Understanding An Inferiority Complex: Definitions, Effects, And How To Manage
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the inferiority complex in psychology?
According to the American Psychological Association, an inferiority complex is “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” A sense of inferiority that is long-lasting and seriously impacts your perception of yourself may be a sign of an inferiority complex.
People may develop feelings of inferiority when they lose their job, break up with a romantic partner, or experience other significant life events. Inferiority among university students, high school students, and others in similar situations is also common. Situations in which we feel we have to prove ourselves to others are often the causes behind a sense of inferiority.
While some may be able to work through these sorts of events challenges, people with inferiority feelings or an inferiority complex may see their struggles as a sign of failure. As a result, they may feel more discouraged about achieving their goals and pursuing new opportunities in the future. Inferiority effects on career outcomes, grades, relationships, and other parts of life can be very real and very damaging.
People with an inferiority complex may engage in a cycle in which they expect disappointment and criticize themselves harshly. When an inferiority complex is in full swing, individuals will likely feel as though they’re not genuinely worthy or deserving of good opportunities and success.
Many experts have moved away from using the term inferiority complex and instead describe people with feelings of inferiority as having low self-esteem. Interestingly, it is possible for people with inferiority complexes also to exhibit signs of a superiority complex.
Some people may come across as overly confident to hide the fact that they have an inferiority complex in paranoia. People may also try to show others that they are capable people by being unnecessarily competitive or aggressive. People with an inferiority complex and superiority complex may also show signs of narcissism.
What are the symptoms of an inferiority complex?
The symptoms of an inferiority complex include:
- Fixating on upsetting thoughts.
- Isolating from friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
- Being sensitive towards compliments and criticisms.
- Seeking attention by trying to become the main focus of a conversation.
Signs of depression and inferiority: Depression and inferiority symptoms can overlap, and each phenomenon can also play into the other.
Sometimes, people with an inferiority complex may exhibit signs of overconfidence or narcissism. They might also showcase behaviors typically associated with a superiority complex, like being highly competitive.
Although some may interpret these signs as a superiority complex, the opposite may be the truth. Individuals with inferiority feelings and inferiority complexes may mask their inferiority by overcompensating, especially when their inferiority complex is in full swing.
What causes an inferiority complex?
Many factors can contribute to someone developing an inferiority complex.
People living with an inferiority complex may have developed their sense of inferiority when they were children or may not notice symptoms until adulthood. Inferiority effects and symptoms can significantly impact various parts of life, especially if the inferiority complex is left untreated. These effects can be detrimental if the inferiority complex in paranoia is combined with excessive substance consumption or isolation from others.
It can be helpful and empowering to learn more about the causes of an inferiority complex. Understanding where your feelings come from can help significantly with the recovery process. People may have an inferiority feeling for many reasons, including:
Genetics: Certain behaviors and mental illnesses that may contribute to an inferiority complex are more common in families.
Environmental factors: Sometimes, growing up in an environment full of constant criticism and little praise or recognition for accomplishments can lead an individual to believe they aren’t worthy of success. As a result, they may develop inferiority feelings later in life.
Stressors in Life: Some parts of life are highly stressful, and when circumstances are beyond our control, it’s easy to feel inadequate. Inferiority effects on career outcome, personal relationships, and the opportunities you choose to take advantage of can be significant.
Cultural messages and expectations and mental health conditions also contribute.
How do you cure an inferiority complex?
People can overcome their inferiority complex by learning to believe in themselves and reaching out to others for help. However, there is no set “cure” for feelings of inferiority.
Perhaps the best way to approach one’s inferiority feelings is first to attempt to understand them. Working alongside a mental health professional is a great way to establish a specific and successful treatment plan for you.
Some treatment methods include:
Therapists can help people explore their past and present experiences with inferiority feelings. These sessions are designed to ensure that those living with an inferiority complex can freely speak about said inferiority complexes without fear of judgment.
A specific type of therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be highly beneficial for individuals experiencing feelings of inferiority. With the guidance of a trained professional, individuals can identify their negative emotions and develop skills to manage them. These therapy sessions can target inferiority complexes and allow a person to understand where their inferiority feeling comes from and how to best combat it.
Meditation and Self-Reflection
Another way to describe an inferiority complex is when a person focuses on their past and potential future failures and has a hard time living in the present moment. Meditation can help you find peace and relaxation while distancing yourself from inferiority feelings.
Another self-reflection practice that can help with inferiority is writing in a journal. You can write about an inferiority feeling and describe it in your own words. By identifying these inferiority feelings, you may also develop ways to think more positively or challenge your negative thoughts.
How do you develop self-worth?
You can develop self-worth by believing that you can build self-worth. It’s easy to try and improve self-worth through actions, but behavioral and attitude changes are also important when it comes to boosting your self-confidence.
If you are constantly experiencing inferiority feelings, you can begin to develop your self-worth by trying to be a better person than who you were yesterday. Try new activities, and focus on doing things that make you feel happy and confident, whether it be a hobby, a career, or something else entirely.
You should applaud yourself for trying to improve. By enjoying the small victories, you can beat your inferiority complex and come out on top as being the best possible version of yourself.
- Previous Article
- Next Article