An inferiority complex refers to basic, chronic feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, whether real or perceived. Constant self-doubt, hesitation, and low-self esteem reduce a person’s overall happiness and well-being, creating a negative cycle that often leads to depression and suicidal tendencies. Acknowledging and treating an inferiority complex is the first step to reducing its effects and restoring self-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 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.
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
History of the Term “Inferiority Complex”
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.
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 like 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.
Inferiority Complex Symptoms
Because people with an inferiority complex tend to become polarized towards either withdrawing or aggressive overcompensation, the complex will present symptoms that may appear contradictory.
Symptoms of an inferiority complex with withdrawal include:4, 5
- Low mood and depression
- Feeling no hope that situations will change or improve
- Low self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence
- Feeling anxious, worried, or inadequate about situations
- Feeling ashamed, guilty, or regretful of choices or actions
- Negative self-talk
Symptoms of an inferiority complex with overcompensation include:4, 5
- Feeling unstoppable and very happy at times
- A fragile sense of self that is significantly harmed by criticism
- A need to be perfect and a desire for perfectionism
- Not believing or dismissing people who offer constructive feedback
With either form of inferiority complex, the outside observer may struggle to understand what is happening to the person internally. Their signs and symptoms can be mistaken for many mental health conditions. For the best outcome, people should discuss their experiences and impressions with others.
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
What Causes 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
- Depression and negative self-talk
- Genetics, having parents or close family members with related mental health conditions
- Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
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
How Long Do Feelings of Inferiority Last?
An inferiority complex has the potential to last a lifetime if left untreated. For some, it lasts a short period of time or it comes and goes based on the situation. There is no specific timeframe as it varies from person to person.
Sometimes it may not be clear that you are dealing with this and learn to cope on your own, but you may not be dealing with the underlying causes of any outward symptoms. It’s important to really work through where your feelings of inferiority come from to be able to move forward with confidence.
Complications of an Inferiority Complex
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.
Trouble at Work
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.
Risk of Developing an Addiction or Substance Use Problem
To cope with an inferiority complex, it is possible that some can develop substance abuse issues. Using substances to cope with symptoms is a common occurrence for those dealing with any kind of self-esteem issues or mood-based conditions.
Risk of Suicide
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
How to Overcome Feelings of Inferiority
The best way to deal with an inferiority complex is to talk with an experienced therapist who can help you gain confidence and self-worth. Journaling, practicing affirmations, and having supportive friends who know what you’re going through can also help you heal.
Whether the feelings of being inferior are connected to a diagnosable mental health condition or not, therapy is a great first option to help address the concerns. Therapists, including psychologists, social workers, or counselors, can help by completing a thorough evaluation to recognize the complex and chart the best course towards improvement.
A person whose inferiority complex results from an anxiety disorder would do well to target the signs and symptoms of anxiety to decrease the impact of inferiority.
In this case, anxiety treatment could involve various therapy styles, such as:6
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
When inferiority complexes stem from faulty beliefs ingrained from childhood and do not create additional mental-health complications, therapists may also use CBT, ACT, and DBT, but the goals of treatment and path towards improvement will vary. During this time, therapy can help challenge the damaging views and work to replace them with healthy alternatives.
Finding a Therapist
A few tips can point someone towards a helpful therapist who can implement an effective treatment plan. Choosing a therapist does not have to be overwhelming. Online directories like Choosing Therapy offer tremendous variety to make the decision easier.
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, like therapy, more beneficial.
Practice Positive Affirmations
There is a lot of power in positive affirmations. Practicing them in a mirror to yourself is a great way to start your day. It gives you a boost of dopamine and gives you the motivation to take on the day.
Select Your Friends Wisely & Ask for Support
It’s important that you have the right type of friends in your life when you are dealing with inferiority complex issues. The right friends lift you up and don’t make you feel inferior to them.
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.