- What It Really Means To Have An
- What is an inferiority complex?
- What causes someone to develop an inferiority complex?
- How to overcome the complex.
- What is an inferiority complex?
- History of the Term Inferiority Complex
- Definition of an Inferiority Complex
- Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex
- Treatment for Inferiority Complex
- Meditation and journaling
- Inferiority Complex: Definition, Symptoms, & Treatments
- What Is an Inferiority Complex?
- Is an Inferiority Complex a Mental Health Disorder?
- Superiority Complex vs. Inferiority Complex
- Signs of an Inferiority Complex
- Effects of Inferiority Complexes
- Causes of an Inferiority Complex
- History of Inferiority Complexes
- Final Thoughts on Inferiority Complexes
- Signs and Symptoms of Inferiority Complex
- Most Common Symptoms
- Inferiority Complex: The Tendency to Blame Others
- Signs of Being Inferior vs. Feeling Inferior
- Two Types of Inferiority Complex
- Inferiority Complex vs. Superiority Complex
- Recognizing Someone With Inferiority or Superiority Complex
What It Really Means To Have An
Feelings of insecurity are common, but there is a fine line between a sense of humility and a sense of inferiority. The original notion of an inferiority complex was born back in the late 1800s, but today mental health professionals focus on how feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy are symptoms of other, more complicated mental and emotional health concerns.
In This Article
- 5How to heal
What is an inferiority complex?
«An inferiority complex is an intense feeling of personal inadequacy that stems from a belief that the person is deficient or has certain limitations as compared to others,» explains board-certified psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, M.D.
People with this complex often compare themselves with others and consistently believe that they are not good enough, she says. «This is an erroneous belief that the person possesses things that can affect mental well-being and social life. They feel that they will not be able to cope with certain aspects of their life because of some real or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.»
The thought of imminent failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a person struggling with an inferiority complex may completely disregard their positive qualities and self-sabotage.
The term inferiority complex was coined in 1907 by Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who believed that the conscious or subconscious overcompensation for these feelings of inadequacy led to many other mental and emotional conditions.
Adler posited that everyone was motivated to define and achieve their own sense of fulfillment, but to reach that desired point, we all must balance between cooperating with others (family, classmates, co-workers, and society at large) and striving for greater things.
When these elements are off-balance, he posited that it could result in either an inferiority complex, a tendency to over-accommodate and to underestimate our value in comparison to others—or a superiority complex, a pattern of behavior that assumes that a person's abilities and accomplishments are far better than others'.
In the 90 years since Adler first defined the term, our notion of an inferiority complex has evolved. Today, mental health professionals recognize inferiority and superiority complexes as different sides of the same coin, with superiority complexes typically a cover-up for an inferiority complex. According to Arash Javanbakht, M.D.
, a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma & Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University, the term «inferiority complex» is no longer in use in clinical diagnostics either. That said, «extremely low self-esteem, which is not founded in truth or a reasonable cause, is not good—it's never normal.
I would always see it as pathological.»
To figure out if your feelings of self-doubt would be what Adler considered an inferiority complex, it is important to look into the root causes behind the feelings of inadequacy. Javanbakht says that extremely low self-esteem could be correlated with clinical depression or anxiety, which can be treated with talk therapy or medication.
According to Adler's classification, there are two distinct types of inferiority complexes: primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.
According to Gonzalez-Berrios, primary inferiority starts in early childhood as a result of parents or guardians making comparisons between children.
«If one child is constantly reminded of not being adequate or good enough, the child may feel helpless, vulnerable, and anxious. They will develop broken self-esteem, coupled with poor confidence.
This unfavorable comparison gives a perceived sense of inadequacy and scarcity to the child,» she explains.
«The insecurities of early childhood are carried into adult life and can hamper social relationships, workplace adjustment, etc.»
Secondary inferiority is the adult manifestation that may—or may not—be caused by residual feelings from childhood. This type stops people from meeting their goals because it manifests as low self-esteem and debilitating insecurity. A person might struggle to socialize or maintain healthy relationships because of their self-deprecating emotions.
According to Javanbakht and Gonzalez-Berrios, some signs of an inferiority complex or low self-esteem include:
- Extreme insecurities
- Anxiety that may manifest in poor eating and sleeping habits
- Being easily accommodating to others, aka people-pleasing
- Being overly self-conscious and self-critical
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Social phobias or withdrawal
- Unexplained or extreme attachment
- Over-competitiveness with others
- An inability to carry out responsibilities
- Depression, anxiety, and hopelessness
- High and unrealistic expectations for oneself
- Passivity in romantic relationships
- Constant scrutiny in romantic relationships
- Feeling unworthy
- Aggressiveness when feeling disrespected by others
- Fear of making mistakes, aka perfectionism
- Feeling sad and lonely
- Slowed thinking and trouble concentrating
- Feeling nervous and restless
- Heavy breathing and a heightened sense of danger
- Persistent worries
- Eating disorders or body dysmorphia
Gonzalez-Berrios reminds that the effects of an inferiority complex can be difficult to differentiate from its symptoms. Rather than debate which is the cart and which is the horse, she says to keep an eye out for these behaviors and feelings.
What causes someone to develop an inferiority complex?
Understanding when and how these feelings of inferiority developed is key to figuring out how best to remedy them, Javanbakht explains.
Some people have been chronically exposed to comments or circumstances that reinforce their low opinion of themselves, he says.
For example, these opinions could have come from a condition, a learning disability or a physical limitation, that was either never diagnosed or addressed properly.
Being bullied for those limitations could cause a person to develop negative ideas about themselves that are extremely difficult to dismantle. In such a case, a person's belief may be deeply held because their experience reinforces it.
«Our thoughts and our emotions are always linked to each other,» Javanbakht says. «While the reality is that each of us might have a weakness, one may—because of the chronicity of this condition or because of his or her environment—focus too much on that weakness.»
A person's self-judgment may also reflect implicit biases. In spaces where certain racial, gender, body type, or ableist biases prevail, people who do not fit privileged norms or preferential groups find themselves on the outs—regardless of how hard they try or how competitive their skill set.
Constant exposure to situations of structural inequity can make people of different identity groups believe that they are individually flawed or collectively defective.
For example, women in a male-dominated field may regularly get passed up for promotions that their male colleagues easily obtain, and children of color in predominantly white learning institutions may internalize that they are not good enough when curriculums exclude or diminish voices of positive Black and brown historical figures. Prolonged exposure to such situations can lead children and adults to develop learned helplessness and low self-esteem in many facets of life.
How to overcome the complex.
Treatment of the root of the pathology—whether that's anxiety, depression, systemic issues, or something else—will ease symptoms and minimize the effects of low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. Depending on the underlying cause, psychotherapy or medical treatments could really improve a person's quality of life and, thus, their self-perception.
In psychotherapy or talk therapy, a trained psychologist would cultivate a relationship with the person in question and would listen carefully to their self-talk.
A therapist knows how to deal with low self-esteem and they—un well-meaning family and friends—wouldn't just dismiss worrisome inner dialogue.
Instead, psychologists would work with a person to challenge their thinking by providing counterpoints to reconsider the distorted ideas that they carry about their worth, value, or capabilities in comparison to others.
«If they have a more biological reason, then medication can help a lot,» Javanbakht adds, noting that a psychiatrist might be needed to prescribe the best solution.
In addition, Gonzalez-Berrios says learning how to overcome an inferiority complex is all about learning coping skills that will reduce mental discomfort. Some examples:
- Do regular positive self-talk, such as «I am good enough,» «I'm capable of doing many things that others cannot,» or «I can achieve things my own way.» (Just make sure you actually do believe the statements are accurate—otherwise, they won't help!)
- Identify triggers. Then, eliminate those you can control and work with a professional to best address unwanted reactions to situations you cannot control.
- Practice self-love and establish boundaries in relationships.
- Do not compare yourself with others.
- Keep in touch with positive people who can help you develop a positive mindset.
- Be self-compassionate to diminish your insufficient and inadequate feelings.
- Share your views and opinions with others. Be assertive and let people know your worth.
- Face your deepest fears and eliminate them rather than hide from them.
- Manage eating, sleeping, and exercise to stay emotionally balanced.
- If your feelings of insecurity stem from your childhood, consider doing some inner child work to begin healing those early-life wounds.
If the root cause is indeed systemic oppression, taking part in advocacy (and self-advocacy) against social injustice can also support individual and collective healing.
It can be very difficult for a person who has thought of themselves so poorly for a very long time to overcome these feelings easily or quickly. Low self-esteem is always part of a larger ecosystem of conditions, Javanbakht says.
Working with a therapist or psychiatrist can help you uncover the biological or environmental reasons for these feelings of inadequacy.
Also consider that low self-esteem can manifest as everything from anxiety, depression, unhealthy attachments, eating disorders, or self-harm, all of which can be treated and managed under the care of health professionals.
What is an inferiority complex?
We all have times when we feel inadequate. Maybe we even become consumed by a sense of failure or low self-esteem. It’s human to feel this way at times, and in some ways it’s necessary and humbling. After all, if you don’t make mistakes and learn from them, you will never be able to grow.
But sometimes we become “stuck” in those feelings of inferiority — which can become a major problem. When your feelings of inferiority seem to take over your life and make it difficult to function or accomplish your goals, you may be suffering from an inferiority complex.
Although the term “inferiority complex” is often tossed around jokingly in pop culture and is not a mental health diagnosis, it’s still a real phenomenon. This phenomenon can be debilitating for someone who experiences it.
History of the Term Inferiority Complex
The term “inferiority complex” was coined at the turn of the 20th century by Australian psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler believed that we are all born with some amount of inferiority, learned in childhood, and that we all have an inborn drive to overcome this sense of inferiority.
However, psychologists believe that full-fledged inferiority complexes aren’t just childhood experiences, they usually stem from a combination of factors, including:
- Childhood experiences
- Experiences we have as adults
- Personality traits
- Cultural messages we receive about our perceived inadequacies
Definition of an Inferiority Complex
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines an inferiority complex as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” This can be compared to a “superiority complex,” where an individual has an “exaggerated opinion of one’s abilities and accomplishments.”
Of course, when it comes to feelings of inferiority and superiority, it’s a bit of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Superiority complexes are usually formed in reaction to feelings of inferiority — i.e., people who exhibit symptoms of superiority complexes are usually doing so to overcompensate for their deep feelings of inadequacy.
Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex
So how do you know you are experiencing an inferiority complex? Well, usually you would know pretty easily, because you could be consumed with feelings of low self-esteem and negative self-image.
But sometimes symptoms are not so obvious, especially if you have developed an overcompensating superiority mindset to off-set your feelings of inferiority.
If you have an inferiority complex, here are some of the common things you might experience:
- Insecurity and low self-esteem
- Inability to reach your goals, or feeling “stuck”
- Wanting to give up easily
- Feeling the need to withdraw in social situations
- Often feeling down on yourself
- Experiencing anxiety and depression
The following are also signs of an inferiority complex, though they are often mistaken for someone who seems overly confident:
- Highly competitive streak
- Very sensitive to criticism
- Constantly finding fault in others
- Finding it difficult to admit mistakes
Treatment for Inferiority Complex
Because the development of an inferiority complex can lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, it’s important to seek help if you feel you are struggling with inferiority.
Psychotherapy is a great place to start when you are looking to work through your inferiority complex. Your therapist can help guide you through your past experiences with criticism, low self-esteem, or any traumas that may have shaped your negative self-image.
You can look at what messages you received as a child about your inadequacies and how you coped in the past. You can discuss any damaging thought patterns, and brainstorm ways to reshape your self-image and rebuild your self-confidence.
Moving through all of this and facing some of the origins of your inferiority complex isn’t always an easy path, and it can take time to feel you are making progress. Keep in mind that many people have suffered with inferiority complexes at times in their life, and that it is possible to feel more confident again.
Meditation and journaling
In addition to therapy, it can be helpful to try meditation and journaling, as these both can help you begin to understand what some of your thought patterns around your self-image have been — and you can begin to work toward a healthier and more affirming mindset.
Making a conscious goal to surround yourself with more positive and uplifting people can also make a huge difference. Negative or toxic relationships can at times set us up for failure, especially if you are particularly sensitive to people who constantly put you down or if you have a history of difficult relationships.
The bottom line is that living with an inferiority complex isn’t something you have to just put up with. It’s something that you can break free from — and you deserve to feel strong, happy, and confident once more.
This article originally appeared on Talkspace.
Inferiority Complex: Definition, Symptoms, & Treatments
All people have moments of self-doubt, hesitation, and low self-esteem, but for those with an inferiority complex, the struggle is constant and more impactful. An inferiority complex can limit a person’s happiness and well-being, and even lead to depression and suicide. Taking steps to acknowledge and treat an inferiority complex can reduce harm and improve a person’s sense of worth.
What Is an Inferiority Complex?
An inferiority complex is the prevailing feeling that others are better, more accomplished, more attractive, and happier.
With an inferiority complex in place, people chronically struggle to feel positive about themselves, their actions, and their life overall.
All other people seem superior, which results in the individual experiencing a range of unwanted mental and physical health effects.1
An inferiority complex presents in two main ways:1
- Withdrawing from social, occupational, and educational situations due to being overly timid and fearful
- Overcompensating for or masking insecurity by being overly competitive, aggressive, or arrogant
Is an Inferiority Complex a Mental Health Disorder?
An inferiority complex isn’t recognized as an official mental health diagnosis or disorder; however, the condition does create an unwanted influence on the well-being of people.
Note that symptoms of long-term issues with confidence and self-esteem can overlap with an inferiority complex.
For this reason, people should always consult with a mental health professional for individualized assessment and treatment.
Superiority Complex vs. Inferiority Complex
A superiority complex is the opposite of an inferiority complex. Someone with this kind of complex will display an inflated view of their own abilities and achievements. It’s caused by a desire to overcompensate for an inferiority complex, which means that one cannot exist without the other.3
Signs of an Inferiority Complex
Those with an inferiority complex will display signs of the condition in different ways. With the signs of inferiority complex representing the outward presentation of the condition, observers must make assumptions regarding what is occurring under the surface.
Signs of an inferiority complex include:4,5
- Poor eye contact, soft tone of voice, and passive communication style
- Signs linked to depression low motivation, low energy, and irritability
- Quick and unexpected mood changes
- Poor sleep schedules
- Few relationships or relationships where the person bends to the whims of others
- An inability to give self compliments
- Downplays accomplishments and positive qualities
Alternatively, a person with a superiority complex triggered by inferiority will present with the opposite signs. They will display an elevated self-worth, a level of grandiosity, and consistent boasting about their abilities. Some may understand the overcompensation, while others may not realize it stems from an underlying sense of inferiority.
Effects of Inferiority Complexes
Depending on its severity, an inferiority complex has the potential to substantially impact the way a person performs and functions in all phases or areas of their life, including work, romantic relationships, home life, education, and friendships. With any type of relationship, a person with an inferiority complex may go along with whatever the other proposes. This acquiescence can result in the sacrifice of their needs, wants, and goals.
A similar pattern can occur in the workplace as the people with the complex may never accept or take credit for their accomplishments and hard work. Over time, their perceived value will diminish to themselves and the organization, so they will be passed over for raises and promotions.
One of the most serious effects of an inferiority complex is an increased risk of suicide. Studies indicate that those with strong feelings of inferiority have higher rates of suicidal ideation, a state where a person believes they would be better off dead.4
Causes of an Inferiority Complex
Because some life experiences and genetic predispositions seem to impact the emergence of an inferiority complex, its potential causes are numerous. At times, risk factors contribute directly to an inferiority complex; but other times, they produce a mental health condition that indirectly sparks an inferiority complex.
Five factors connected to inferiority complexes are:2,4,5
Early views on inferiority centered on the impact of parenting styles and societal values. A child who becomes a target of a parent’s irritability, sadness, or stress can develop fear, doubt, and uncertainty as a result. As the influence continues, the child may tend toward poor self-esteem, trouble building confidence, depression, and in some cases, a full inferiority complex.6
A similar process is possible when a child is raised to attach feelings of shame and guilt to anything related to sex and sexuality. As they age and begin romantic relationships, an inferiority complex develops due to a lack of positive feelings and practical information about sexuality. This complex could build anxiety, depression, and an extreme level of self-consciousness.6
Just with therapy, medication used to treat an inferiority complex must match the root cause and existing symptoms. Since inferiority complexes can stem from many different causes, medication treatment will vary greatly.
Someone with anxiety-linked inferiority could benefit from various medications that target anxiety to boost their self-worth.
Some medications used for anxiety disorders include antidepressants, anti anxiety medications benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers.
A person who experiences inferiority independent from another mental health issue may not need any medication at all. Ideally, brief psychotherapy can help them adjust their thoughts and behaviors enough to boost their esteem and worth.
If the inferiority complex has another source or is connected to another mental health condition, the treatment plan will change.
The common thread is that no medication can directly treat an inferiority complex, so treatment will aim to manage the harm caused by the other condition.
Journaling may not be the most exciting or compelling way to address a mental health concern, but it is an effective way to manage symptoms and learn more about the underlying issues. Fortunately, journaling is a tool that makes other treatments, therapy, more beneficial.
History of Inferiority Complexes
The notion of an inferiority complex was first introduced by psychologist Alred Alder in 1907, so the term has been used in the field for over a century. Adler was an influential figure in psychotherapy, and though he was a contemporary and follower of Sigmund Freud, he eventually broke away from many of the principles and notions attached to the psychoanalytic mindset.7
Adler may not be a commonly known name in the world of psychology, but many of his ideas and concepts live on. Along with the inferiority complex, Adlerian therapy is linked to the enduring ideas of birth order, compensation, and overcompensation, which are still commonly discussed in current psychology.
Final Thoughts on Inferiority Complexes
Even though the symptoms and struggles of an inferiority complex seem unique, many people battle with it daily. Recognizing the symptoms, confiding in trusted supports, and seeking professional treatment as needed can make all the difference between living with uncertainty and hesitation or confidence and self-worth.
Signs and Symptoms of Inferiority Complex
Chances are you’ve experienced feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty at some point. But if a negative self-image persistently affects your daily life, you might have what’s called inferiority complex.
The condition, which was first introduced by psychologist Alfred Adler in 1907, is characterized by distinct psychological symptoms that interfere with normal activities.
Although not considered a “condition” in modern psychiatry, this mindset is still recognized as a potential source of distress These feelings of not measuring up to others can be real or imagined.
Left unchallenged, they can develop into deeper feelings of inadequacy and cause various other symptoms, according to a study published in September 2014 in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences.
Most Common Symptoms
Symptoms of inferiority complex go beyond occasional bouts of low self-esteem or worries about your abilities; they are persistent. Some common symptoms include:
- Feeling insecure, incomplete, or unworthy
- Withdrawal from everyday activities and social situations
- Comparing yourself with others
- Feelings of hostility, frustration, nervousness, or aggression
- Inability to complete tasks
- Signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders
Sometimes, people with an inferiority complex show signs of being overconfident or narcissistic, but this isn’t really the case. Instead, it’s a way of masking an overwhelming feeling of being inadequate. These symptoms may include:
- Being highly competitive
- Being a perfectionist or sensitive to criticism
- Finding faults in others
- Seeking attention
- Having trouble admitting to mistakes
Individuals with inferiority complex usually have experienced events during their childhood that fuel their symptoms. One isolated episode typically isn’t enough to trigger a long-term disorder. (1,2,3)
Inferiority Complex: The Tendency to Blame Others
Someone with inferiority complex often blames others for their problems and attributes their weaknesses to factors they can’t control, such as how they were raised. Most of the time, such actions are a way to compensate for their negative thoughts of themselves, notes the Depression Alliance. (4)
Signs of Being Inferior vs. Feeling Inferior
Knowing that you’re actually inferior and feeling inferior are two different things. For example, you might realize that someone is taller than you. Or that you’re physically inferior to a professional athlete. These are normal and sensible observations.
But just because you realize you’re inferior to someone in certain ways doesn’t mean it has to make you feel inferior. Internalizing feelings of inadequacy can lead to the obsessive thoughts that might signal an inferiority complex.
Two Types of Inferiority Complex
Adler described inferiority complex as two different types:
- Primary Inferiority This type is thought to start in childhood as a result of feeling helpless and being compared unfavorably with others. It can lead to an inferiority complex in adulthood.
- Secondary Inferiority Then occurs when adults are unable to reach their own subjective goals for security and success. As a result, leftover feelings of inferiority from childhood may intensify, according to GoodTherapy.com. ( 5)
Inferiority Complex vs. Superiority Complex
Even though they’re considered opposing disorders, inferiority complex and superiority complex often overlap and coexist.
Superiority complex means that a person believes they’re superior to others in certain ways. They may boast about themselves and exaggerate their achievements and abilities.
Though these actions may seem incompatible with someone who has inferiority complex, in Adler’s theory of psychology, someone who acts superior is often actually hiding feelings of weakness, helplessness, and dependency. (6,7)
According to Adler’s writings:
“The superiority complex is one of the ways that a person with an inferiority … complex may use as a method of escape from his difficulties. He assumes that he is superior when he is not, and this false success compensates him for the state of inferiority which he cannot bear.
The normal person does not have a superiority complex, he does not even have a sense of superiority.
He has the striving to be superior in the sense that we all have ambition to be successful; but so long as this striving is expressed in work it does not lead to false valuations, which are at the root of mental disease.” (8)
Recognizing Someone With Inferiority or Superiority Complex
Identifying someone with an inferiority or superiority complex can be tricky because their actions don’t always align with their true thoughts and feelings.
Some signs may include:
- They try to make you feel insecure.
- They constantly seek validation from others.
- They always talk about their achievements.
- They complain a lot.
- They’re overly sensitive to criticism.
- They regularly criticize others.
- They have frequent mood swings.
- They often withdraw from social situations.
- They have a hard time admitting that they’re wrong.
- They make themselves the center of attention.
Recognizing that someone you love might have inferiority complex can help you better understand their behaviors. You also might be able to help them through their difficulties and encourage them to seek professional help. (9,10)