This is what inadequacy feels like to your man

For a moment, I’d like you to picture a mortifying scenario that may or may not have actually happened recently. Imagine that you’re an author and public speaker. Imagine that, hypothetically, you’ve spent fifteen years uncovering ‘aha moments’ about relationships – and that your audiences are usually quite engaged and interested as a result. You love the fact that your listeners leave wanting more!  

Now imagine that you have a brand-new research topic, and you’re invited to share it for the first time with a group of influential leaders. You’re pumped! Even better, in this hypothetical scenario, your research sponsor flies down to be with you, promote your work and cheer you on.

But it doesn’t go according to plan. Instead of engagement, you get confused looks. Instead of energy, you see them deflating, then fidgeting, then they start checking their phones. Everything you usually do to recapture your audience doesn’t work. It’s good information, but you didn’t organize it properly. You’ve lost them. For ninety excruciating minutes, you can practically hear your research sponsor thinking, Oh, no.  

As you can probably tell, this scenario isn’t hypothetical.

As I drove away from that conference an hour later, my emotions were roiling but I couldn’t name what I was feeling. I just felt terrible that I hadn’t delivered the way I wanted to. Even though the event organizer apparently still heard good things afterwards, my research sponsor and I both knew it was a big missed opportunity.

It suddenly hit me: what I was feeling was inadequacy. That sinking, mortified, stirred-up sensation inside me was that of feeling like a failure. That I tried to do something well and failed instead. (My research sponsor insists that it wasn’t a failure, was still great information and a decent start for a new talk, but it sure felt like failure.)

Then the next thought hit me: is this what guys feel like every day??? Holy cow!  

Suddenly, I had two HUGE ‘a-ha moments.’

Only big things trigger that feeling in women – while little things trigger it in men

I spend a lot of time sharing with women my research findings that every day, men have far more vulnerability and self-doubt than we realize. That their greatest question is “Do I measure up? Am I any good at what I do?” And thus that their greatest fear is feeling inadequate. Is feeling like a failure.

But here’s what hit me hard today: For me, like for most women, since my ability to do stuff well isn’t my greatest insecurity, it takes something really big to trigger that really bad feeling. Like a big presentation that doesn’t go well. But for a guy, the smallest things can trigger that really bad feeling. Like his wife asking, “Why on earth didn’t you send the kids to school in warmer clothes? It’s freezing outside!” Or after he cleans up the dishes, watching you put everything back in the dishwasher a different way so it is “done right.” Or a colleague telling him, “Honestly, your deal memo was a bit confusing.”

Cue the same big sinking, mortified, stirred-up sensation that I felt driving away from the conference. I realized: this is what inadequacy feels like regularly for a man!  No wonder we think they are so “over sensitive” to criticism!

See, for me, if Jeff asks me “Why did you do XYZ with the kids?” Or re-does the dishes, I just shrug. I don’t really view it as criticism, and certainly don’t view it as saying that I failed! But that is because I (like most women) don’t have that particular insecurity always running under the surface.  But that insecurity is always there for 75% of men!

My insecurity is different. Mine (as with 82% of women), is not “am I any good at what I do on the outside?” but “am I worthy of being loved for who I am on the inside?” So in my area of insecurity, fairly small things – like an argument with my husband, or him getting angry and shutting down – can trigger a big, unpleasant feeling inside me. (Which my husband, in turn, doesn’t realize, because he doesn’t have that particularly insecurity always running under the surface!)

We can create empathy and intimacy with our man, by remembering this feeling – and building him up instead.

Ladies, I think the key for us is to think of what we felt when we had a major, public, embarrassing failure moment where we wanted to crawl into a hole and die – and realize that that is what our husband feels when we snippily correct his parenting, order him around, or tease him in front of his friends about breaking the kitchen plumbing when he tried to fix the sink.

What a great incentive that is for me to be much more aware of how I am coming across!

And what a great incentive it is to look for ways to build him up when I suspect he’s feeling this way.

Just as I was incredibly grateful for the leader who stopped me after my talk, and said, “I really appreciated your talk; I learned three big things I had never seen before,” your husband will be very grateful for your care in reassuring him.  (“Honey, I’m sorry I’m in turbo mode trying to get out the door. I don’t mean to order you around. However you want to dress the kids is fine. Thanks for doing that.”) Because, remember, he’s not a failure as a father. Or a husband. Or a dishwasher-loader. He may do things differently from you, but he’s a smart man who has a reason for doing things the way he does them.

I will confess, that even after all these years of researching the inner feelings of men, I had never really understood why inadequacy was so painful to them. Not anymore!

As the next step of this ‘aha moment,’ I’m going to explore why this feeling often leads to men simply shutting down.  Stay tuned!

Looking for encouragement for your life and relationships? Learn about the little things that make a big difference in every relationship, from marriages to parenting. Subscribe to updates from Shaunti here!

Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).

Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.

Visit for more.

This article was first published at Patheos.

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  1. One thing I’d like to mention from a husband’s perspective. The positive feedback is absolutely necessary. My wife has never been critical of anything I’ve done but I’ve rarely heard any positive feedback either. In other words, I don’t hear much about anything I do. I’ve often wondered if she is even noticing all the effort I do to make her feel special, serve her, help around the house and help with the kids. At times, I wish she’d say something negative about those things so I’d at least know that she was paying attention to what I’m doing.

  2. I like how the husbands get on here and respond to the posts! It is nice to hear these insights from the husband’s perspective. My husband has said almost verbatim what Daniel mentioned above in his comment. I learned very early on not to nag my husband, so I’m not critical of him like I used to be, but he has said that I don’t ever give him any positive feedback either, such as “Thanks for doing ….” or “I like how you did ….”, etc.

    Now, from a wife’s perspective let me just say that I think positively about my husband all the time because he will stop anything he is doing to help me or the kids (did I mention that he works from home), he is sweet, loving, kind, understanding–more so than me! He is like MacGyver and fixes practically anything with things he has saved from junk, really. He’s a great role model for his children–4 boys and 2 girls. He always fills up my water bottle with ice and water–which, to me, is a loving touch that is over the top in my day–it always brings a smile to my face. I wish I could remember to say something when I am thinking positive thoughts about all the great things he has done during the day, but I honestly forget. I cringe at the thought. So it is not that I run around with no appreciation for my husband, on the contrary. I am just so easily side-tracked by the next thing that needs to get done, that I’m off doing something else and forget my previous thoughts of accolade for my husband.

    Reading Daniel’s comment makes me want to try harder in my positive affirmations by making a daily log of the things I appreciate most about my husband during the day. Maybe this exercise will train my meandering brain to stay focused on what is more important at the end of the day: my husband.

  3. Outstanding insight! I was loved and adored as a child by meticulous women, mother & grandmother, who pushed for ever greater progress on all fronts. In retrospect ( mid 60s, now ) I gave up somewhere around my mid teens.
    I can see now that, perversely, I gravitate towards similar women – to no great success. At least, I assume it is me – it may be that most women are similarly critical – but probably not.

  4. Generalization of males and females. Women feel inadequate too. If my husband redoes my work or asks why the hell I did it my way; I feel inadequate also. Sexist article. It’s not men vs women – it’s people

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