What is an Inferiority Complex?

inferiority complex

We all have times when we feel inadequate. Maybe we even become consumed by a sense of failure or low self-esteem. It’s human to feel this way at times, and in some ways it’s necessary and humbling. After all, if you don’t make mistakes and learn from them, you will never be able to grow.

But sometimes we become “stuck” in those feelings of inferiority — which can become a major problem. When your feelings of inferiority seem to take over your life and make it difficult to function or accomplish your goals, you may be suffering from an inferiority complex.

Although the term “inferiority complex” is often tossed around jokingly in pop culture and is not a mental health diagnosis, it’s still a real phenomenon. This phenomenon can be debilitating for someone who experiences it.

History of the Term Inferiority Complex

The term “inferiority complex” was coined at the turn of the 20th century by Australian psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler believed that we are all born with some amount of inferiority, learned in childhood, and that we all have an inborn drive to overcome this sense of inferiority.

However, psychologists believe that full-fledged inferiority complexes aren’t just based on childhood experiences, they usually stem from a combination of factors, including:

  • Childhood experiences
  • Experiences we have as adults
  • Personality traits
  • Cultural messages we receive about our perceived inadequacies

Definition of an Inferiority Complex

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines an inferiority complex as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” This can be compared to a “superiority complex,” where an individual has an “exaggerated opinion of one’s abilities and accomplishments.”

Of course, when it comes to feelings of inferiority and superiority, it’s a bit of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Superiority complexes are usually formed in reaction to feelings of inferiority — i.e., people who exhibit symptoms of superiority complexes are usually doing so to overcompensate for their deep feelings of inadequacy.

Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex

So how do you know you are experiencing an inferiority complex? Well, usually you would know pretty easily, because you could be consumed with feelings of low self-esteem and negative self-image.

But sometimes symptoms are not so obvious, especially if you have developed an overcompensating superiority mindset to off-set your feelings of inferiority.

If you have an inferiority complex, here are some of the common things you might experience:

  • Insecurity and low self-esteem
  • Inability to reach your goals, or feeling “stuck”
  • Wanting to give up easily
  • Feeling the need to withdraw in social situations
  • Often feeling down on yourself
  • Experiencing anxiety and depression

The following are also signs of an inferiority complex, though they are often mistaken for someone who seems overly confident:

  • Highly competitive streak
  • Perfectionism
  • Attention-seeking
  • Very sensitive to criticism
  • Constantly finding fault in others
  • Finding it difficult to admit mistakes

Treatment for Inferiority Complex

Because the development of an inferiority complex can lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, it’s important to seek help if you feel you are struggling with inferiority.

Therapy

Psychotherapy is a great place to start when you are looking to work through your inferiority complex. Your therapist can help guide you through your past experiences with criticism, low self-esteem, or any traumas that may have shaped your negative self-image.

You can look at what messages you received as a child about your inadequacies and how you coped in the past. You can discuss any damaging thought patterns, and brainstorm ways to reshape your self-image and rebuild your self-confidence.

Moving through all of this and facing some of the origins of your inferiority complex isn’t always an easy path, and it can take time to feel like you are making progress. Keep in mind that many people have suffered with inferiority complexes at times in their life, and that it is possible to feel more confident again.

Meditation and journaling

In addition to therapy, it can be helpful to try meditation and journaling, as these both can help you begin to understand what some of your thought patterns around your self-image have been — and you can begin to work toward a healthier and more affirming mindset.

Making a conscious goal to surround yourself with more positive and uplifting people can also make a huge difference. Negative or toxic relationships can at times set us up for failure, especially if you are particularly sensitive to people who constantly put you down or if you have a history of difficult relationships.

The bottom line is that living with an inferiority complex isn’t something you have to just put up with. It’s something that you can break free from — and you deserve to feel strong, happy, and confident once more.

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