What is Inferiority Complex?

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Practicing self-compassion is one the hardest things to do for a person with an inferiority complex. iStock

One telltale sign of an inferiority complex is constantly comparing yourself to others; another is believing that nothing you do is ever good enough.

Sharing from Everyday Health By Julie Marks Medically Reviewed by Allison Young, MD Reviewed: March 26, 2020

Chances are you’ve experienced feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty at some point. But if a negative self-image persistently affects your daily life, you might have what’s called inferiority complex.

The condition, which was first introduced by psychologist Alfred Adler in 1907, is characterized by distinct psychological symptoms that interfere with normal activities.

Although not considered a “condition” in modern psychiatry, this mindset is still recognized as a potential source of distress These feelings of not measuring up to others can be real or imagined. Left unchallenged, they can develop into deeper feelings of inadequacy and cause various other symptoms, according to a study published in September 2014 in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences.

Most Common Symptoms

Symptoms of inferiority complex go beyond occasional bouts of low self-esteem or worries about your abilities; they are persistent. Some common symptoms include:

  • Feeling insecure, incomplete, or unworthy
  • Withdrawal from everyday activities and social situations
  • Comparing yourself with others
  • Feelings of hostility, frustration, nervousness, or aggression
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to complete tasks
  • Signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders

Sometimes, people with an inferiority complex show signs of being overconfident or narcissistic, but this isn’t really the case. Instead, it’s a way of masking an overwhelming feeling of being inadequate. These symptoms may include:

  • Being highly competitive
  • Being a perfectionist or sensitive to criticism
  • Finding faults in others
  • Seeking attention
  • Having trouble admitting to mistakes

Individuals with inferiority complex usually have experienced events during their childhood that fuel their symptoms. One isolated episode typically isn’t enough to trigger a long-term disorder.

Inferiority Complex: The Tendency to Blame Others

Someone with inferiority complex often blames others for their problems and attributes their weaknesses to factors they can’t control, such as how they were raised. Most of the time, such actions are a way to compensate for their negative thoughts of themselves, notes the Depression Alliance.

Signs of Being Inferior vs. Feeling Inferior

Knowing that you’re actually inferior and feeling inferior are two different things. For example, you might realize that someone is taller than you. Or that you’re physically inferior to a professional athlete. These are normal and sensible observations.

But just because you realize you’re inferior to someone in certain ways doesn’t mean it has to make you feel inferior. Internalizing feelings of inadequacy can lead to the obsessive thoughts that might signal an inferiority complex.

Two Types of Inferiority Complex

Adler described inferiority complex as two different types:

  • Primary Inferiority This type is thought to start in childhood as a result of feeling helpless and being compared unfavorably with others. It can lead to an inferiority complex in adulthood.
  • Secondary Inferiority Then occurs when adults are unable to reach their own subjective goals for security and success. As a result, leftover feelings of inferiority from childhood may intensify, according to GoodTherapy.com.

Inferiority Complex vs. Superiority Complex

Even though they’re considered opposing disorders, inferiority complex and superiority complex often overlap and coexist.

Superiority complex means that a person believes they’re superior to others in certain ways. They may boast about themselves and exaggerate their achievements and abilities. Though these actions may seem incompatible with someone who has inferiority complex, in Adler’s theory of psychology, someone who acts superior is often actually hiding feelings of weakness, helplessness, and dependency.

According to Adler’s writings:

“The superiority complex is one of the ways that a person with an inferiority … complex may use as a method of escape from his difficulties. He assumes that he is superior when he is not, and this false success compensates him for the state of inferiority which he cannot bear. The normal person does not have a superiority complex, he does not even have a sense of superiority. He has the striving to be superior in the sense that we all have ambition to be successful; but so long as this striving is expressed in work it does not lead to false valuations, which are at the root of mental disease.”

Recognizing Someone With Inferiority or Superiority Complex

Identifying someone with an inferiority or superiority complex can be tricky because their actions don’t always align with their true thoughts and feelings.

Some signs may include:

  • They try to make you feel insecure.
  • They constantly seek validation from others.
  • They always talk about their achievements.
  • They complain a lot.
  • They’re overly sensitive to criticism.
  • They regularly criticize others.
  • They have frequent mood swings.
  • They often withdraw from social situations.
  • They have a hard time admitting that they’re wrong.
  • They make themselves the center of attention.

Recognizing that someone you love might have inferiority complex can help you better understand their behaviors. You also might be able to help them through their difficulties and encourage them to seek professional help.

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