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What is an Inferiority Complex?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An inferiority complex is a mostly unconscious sense of inadequacy which can manifest in strange ways as someone attempts to compensate for it. People with this type of feeling believe that they are not as worthy or skilled as their peers, which can cause considerable psychological distress, whether or not they are aware of these feelings on a conscious level. This psychological condition can be treated through psychotherapy, in which the roots of the complex are explored to help the patient process it and move forward.

The theory of the inferiority complex was proposed in the 1920s by Alfred Adler. Adler believed that everyone started out experiencing feelings of inferiority in childhood, due to the inherently unequal position and psychological dependence experienced by children. As people matured, most managed to move past this sense of inferiority to grow into fully functioning adults, but some became trapped in this mindset, developing an inferiority complex and experiencing a persistent sense of inadequacy.

Someone with an inferiority complex simultaneously wants to be recognized and praised, but also fears humiliation. Many have experienced humiliation in the past, and have built up fears around the idea of being mocked by peers. As a result, overcompensation is common to avoid being humiliated and to establish a barrier between patient and society. Some people overcompensate by becoming shy and engaging in self-diminishment, while others may become aggressive, attempting to overcome their psychological distress by dominating.

Certain events in childhood appear to predispose people to an inferiority complex. People who grow up in lower social classes can be more at risk as a result of torment and discrimination from their peers, whether they are different because of their economic status, religion, or skin color. Upbringing also plays a role; for example, someone with siblings may develop an inferiority complex as a result of being constantly compared, usually unfavorably, with siblings. People with physical or mental disabilities can also develop a sense of inferiority as they attempt to navigate a society which is tailored to the able bodied.

Identifying an inferiority complex can be tricky. It is usually recognized during more general psychotherapy, at which point the therapist can address the issue with the client. People who experience feelings of inadequacy, feel like they have difficulty in social situations, or actively sabotage themselves may benefit from psychotherapy to determine whether or not they have an inferiority complex, and to work through the feelings associated with the complex.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon966995 — On Aug 24, 2014

I think I have an inferiority complex. I feel extremely uncomfortable with certain compliments when it comes to my talents. Singing is the most frequent one. I know I have a good voice from comparing it to other famous singers, and from what others have told me, (however much I feel uncomfortable with it, and it's something I've had to accept if I'm going to be singing for a career). I can't throw out my logic and reasoning that easily, but I still get a ton of anxiety when performing in front of others. Panic attacks used to be frequent, but I learned to suppress them over time.

Another thing is I feel extremely uncomfortable expressing my feelings with anyone I know, particularly with my music. It's a huge, gigantic passion, but I like to keep it under wraps. My choir teacher didn't even know how much I loved to sing until my other choir teacher told her. It's something that has plagued me for years, and I just. I don't know how to overcome it. It's like trying to break down a thick brick wall with your fists.

By anon357279 — On Dec 03, 2013

I think I have a friend who has this. She always acts like she is better than I am.

One time I took a dance class with her, and she was not a dancer at all. But she did it to challenge herself.

After the class, I got the response, "Oh, we found something you are better then me at." I get a fair bit of back handed comments like that. Either those or at times get put down jokingly. I can't believe I put up with it sometimes.

Most the time, I ignore her when she gets like this but lately it has really been irritating me! I'm probably less tolerant of it now I am getting older.

I feel like I can't be myself around her. With my other friends, I can muck around and be silly with them, but this girl seems really uptight and judgmental of what I do. She snaps at me if I do something she does not like or makes me out to be really dumb.

My other friends don't act that way around me or think I am dumb at all, even the other ones that I have known since school. I actually even asked them about it this weekend because this girl's behavior confuses me on that side of things.

I used to be really quiet and shy in school. We have known each other since then. I am not like that anymore though, but do have a feeling she still sees me that way and that plays a part in this as well, I think. It suits the way she is.

She seems to get easily embarrassed by me. It makes me wonder why she even wants to hang out with me at times. Most the time lately she has been the one contacting me because I have been getting over it a bit now and am having second thoughts about the friendship.

These could be signs of inferiority complex. It would make a bit more sense as to why she acts the way she does at times.

By anon287573 — On Aug 26, 2012

To Starjo on Post #8: Consider telling your overweight friend, "You may be surprised how well you could carry that off" when discussing clothing. Or, "Maybe that would not be the best on you, but did you ever consider wearing____________." Just don't say she is fat; she knows that and she realizes you know that.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 17, 2011

@lighth0se33 - Your coworker sounds like the very definition of an inferiority complex. My aunt is a lot like the lady you described, and she suffered abuse from her husband for years.

I would advise you to always be very gentle with her and never point out her communication problem. My aunt had mean coworkers who teased her, and she had to quit her job, which brought on more abuse from her spouse.

In cases like yours, you may never know what brought on her inferiority complex. The best thing you can do is always be accepting of her and help her out in any way you can. Doing this can help make her life so much easier, and she will likely befriend you for life.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 16, 2011

I work with an elderly lady who definitely has a severe inferiority complex. I don’t know what happened to her in her life, but she is so soft spoken that people have trouble hearing her.

Her voice is almost a whisper, and she struggles to get words out. Ironically, her job involves answering the phone. When she has to page someone over the intercom, she almost sounds angry, because she has to spit the words out forcefully.

When she asks me a question, it is usually wrapped in other questions, like, “Do you think this should be spelled like this, or was it, do you think, is it okay to spell it like that?” All of this is delivered in a soft, highly unsure voice.

By shell4life — On Jul 15, 2011

@StarJo - Your friend probably isn’t looking for an objection to her comment. She is probably just damaged from childhood, so she goes ahead and says what children used to say to her before anyone else can say it.

I think the silence that follows such a comment might be good for her. It could give her a moment to reflect on what she just said and to see that no one is going to laugh or say anything hurtful. Maybe, over time, when she learns that your company is a safe place, she won’t make so many self-abasing remarks.

By StarJo — On Jul 15, 2011

I have a friend with an inferiority complex. She is overweight and has been that way since childhood. In school, she often got bullied because of it.

I find it awkward when she and her husband come over to hang out with me and my husband, and she makes a lot of comments about how fat she is. I really don't know how to respond when she says things like, "Oh, I could never wear something like that because I'm so fat." I mean, to tell her she's not fat would obviously be lying, and she would know that.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what to do in this situation? The awkward silence after she makes such a comment feels weird, and I feel almost bad for not saying something. I just don't know what that something should be.

By animegal — On Jul 14, 2011

@oasis11 - Wow the person you have been dealing with reminds me a lot of an acquaintance I have. I find she is always trying to one up me on everything I do. If I travel to a new place she buys a new outfit, if I see someone new, she has to find someone who in her eyes is better. It gets very frustrating that we can't just be two normal people who see one another occasionally.

The oddest thing about the whole situation is that I am not even close to this person. I am really not sure why the feel the need to be competitive with me. I am pretty sure I have never given her a reason to feel she needs to beat me at life, but nonetheless, that is exactly what she tries to do.

By lonelygod — On Jul 13, 2011

I have run into quite a few people in my life that I was sure were suffering from an inferiority complex. I always found them to be surprisingly combative and competitive in order to boost their own self worth. It really seemed to me like everything for them was some sort of game filled with winners and losers.

I have also found the people that I suspect to have an inferiority complex to be pretty aggressive and seem to need to prove other people wrong just to make themselves feel a bit better.

Does anyone have any tips for working with those that clearly have an inferiority complex?

I would really like to keep the peace and be able to complete all of my work without everything being turned into a contest.

By Moldova — On Jul 12, 2011

@Sunny27 - I agree with you, but I also have to say that sometimes a person with an inferiority complex has felt that way for so long that they may really feel like they don’t measure up and usually have really negative attitudes about themselves which are hard to shake.

For example, I know this girl that has a lot of the signs of an inferiority complex. She is very quiet especially in the presence of her mother because her mother is very critical, and the girl feels that she could never say anything in front of her mother that would be of any value so rather than making a mistake she does not talk at all.

This is really sad because people like this miss out on a lot of things because they are so afraid of making a mistake. This girl is only fifteen and I hope that she gets some help. I think that in life the mistakes that we make help us get better so if you never make any mistakes you will lead a very boring life with no major successes because success in born from failure. This is why getting inferiority complex help as soon as possible is so important in trying to live a happy life.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 12, 2011

@Oasis11 - I have known some people like that. I have to say that the best way to overcome an inferiority complex is to learn something new. Developing a new skill or talent overtime does give you some confidence that will help you overcome feelings of inadequacy.

I also think that reaching out to others and trying to do some charitable work will also help because when you do charity work you not only help others but you also feel better about yourself because people are often so grateful for your help.

If you have enough of these types of experiences it might help change the inferiority perception that someone has about themselves. I also think that working with a therapist might be helpful to determine what the cause of the problem is.

Sometimes I think looking back at your past to find out when you started feeling like this can help you realize why you feel the way you do and will make it easier to change and not give the past any more power than it already has.

I think that when we learn from our past, it allows us a chance to start over. For example, if the original source of the problem was a perfectionist parent that was never satisfied, you can learn in therapy that the parent was the one with the flawed thinking and realizing his or her shortcomings is a way to start to heal.

By oasis11 — On Jul 11, 2011

@Subway11 - I know what you mean. I had a friend that was like this, but in addition to the lies that she would make up about herself she would also try to compete with me in every way. For example, when I bought my house a few months later she went ahead a bought an even bigger house.

The same thing happened when I bought my car. When I bought a car, she immediately traded in her car to get something better than what I had. I think that she thought if she had nicer things than I had she would somehow be more superior, but in reality it just proved that she was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.Material things have nothing to do with the type of person that you are which is why these types of people are often misguided.

These are the same people that never really ask how you are doing, or want to know about any positive developments in your life because it would make them feel inadequate. I think that until a person like this, deals with their feelings of inadequacy then it would be really difficult to develop a lasting friendship with them because friendships are about sharing and a give and take in order for the relationship to develop.

By subway11 — On Jul 11, 2011

I think that it may be difficult to have a friendship with someone that has an inferiority complex because things that would be insignificant might make the person with the inferior complex uncomfortable.

I think that people that constantly brag about their accomplishments or even stretch their accomplishments somehow have an inferior complex because they always seem to have to remind others of their worth. They don’t seem comfortable in their own skin.

For example, I had an uncle that always seemed to brag about things that he allegedly did, but later we found out did not happen. He did this to elevate himself in the eyes of others but the problem was that when you found out about the lies it made you not want to be around him. My uncle had a very critical father so I don’t know if this had something to do with the development of his inferiority complex symptoms.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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