Understanding An Inferiority Complex: Definitions, Effects, And How To Manage

Updated August 17, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Many of us have struggled with our sense of worth at one time or another. We compare ourselves to a colleague, sibling, or friend but can accept our differences and quickly bounce back. Feelings of inferiority are not necessarily negative; they can help enhance our personal growth and motivate us to do better. But when this feeling of inadequacy persists, causes harm, or profoundly decreases the quality of your well-being and life, it may be considered an inferiority complex.

Feeling Inferior Can Be Overwhelming

What Is An Inferiority Complex?

Essentially, an inferiority complex is an intense and fundamental feeling of inadequacy stemming from real or imagined sources. A person who identifies with it struggles with low self-esteem, doubts themselves, and believes they are inferior to or less than others. This idea first appeared in Sigmund Freud's works, and later, Alfred Adler coined the term 'inferiority complex.'

Says Adler, "Everyone … has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development."

According to research by Dove, an inferiority complex and an acute sense of low self-esteem are more common than you may think, with 61% of 10 to 17-year-old girls in the U.K. experiencing low self-esteem. Furthermore, the report found that 9 out of 10 young women will not socialize, participate in activities, or join a team or club if they are not satisfied with their looks.

There are two types of inferiority complexes: primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.

Primary inferiority is experienced when children feel helpless and weak. This is magnifes when they are compared unfavorably to others, like their siblings. This emotional stunting may lead to an inferiority complex when they reach adulthood.

Secondary inferiority happens when an adult cannot achieve the goals they have set to make up for their perceived inadequacy. Examples of this include failure at a job interview or being unable to graduate from university. This can exacerbate feelings of inferiority from childhood and lead to depressed or negative moods.

How Does An Inferiority Complex Develop?

Inferiority complex typically occurs after experiencing trauma or abuse and most commonly finds its roots in childhood, developing over a series of events in early life. How parents treat a child contributes significantly to the onset of an inferiority complex. If the child is being compared to someone and told they are less beautiful, intelligent, or creative than the other person, then this can manifest itself as inferiority in adulthood. Furthermore, if a parent continuously points out a child's failures and mistakes, criticizes them, or is overly strict, this can negatively impact and damage a child's sense of self-esteem and attitude. The child feels as if they are not good enough and will never live up to their parents' expectations, even if they perform well.

A perpetual state of deficiency develops if a person tries to live up to an unrealistic ideal. For example, a person may experience an inferiority complex because they want to look like a supermodel, even though that may be unattainable and cannot be achieved using effort alone.

If someone has a physical defect or disability, such as a speech impediment, deformed body part, or skin disease, this can also trigger feelings of self-doubt. Additionally, being born socially disadvantaged, identifying with a marginalized culture, or living in an impoverished family can exacerbate low self-esteem.

In general, an inferiority complex can occur when an individual is discouraged or living in an invalidating environment. Those who have a poor sense of self-worth, low socioeconomic status, or are depressed are more at risk of developing an inferiority complex.


Inferiority complex is related to other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and is observed in some people with types of schizophrenia and specific personality disorders.

How Does An Inferiority Complex Affect You?

An inferiority complex is the result of unhealthy, damaging, and often false thought processes and beliefs. It is normally a subconscious experience. It prevents someone from functioning healthily within society, and as a result, can be a debilitating and emotionally painful condition.

An individual with inferiority issues often exhibits this by either being extremely asocial or overcompensating in their performance. Even so, they never believe they are good enough and might belittle themselves frequently. The stress of trying to live up to an unrealistic standard can cause them to act out in harmful behaviors that impact their performance and self-esteem and ultimately contribute to a loss of identity in adulthood.

This mental health condition has been shown in studies to disrupt student's cognitive learning and contribute to poor learning strategies and feelings of anxiousness. Adler believed that an inferiority complex was one of the factors that lead to problem child behaviors. Furthermore, low self-esteem has been linked to school dropout rates and low academic achievement.  

One study reported that feelings of inferiority are linked with depression, insomnia, and hostility. It causes an individual to be self-deprecating, and they will only feel good if they are doing better than others. They also have a hard time receiving compliments or praise. Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist, says, "People with an inferiority complex won't be comforted by positive feedback, or if they are, it won't stick for too long."

Other signs and symptoms of inferiority complex include but are not limited to:

  • Abnormally high competitiveness
  • Difficulty carrying out responsibilities
  • Aggression episodes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Isolation and withdrawal from social groups
  • Attention and approval seeking from peers
  • Feeling worthless
  • Intense need for perfection
  • Avoidant behavior, being more comfortable fading into the background
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism and aggression and feeling disrespected
  • A habit of criticizing and demeaning others to feel better about themselves
  • Quickly assuming the worst and expecting negative results
  • A deep fear of making mistakes
  • Projecting fears and negative feelings onto other people or forces
  • Feeling of not being able to overcome difficulties in life

How To Overcome An Inferiority Complex

Although it can be challenging to overcome this psychological condition, healing can start to occur when someone first recognizes and accepts they are living with an inferiority complex. It then takes time to reclaim a healthy sense of self-esteem and engage in the emotional work needed to heal.

Therapy: One of the most effective ways of treating an inferiority complex is psychotherapy. An experienced therapist can help an individual revisit old wounds and reframe negative thought patterns and behaviors that have contributed to their lack of self-esteem. Talking to a trusted professional about fears and frustrations can be highly beneficial and can help someone come to appreciate their unique strengths and gifts.

Going To A Support Group: Going to a peer support group provides an individual with emotional support from others with similar challenges, working together to overcome feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. 

Building Supportive Relationships: Those with an inferiority complex struggle with low self-esteem, so having a group of people who consistently encourage them and remind them of their positive traits can be highly beneficial. Avoiding people who evoke a feeling of inferiority is also important, at least until the individual has regained their self-confidence. Finding support may mean moving out of a toxic family environment.

Feeling Inferior Can Be Overwhelming

Surrounding Oneself with Positive Affirmations: A self-deprecating individual needs plenty of positive influences in their lives. Reading inspirational books and memoirs, listening to empowering podcasts, and watching films that accurately depict mental illness can positivity impact a person’s life.

Setting Boundaries: Creating boundaries is a form of self-compassion and can help an approval-seeking individual break out of old behavior patterns. It is unrealistic and unhealthy for anyone to say yes to everything thrown their way to avoid unnecessary stress and burnout.

Engaging in a State Of 'Flow’: Doing an intrinsically motivated activity or hobby that requires skill and elicits joy has been shown to reduce depression, which is often linked to feelings of inferiority. According to author and research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has studied flow states, this state of awareness is one "in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter at the time, and the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."

Finding Help For An Inferiority Complex

It’s easier than ever to reach out to an experienced professional for help in overcoming feelings of inferiority. Research shows that many people find online therapy is as effective as in person sessions for connecting with a counselor. Working with a therapist online is also more comfortable and convenient for many people because it saves commute time and provides more flexibility about when to schedule a video session, phone call, or send a text. 

The Takeaway

Although feelings of inferiority develop from early, deep-seated beliefs, everyone has a potential and pathway for healing and recovery. With a trusted therapist, a loving support network, and plenty of positive affirmations, an individual who has an inferiority complex can, in time, rediscover and reclaim their inherent worth and value in the world.

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