What To Know About an Inferiority Complex

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on October 19, 2022
4 min read

Most people experience a sense of inferiority from time to time. When we compare ourselves to people who are highly skilled, such as professional athletes, renowned scientists, celebrities, or more advanced people within our own professions, we may see ourselves as inadequate in comparison. This is normal and motivates us to improve ourselves. However, when those feelings of inadequacy become overwhelming or negatively affect our lives, that may be indicative of an inferiority complex.

According to the American Psychological Association, an inferiority complex is characterized by constant feelings of inadequacy or insecurity in your daily life due to a belief that you are physically or mentally inferior to others, whether such a belief is based on a rational assessment or not.

There are two types of response to an inferiority complex: Either the sufferer becomes so withdrawn that they rarely interact with others, or they overcompensate by becoming excessively competitive in an effort to prove they are not inferior. The second form can also sometimes develop into a superiority complex.

A sense of inferiority is often normal in childhood. Children experience inferiority as a natural way of encouraging them to grow and improve throughout their formative years and become high-functioning adults. Children who are properly nurtured to overcome challenges can move past their sense of inadequacy and learn to accept challenges in life without feeling shame for experiencing difficulty. However, sometimes, these feelings of inadequacy become overwhelming, whether due to trauma, abuse, or mental or physical disability, and they are carried into adulthood in unhealthy ways.

According to Erikson's model of psychosocial stages of development, children who are emotionally or physically abused, especially as punishment for apparent shortcomings, may internalize those sentiments and lose self-esteem. Children who are denied affection, whether because someone like a parent sees them as unworthy or just because the person is physically or emotionally unavailable, may try to earn that affection through achievement. When it is still withheld, the child may feel that they have not earned their parent’s love or attention and experience feelings of inadequacy or inferiority as a result.

Men are particularly susceptible to inferiority complexes, often as a result of so-called “toxic masculinity,” a social phenomenon where men feel that they have to suppress normal emotional responses and become physically, mentally, and financially superior to other men in order to be appropriately masculine. Men are also likely to feel more inferior in romantic relationships, in particular when comparing themselves to their paramour’s past partners.

A certain amount of inferiority even in adulthood is typical, especially when we compare ourselves to people who are highly skilled or intelligent. However, any normal behavior can become abnormal when it is taken to extremes. This is also true of inferiority complexes. People with this disorder experience a sense of inferiority that is overwhelming or detrimental to their everyday functioning.

A person with an inferiority complex is more likely to take risks, abuse drugs and alcohol, and behave aggressively. Those affected are also more likely to experience other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

The primary inferiority complex symptom, though, is low self-esteem, to the extent that some psychologists use these terms synonymously. Negative self-image can lead those with inferiority complexes to become socially distant because they feel like they can’t compare to their peers. It may also lead to a feeling of frustration or hopelessness when it comes to accomplishing goals, or a sense that even if goals are accomplished, that isn’t enough.  

People with inferiority complexes often either come across as extreme overachievers due to an aggressive need to prove they are worthy, or else they may be perceived as underachievers due to a tendency to get overwhelmed or burned out by their failure to attain their own unrealistic standards, instead giving up on their goals entirely.

Superiority complexes are the opposite side of the same coin. Many people who are diagnosed with a superiority complex are actually just overcompensating because, deep down, they feel inferior. They typically become overachievers in an effort to prove their superiority and disprove the belief that they are not good enough.

Inferiority complex treatment is best done with the help of a qualified therapist. The most common type of therapy used for this disorder is known as Adlerian Therapy. First, the therapist will make a diagnosis based on factors such as how often you feel inferior to others, what kinds of goals you have and how attainable they are, and your relationships with others in your community and personal circle.

Next, the therapist may use a variety of mental exercises to help you improve your self-esteem, such as acknowledging previous progress or achievements or helping you expand your interests and social engagement. In many cases, addressing the original source of the feelings of inadequacy can help relieve those feelings and help you move forward, especially in cases instigated by childhood trauma or abuse. 

From there, the therapy becomes more individualized as you create new goals and ways of thinking alongside your therapist. Every person is different and will respond differently to therapy.

If you would like to connect with a therapist for treatment, there are a variety of options, including local practitioners and online therapy services. If you’re not sure where to begin, your doctor may be able to refer you to recommended therapists in your area. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides many resources that can connect people with therapists and support groups.