Shame, Perceived Inferiority and Lack of Social Attractiveness as the Cause of Mental Illness

Adler’s theorized that the inferiority complex was central to mental illness, and getting over it was central to recovery – indeed he basically claimed that the purpose of psychotherapy.  Modern research suggests this is true, particularly when inferiority shows up in the form of shame, guilt, lack of dignity, and awareness of low social status.

That’s one of the reasons career has been such a huge focus in my life (for better or worse).  Lack of power and status is deadly, particularly when it is paired with the isolation that is so endemic in modern society. The poor used to at least have the benefit of large families and close social ties (and often a more meaningful connection with religion and/or nature). That has changed over the last few decades – and when we lose our worth and also lose our connections we have a tendency to curl up and die – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.

We need to bounce back, we need to find ways to contribute to society in ways that are valued, at least by someone (if only ourselves, sometimes that’s where it starts) – and to be part of a larger group.


I’ll add some more thoughts later, but for now here’s some journal articles to pique your interest:

Gilbert, P. (1997). The evolution of social attractiveness and its role in shame, humiliation, guilt and therapy. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 70(2), 113-147.

Fears of self-disclosure and vulnerability typically revolve around fears of showing inferiority, and this is typically associated with depression: Cruddas, S., Gilbert, P., & McEwan, K. (2012). The Relationship between Self-Concealment and Disclosure, Early Experiences, Attachment, and Social Comparison. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 5(1), 28-37.

Gilbert, P., Allan, S., & Goss, K. (1996). Parental representations, shame, interpersonal problems, and vulnerability to psychopathology. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 3(1), 23-34.;2-O/abstract

Allan, S., & Gilbert, P. (1997). Submissive behaviour and psychopathology.British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36(4), 467-488.

Catarino, F., Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., & Baião, R. (2014). Compassion Motivations: distinguishing submissive compassion from genuine compassion and its association with shame, submissive behavior, depression, anxiety and stress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(5), 399-412.

Eating disorders are often motivated by an attempt to feel safely attached to and accepted by others by pursuing a socially valued goal. Pinto‐Gouveia, J., Ferreira, C., & Duarte, C. (2014). Thinness in the pursuit for social safeness: An integrative model of social rank mentality to explain eating psychopathology. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 21(2), 154-165.

Shame memories predict present shame and psychopathology, significantly more than other negative emotional memories such as sadness and anger. Matos, M., Pinto-Gouveia, J., & Duarte, C. (2012). Above and beyond emotional valence: The unique contribution of central and traumatic shame memories to psychopathology vulnerability. Memory, 20(5), 461-477.

Early shame experiences (particularly with figures outside the family) have a direct negative effect on adult social rank self-perception, which is mediated by physical appearance: Matos, M., Ferreira, C., Duarte, C., & Pinto‐Gouveia, J. (2015). Eating disorders: When social rank perceptions are shaped by early shame experiences. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice,88(1), 38-53.

Humiliation is a devastatingly powerful emotion: Otten, M., & Jonas, K. J. (2014). Humiliation as an intense emotional experience: Evidence from the electro-encephalogram. Social neuroscience,9(1), 23-35.


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