What Causes A Sense Of Inferiority, And How Can Self-Esteem Be Improved?

By Michael Puskar|Updated July 12, 2022

Have you ever felt that you were not good enough despite the efforts that you put in? You may be struggling with an inferiority complex, which a very common phenomenon that is especially growing in the adolescent age group. [1] However, even though it can happen at a young age, feelings of being inferior can be very persistent, and without help, they might never go away. This article will discuss what causes someone to develop a sense of inferiority and what you can do to address and fix these feelings.

What Causes Someone To Feel Inferior?

People can feel inferior for numerous reasons - perhaps there is a musician who has a virtuosic ability on his or her instrument, or there is a classmate or coworker who has higher academic or work performance, or maybe a person who feels inferior to another based on physical appearance.

It's Possible To Improve Self-Esteem - Let Us Help

Regardless of the cause, an individual's self-esteem can be affected, and if it becomes severe enough or others point it out, it can develop into an inferiority complex. This is a term related to individual psychology that was coined by Alfred Adler when he was studying the development of human personality. Adler believed that feelings of inferiority are universal and involves "a gap between the ability of an individual and the task which he is expected to perform" [2]

However, inferiority complexes, which are considered more persistent and debilitating, stem from "when a person finds himself in a situation where his abilities and attitudes are denigrated or rejected by other people," and it is "a magnification of natural feelings of inferiority and results when strivings to overcome inferiority are greatly hindered" [1].

This is essentially saying that if others say negative things about an individual, this can cause a person to feel self-conscious, inept, and impotent and when attempting to solve their feelings of inferiority, it yields little to no results. Consequently, people who struggle with these feelings may appear overly shy or timid; however, those inferior complexes may even try to overcompensate when doing this and might also come off as aggressive.

It is believed that education as a whole is a major contributor to inferiority developing during puberty, and those who have failed or repeated classes, especially more than once, are prone to having an inferiority complex during adolescence and might form a "non-progressive attitude towards school and peers" [1] Not only can educational performance be a contributor to the problem, but the environment itself can as well - hence why inferior complexes always involve the denigration and rejection from other people. [3]

However, Inferiority does not necessarily need always to involve peers or people around the same age group, and parenting can also contribute to inferiority at a very young age. Excessive and harsh parental demands are a good example of this. [1] If a child gets a B on a test, which is objectively a good, passing grade, his or her parents may ridicule their son or daughter and say comments and questions such as "should have tried harder" and "why didn't you get an A?".

In extreme cases, it can also lead to physical punishment, which is an entirely different topic. However, domestic violence and child abuse can lead to lifelong self-esteem issues and can cause risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors to help find relief for their sense of inferiority and satisfy their anger and frustration. The next section will talk about these issues more in-depth.

The Consequences Of Feelings Of Inferiority

When someone feels inferior, their self-esteem will inevitably drop because they think that he or she is not good enough, either because they are comparing themselves to a different person or because it does not meet another's standards.

The natural response to low self-esteem is to feel frustrated, which is formally described as an emotional state characterized by confusion, annoyance, and anger. Obstacles and interruption of goal-seeking behavior and the failure to meet these goals can make a person feel helpless and frustrated because he or she cannot satisfy their needs. [1]

In the previous section, it was mentioned that aggression is a common trait, but not always, seen in people who constantly deal with feelings of inferiority, and this is because aggression is a direct expression of frustration. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, has stated frustration has four different modes: aggression, resignation, fixation, and regression. [1]

Those who express resignation will find themselves isolating and withdrawing themselves from others and have a lack of interest in their surroundings. They might even try to escape when placed in a social situation. This is why people with inferiority complexes can also be perceived as shy.

When frustrated, people can become fixated and perform behaviors that are "stereotyped and persistent" and can even cause a person to regress and display other signs from earlier developmental stages. [1]

These types of behaviors, especially the aggressive and resignation ones can have severe consequences on a person, and they can facilitate the development of maladaptive behaviors in response to feeling frustrated and hopeless due to low self-esteem. According to Dawes, the link between problematic behaviors and self-esteem and inferiority issues has been established and has been associated with risk-taking, substance abuse, and poor academic achievement. [4]

Substance abuse is extremely problematic, and of great concern, because its use has been growing amongst young people, who will resort to drugs and alcohol to cope with their negative feelings, like shame. Shame and low-self esteem arise from "a disparity between the ideal self and the actual real self, leading to feelings of inadequacy and disgust," which then results in inferiority and powerlessness. [5]

Continued use of substances will more than likely result in addiction because the individual will continue to use them to combat their feelings of inferiority, and the more dependent they become on substances, the less time they are spending developing themselves, and as a sense of self decreases, addiction increases. [6] Addiction does not necessarily need always to be related to substance; rather, it can apply to any activity that can be pleasing such as food, sex, and gambling.

It is human nature for all people to look for ways to reduce negative feelings, and our brains are hardwired to want to experience rewards and pleasure. Addictive behaviors like the ones mentioned above, can provide this, along with some relief. As long as humans continue to exist, people will continue to seek out pleasure since it is a strong biological force; however, it can come with a cost.


The development of inferiority complexes can be complicated, and it has been of interest by psychologists for many decades, but scientists have figured out many mechanisms why people can develop one and exhibit certain behaviors.

At the core of it, self-esteem is the main issue, and thankfully, this is something that can be improved with some time and effort, and with the assistance of others. Inferiority complexes arise from negative feedback from other people, so the reverse will need to be done to fix it.

Friends and family can be supportive; however, in some cases, they can also be the cause of a person's sense of inferiority. Therefore, the help of a therapist may be required for certain individuals who lack an immediate support system around them. No matter who it comes from, though, positive feedback and reassurance will be crucial to making progress.

However, kind words and praise can only go so far, and the individual will need to learn the skills necessary to change their negative thoughts into ones that are positive so that he or she can learn how to value and appreciate his or herself. This is a strategy used by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it has helped people overcome depressive symptoms like worthlessness and hopelessness. Nonetheless, CBT can be applied to any condition where negative thoughts are present, so it has numerous uses.

It's Possible To Improve Self-Esteem - Let Us Help

If you or someone else that you know is struggling with feelings of inferiority and the possible issues that come with it, like risk-taking behaviors and substance abuse, seeking out a therapist immediately is highly recommended. If you are not sure where to begin, ReGain has licensed mental health professionals that are available online to help you or anyone else in need and can be the first major step in overcoming self-esteem issues.

Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into what can cause people to feel inferior to one another. It is a completely normal response to a person's environment and life events, but unfortunately, it can be persistent and problematic for many individuals. Despite this, it is possible to learn how to value yourself and start taking healthier approaches when responding to negative feelings.


  1. Kenchappanavar, R. N. (2012). Relationship between Inferiority complex and Frustration in Adolescents. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(2), 1-5. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e7ed/bbe9b2b3d809449a51f6114eb828ae654b6a.pdf.
  1. Van alphen, Albert William, "A Study of the Effects of Inferiority Feelings on the Life and Works of Franz Kafka." (1969). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 1626.https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/1626
  2. Kabir, Syed Muhammad. (2018). Psychological Well-Being, Inferiority Complex, and Interpersonal Values of the Universities' Students of Bangladesh. 10.13140/RG.2.2.31045.14567.
  1. Dawes,R.M (1994): House of cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy built on myth. New-York Press:Free Press.
  1. Rahim, M., & Patton, R. (2015). The association between shame and substance use in young people: A systematic review. PeerJ, 3.doi:10.7717/peerj.737
  1. Hasper, J. (2013). Adler As a Framework For Understanding Addiction (Unpublished master's thesis). Adler Graduate School. doi:https://alfredadler.edu/sites/default/files/Hasper MP 2013.pdf
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak With A Licensed Therapist
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.