those other people themselves can’t fix. Second, by showing that their problems have absolutely no workable solutions , yet other people’s problems do have workable solutions, they get to feel superior to other people because their problems are now clearly established to be so much more profound and deeper than any problems other people have.
- The Object of My Affection Is in My Reflection: Coping with Narcissists by Rokelle Lerner
- The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
- A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
- Games People Play by Eric Berne