What Is a Superiority Complex?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 27, 2024
3 min read

A superiority complex is a belief that your abilities or accomplishments are somehow dramatically better than other people’s. People with a superiority complex may be condescending, smug, or mean to other people who don’t agree with them. Here’s everything you need to know about superiority complexes and how they affect people.

Superiority complexes were first identified by Alfred Adler, an early psychologist, in his theory of individual psychology. He defined superiority complexes as a reaction to a deep feeling of inferiority. 

The idea behind the theory of individual psychology is that everyone is trying to overcome a sense of inferiority. According to this theory, some people react by working hard to master skills and complete achievements. 

However, people with very strong feelings of inferiority have a hard time convincing themselves that they have actually achieved enough. To compensate, Adler argues that these people play up their accomplishments and opinions to make themselves feel better.

Other psychologists argue that some people with superiority complexes may not be consciously hiding low self-esteem. Instead, these people genuinely believe that they are more successful than others, despite a lack of evidence. This is different from a sense of confidence because these people have not actually had past successes that support their beliefs.

Today, there is no official mental health diagnosis called a "superiority complex". However, this idea can still describe why some people exaggerate their accomplishments and successes.

Whether a superiority complex is a way of covering up your own feelings of inferiority or just an unsupported belief that you’re better than other people, having one is not good for your mental health. Having a healthy sense of self-esteem is important. 

A superiority complex can have two very different effects on your mental health depending on its cause:

Effects of a superiority complex caused by low self-esteem. If you have low self-esteem and try to hide it by exaggerating your accomplishments, you may actually make your self-esteem worse. Studies show that if you brag about your skills but other people learn that you exaggerated, they will think less of you.

If you’re bragging to protect yourself from potential criticisms, this is the exact opposite of what you want. Learning that other people have a negative opinion about you will generally make your self-esteem worse. Unless you change your strategy, this can become a negative cycle that makes your self-esteem get steadily worse.

Effects of a superiority complex caused by high self-esteem. If you have an unrealistically high sense of self-esteem that’s causing your superiority complex, it can still cause negative mental health effects. A superiority complex is likely to make you feel overconfident in your abilities. You may not work hard enough to achieve your goals, and failure may make you feel especially bad.

This type of overconfidence can also push away other people in your life. People with superiority complexes often brag about themselves or put other people down. This can shrink your social circle and make it hard to build a realistic sense of self-esteem.

Both potential sources of an inferiority complex come from an unrealistic perception of yourself. Either you believe that you are less successful than you should be, or that you are more successful than you actually are. Adjusting your self-perception can help you prevent a superiority complex from affecting your mental health and behavior.

Building a realistic sense of self-esteem takes time. Here are some strategies you can use to build healthy self-esteem without putting yourself down or overestimating your abilities.

  • Make a list of your actual accomplishments without exaggerating.
  • Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. If you notice yourself thinking of things as all good or all bad, try to find a balance.
  • Notice how you feel about other people’s accomplishments. Do you feel happy for them or jealous? Try to feel happy for them without feeling bad about yourself.
  • Forgive yourself for mistakes without beating yourself up with negative thoughts.

Finally, never hesitate to reach out to mental health professionals if you feel like a superiority complex is affecting your mental health.