Inferiority Complex: Definition, Causes, Signs, & Treatment

Published on: 09 Nov 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
two boys watching a nervous looking girl walk away

Updated on 3/24/2022

We all have times when we feel inadequate or insufficient compared to others, whether that be because we failed to reach our goals at work, scored low on an exam, or feel less accomplished than our peers. As children, we might have compared ourselves next to the straight-A student, or classmates who were faster, or better at singing.

Experiencing inadequacy at times is completely normal, sometimes it can even encourage us to improve ourselves. It’s human to feel a bit inferior at times, and in some ways it can even be necessary and humbling. After all, if you don’t make mistakes and learn from them, you will never be able to grow and improve. 

However, feeling inadequate might lead some of us to become consumed by an all-encompassing sense of failure or low self-esteem that leads to rumination or self-deprecation. Although sometimes a feeling of inferiority can actually push us forward, other times we can become “stuck” in those feelings of inferiority — which can become a major problem. If feelings of personal 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.

What is 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. Those who suffer from inferiority complexes have chronically low self-esteem, often overwhelming themselves with self-deprecating comments, which they convince themselves are reasonable. This phenomenon can be debilitating for those who experience it.

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.” At its core, it is a feeling used to denote a strong sense of being less than. An inferiority complex 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.

Often, inferiority complexes are developed in childhood due to invalidating experiences or being raised in a family that influences you to feel lesser or not good enough. Since inferiority complexes are subconscious and lead to a wide range of negative thoughts, they manifest in people very differently. However, there are still a variety of symptoms that accompany inferiority complexes to look out for.

Causes of Inferiority Complexes

The term “inferiority complex” was coined at the turn of the 20th century by Australian psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler was curious to understand why some people lack the necessary motivations they need to accomplish their goals and laid out his belief that all are born with some amount of personal inferiority, learned in childhood, and that we all have an inborn drive to overcome this sense of inferiority. However, modern psychologists such as James E. Maddux, PhD, largely stray away from the term inferiority complex; an inferiority complex is now clinically referred to as low self-esteem.

Additionally, psychologists today believe that full-fledged inferiority complexes aren’t just based on childhood experiences, but 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

“It can be such a harsh feeling to identify with moments of low self esteem, especially if it calls to mind adverse experiences from earlier in life. But, it is not impossible to boost more confidence by changing the language you use towards yourself. Imparting more positive self-talk can encourage less criticism and help you identify capability instead of defeat.”

Talkspace Therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW 

Signs & 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 would likely be consumed with feelings of low self-esteem and negative self-image. Sometimes a symptom is not so obvious though, especially if you have developed an overcompensating superiority mindset to offset your feelings of inferiority.

Martin E. Ford, PhD, a professor and senior associate dean at George Mason University College of Education and Human Development clarifies that the key to experiencing an inferiority complex is recognizing how you respond to feelings of inferiority. Do they energize you to accomplish your goals? Do they cause you to ruminate? Or do they result in feelings of jealousy, urging you to put down others in order to feel better about yourself? When a negative thought becomes a pattern, that is when the term “inferiority complex” may apply.

If you have this type of mental health condition, 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
  • Assuming the worst
  • Feeling the need to withdraw in social situations
  • Often feeling down on yourself
  • Experiencing anxiety and depression
  • Being sensitive to criticism
  • Not taking compliments seriously

“At times we can feel trapped by isolating negative thoughts about ourselves, especially if we are overwrought by stress. Connecting to therapist can truly help you differentiate between negative patterned thinking and a stressful situation. Anchoring in support can help you feel buoyed by others’ help and help sharpen your own resilience.”

Talkspace Therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW 

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

  • Excessive competitiveness 
  • Perfectionism
  • Attention-seeking
  • Very sensitive to criticism
  • Constantly finding fault in others
  • Finding it difficult to admit mistakes
  • Feeling good about yourself when you’re doing better than others

Treatment for Inferiority Complex

Inferiority complexes can not only hurt you, but those around you as well. Additionally, because the development of an inferiority complex can lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, it’s important to seek a mental health professional if you feel you are struggling with this type of mental health condition or find other effective ways to work through your feelings.

Therapy

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

Together, you and your therapist will work to understand what messages you received as a child about your inadequacies and how you coped in the past. You can discuss any negative thought patterns, and brainstorm ways to reshape your self-image and rebuild your self-confidence.

These conversations can be difficult; 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 from inferiority complexes at times in their life and that it is possible to feel more confident again with in-person or online therapy.

Meditation and journaling

In addition to therapy, it can be helpful to try mindfulness meditation and journaling. Both of these activities can be valuable in helping you get more in-tune with yourself. They will help you begin to understand what some of your thought patterns around your self-image have been and where your feelings of inferiority originate – and you can begin to work toward a healthier and more affirming mindset.

Selflove

Licensed professional counselor, Nickia Lower, MHS, NCC suggests connecting with yourself through positive words of affirmation, which can help you drown out any negative feelings. Positive self-talk can help you uplift yourself whenever you’re feeling down.

Selecting your group

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 with difficult relationships.

The Takeaway

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses; there is no reason why anyone should feel less confident than others. 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 have healthy self-esteem that lets you feel strong, happy, and confident again.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

You May Also Like
woman on the beach on her phone looking away
Read More
Published on: 18 Jun 2019

How to Have a Comparison-Free Summer

Published on: 18 Jun 2019
Sometimes it feels like my friends are out of my league. Among them are doctors, social workers, professors…
wellness trends
Read More
Published on: 11 Oct 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S

Why Following Wellness Trends Isn’t Always Beneficial to Your Mental Health

Published on: 11 Oct 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
Keto. Paleo. Gluten-free. Vegan. Fasting. Four-hour meal windows. Anti-aging creams, hair serums, CBD oil, vitamin water, customized multi-vitamins,…