What Is An Inferiority complex? Signs, Symptoms, Causes And Diagnosis

Have you ever felt ‘less than’ someone else? Have you ever compared yourself to other people, friends or strangers, and believed that you pale in comparison?

Have you ever thought that others have their lives together, know how to be happy, and always reach their goals, but that’s not you?

All of us feel insecure from time to time. It’s natural, but there’s a difference between having some doubts about yourself and feeling utterly inferior to other people.

If you always feel like you’re less than other people, your self-esteem and self-worth are low, and you don’t believe you can reach your goals, you may be living with an inferiority complex.

If so, it’s essential to address it. Living with an inferiority complex is not just a personality trait. It is a toxic self-view that can actually damage your health. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be so harmful.

It’s hard for some people to realize and accept that every one of us is inherently valid and worthy of being here. Continue reading this article to learn more about the inferiority complex, where it comes from, and how to overcome it finally.

What is an Inferiority Complex?

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, an inferiority complex is a ‘basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency, that may result in behavioral expression ranging from the withdrawal of immobilizing timidity to the overcompensation of excessive competition and aggression.’

The term ‘inferiority complex’ was first introduced in the early 20th century by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, founder of Adlerian therapy. According to Adler’s research on personality and the ego, there are two inferiority complexes; primary and secondary.

inferiority complex

Primary Inferiority

A primary inferiority complex stems from a childhood experience where a child feels weak, helpless, or more dependent on a parent or caregiver than the average child.

These feelings cultivate a sense of inferiority, which is exacerbated if parents or caregivers make comparisons between the child and other siblings or other children.

Secondary Inferiority

Secondary inferiority occurs in adulthood. It may manifest as the residual feelings of inferiority from childhood.

One sets up goals, standards, or expectations for themselves, which are subconsciously set to counter the feelings of insecurity or inferiority one experienced in childhood. Secondary inferiority then develops when one fails to reach these goals.

Related: How to Stop Being Insecure in a Relationship: Rebuild your Self Esteem

What Causes Someone to Have an Inferiority Complex?

Like most other mental health issues, inferiority complexes do not have one specific cause but rather several underlying causes.

Trauma or other adverse experiences in childhood can lead to feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem, as can difficult and overwhelming experiences in adulthood.

According to Adler, inferiority complexes are compensatory – the affected person behaves in a way that helps them compensate for their negative self-view.

Mental Health Issues

People who already struggle with low self-esteem and a pessimistic outlook due to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety may be more prone to developing an inferiority complex than people without such conditions.

Mental health conditions can make it harder to challenge the negative thoughts you hold about yourself.

Whether the areas of your life in which you feel inferior are real or imagined, living with a mental health condition can deplete your emotional resilience in the face of such difficult and upsetting thoughts.

Whether you feel inferior or not, it’s important to seek professional help if you’re experiencing depression or anxiety. Though these are the most common mental health conditions worldwide, they often still require treatment.

They are progressive, which means they become increasingly worse until you seek help.

Physical Differences

People who have physical challenges perceive their physicality as ‘less than’ others are more likely to develop an inferiority complex. Common physical points of focus that people feel inferior about include:

  • Height
  • Voice
  • Weight
  • Muscle tone
  • Facial features
  • Strength
  • Fitness

Social Obstacles

People who grew up with social obstacles and disadvantages such as financial struggles or a low socioeconomic status may feel inferior regarding their position in society.

Cultural Factors

Cultural messages such as beauty standards, gender roles, racial stereotypes, age, education, and family background affect how people feel about their lives and their ability to succeed.

For example, a man might feel inferior about his abilities because he compares himself to bigger and physically stronger peers than him. A person who never went to university might feel inferior at work around coworkers who hold degrees.

Often, it is not the specific comparison that sparks the feeling of inferiority, but rather that the current comparison triggers a memory of feeling inferior in childhood, which hasn’t been fully processed and integrated.

According to the New World Encyclopedia, identifying and addressing the root causes of an inferiority complex can help you eventually overcome it and prevent your negative self-view from getting in the way of living a full, happy, and mentally healthy life.

Related: Signs of Emotionally Immature Parents and How to Deal with Them

Do I Have an Inferiority Complex?

If you recognize the following signs in yourself, you may have an inferiority complex. Still, you might exhibit some of the following behaviors or beliefs but not suffer from an inferiority complex.

Signs and Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex

Some of the following are entirely natural feelings, but they should only be temporary. Whether temporary or not, all emotions are valid, but if any of the following apply to your experience, are persistent, and get in the way of your life, it’s time to make a change.

  • Insecurity
  • Low self-esteem, low self-worth
  • Always assuming the worst-case scenario will happen
  • Believing you will fail
  • Feeling unable to reach your goals
  • Harsh self-criticism
  • Experiencing depression and/or anxiety
  • Negatively comparing yourself to others
  • Being unable to accept compliments

The above symptoms of an inferiority complex are an indication that someone lacks confidence.

However, it’s important to understand that even someone who seems highly confident may be struggling with feelings of inferiority.

As mentioned earlier, inferiority complexes involve compensatory behavior. So, a person struggling might display overconfidence or try to one-up others to feel better about themselves. Other, less obvious signs of an inferiority complex include:

  • Being highly competitive
  • People-pleasing
  • Perfectionism
  • Being highly sensitive to criticism
  • Seeking attention
  • Finding and commenting on perceived flaws in other people
  • Feeling confident only when succeeding more than others

Related: How to be Less Self Conscious in 10 Easy to Follow Steps

Inferiority complex? the term means feeling of inadequacy or not being good enough

Inferiority Complex vs. Superiority Complex

A superiority complex is often believed to be the opposite of an inferiority complex. It involves an exaggerated perception of one’s abilities and achievements.

However, the two complexes are not so different. A superiority complex is likely to develop in an attempt to deal with feelings of inferiority. The person may need to believe that they are better than others because they sense that being inferior is too painful to face.

Whether you’re experiencing a superiority complex, an inferiority complex, or general low self-esteem and low self-worth, it’s important to seek support.

These experiences can progress into serious mental health conditions that may be harder to treat if you don’t seek support as early as possible.

Related: Abandonment Issues: Definitions, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Is there Treatment for Inferiority Complexes?

If you’re struggling with an inferiority complex, it’s time to take action. Inferiority complexes are not only harmful to you; they also hurt the people around you.

People with an inferiority complex might behave in ways to make themselves feel better, which can negatively impact those around them. Fortunately, there are some helpful interventions available to help you overcome your feelings of inferiority. 

Therapy

One of the most effective tools for overcoming an inferiority complex is psychotherapy. In sessions with an attuned and compassionate therapist, you can address the root causes of your negative feelings and compensatory behaviors. 

Inferiority complexes involve unhealthy thought patterns and damaging or limiting self-beliefs. A trained therapist can help you reframe your negative thoughts and shift your perspective so that your limiting beliefs stop making you feel so bad about yourself. 

If your feelings of inferiority are based on real deficits of ability, such as poor social skills, a therapist can help you develop the skills you lack to counter your feelings.

However, most cases of inferiority complex stem from perceived inadequacies, whereby a person compares themselves to others or against an unrealistic ideal. 

An inferiority complex may also develop following a single or series of traumatic experiences.

For example, if a child was repeatedly told that they’re not good enough or were compared to older and well-doing siblings, they may come to view themselves as inferior and carry that belief into their adult life.

A therapist can help an adult child of invalidation address what happened in their childhood and viscerally understand the difference between then and now, liberating them from their deeply held beliefs.

Self-help

As a complement to psychotherapy, there are tools and techniques to help you feel better and equal to other people, including:

  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Journaling
  • Practicing self-compassion
  • Hanging out with positive people
  • Exercise
  • Healthy diet
  • Education

All of the above can elicit a massive perspective shift. Exercising, reading, learning, and nourishing your body with healthy food can go a long way in tackling negative thinking patterns and will encourage you to keep looking after yourself.

Meditation and mindfulness can help us become observers of our thoughts, not puppets of them, which can take away a lot of their power.

Hanging out with positive people can teach us that we don’t always have to look at things so negatively.

Related: How to Have a Self Care Day in 7 Simple Steps: Make a Plan Today

The Bottom Line

If you’re feeling inferior, the good news is that you can overcome it. Inferiority complexes are harmful to your health, so it’s up to you to take action and seek help if your feelings of inferiority are impacting your life. You may soon realize that you do not need to feel inferior at all, no matter who you are.

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