You think you’re not good enough.
You’re sure you’re not as worthy as others of things like success or happiness.
It feels like you have to try twice as hard as anyone else to reach your goals.
Does this sound familiar?
If you often think your friends and colleagues are criticising you behind your back, or if you constantly blame yourself and live in fear your weaknesses will be found out, you could have an inferiority complex.
And you’re not alone.
Millions of people feel this way, at least some of the time.
But there’s no need to despair. If you can relate to these feelings, then it’s worth learning more about inferiority complexes.
Because the good news is that inferiority complexes are both understandable and possible to overcome.
You don’t need to believe others are better than you. You don’t need to fear being found out.
You can accept yourself and be proud of the contributions you make.
Let’s learn how.
What is an Inferiority Complex?
An inferiority complex is “a psychological sense of inferiority that is wholly or partly unconscious.” It’s a state of mind where you see yourself as less than others, and this comes to colour all your interactions with family, friends and colleagues.
If you have an inferiority complex, most likely you feel inadequate and not as good as everyone around you.
It often shows up in parenting or intellectual matters. It’s common to be critical of yourself in these areas and more.
Let’s take George as an example. He didn’t get much schooling and always feels nervous in front of his work colleagues. He thinks that he’s not as good as they are and worries that they’ll realise this. He often imagines his colleagues are talking about him behind his back.
George has an inferiority complex.
According to the psychologist Alfred Adler, who coined the term, we all feel inferior as children because we have not yet grown to full independence.
For some children, this feeling is more pronounced, often because their parents neglected or abused them or because of poor academic performance and lack of emotional support.
Sometimes these feelings carry over into adulthood. Adults that suffer from inferiority complexes still have the same feelings of inferiority they had as a child.
Can you see how this works?
Betty’s parents told her she would never amount to much. Now she’s an adult she works in a bank. Yet she still feels inferior to her peers, both inside and outside of work. She’s sure they think she is stupid and laugh about her behind her back. She worries that she’ll make a mistake and her incompetence will get found out.
Could Betty have an inferiority complex? Or does she suffer from low self-esteem?Here’s how to tell.
Inferiority Complex Vs Low Self-esteem
These two terms seem similar, but there is a subtle difference.
You can have low self-esteem but not have an inferiority complex.
When you have low self-esteem, you doubt yourself or your self-worth. You may not feel you have what it takes to achieve your desired life goals.
On some level, you think you’re below a certain societal standard (real or imagined). Either socially, physically or intellectually.
An inferiority complex is when this low self-esteem develops so that your thoughts of self-doubt and inadequacy become all-consuming. Your behaviour is chronically affected.
For example, if you have suffered discrimination based on your race or sex, then you might develop an inferiority complex.
In these cases, you always feel you’re inferior to other ‘superior’ races or the opposite sex, and this frames your general outlook.
The critical point is that if you have an inferiority complex, it affects the way you look at the world.
Both George and Betty, whom we met above, believe that their colleagues and managers think they are stupid and talk about them behind their back. It’s not true, but that’s what they believe.
Tilda grew up in an environment where women got less respect than men. She grew up believing men were superior. Tilda thinks her husband is right in arguments and seldom speaks her mind. She’s afraid her husband might leave her, even though he’s the one who mistreats her.
Tilda is no less of a person than her husband, but that’s not what she thinks and feels. She has low self-esteem, but she also has an inferiority complex. Her thoughts of inadequacy affect her day to day life.
Inferiority Complex Examples, Signs, and Treatment
Let’s look at these three aspects of inferiority complexes.
Different Types of Inferiority Complexes
Inferiority complexes are caused by upbringing, society or physical appearance.
1. Your upbringing will affect you if your caregivers or peers are always disapproving and critical. You may have gotten the constant message that whatever you do is wrong, and you’re never as good as others.
2. Society can affect you if discrimination surrounds you. Many people hold prejudices about sex, race, educational level, wealth, religion or sexual orientation. If you grow up in this environment, it can cause you to feel inferior.
3. Physical appearance may affect you if you feel you’re different from others. For example, if you have burn wounds, skin diseases, or other physical differences, you may never develop confidence. It can also affect people who are conscious about their height or weight.
If you see yourself in any of these situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an inferiority complex, only that you’re more at risk of developing one.
For example, although many people are subject to racial discrimination, more often than not, they do not develop an inferiority complex. Instead, they remain proud of their race and who they are.
Yet if you come to believe you must live up to the standards imposed on you by people of another race, or if you always feel you have something to prove; this could be a sign of an inferiority complex.
So how do you know?
Inferiority Complex Signs
The signs of an inferiority complex include the following symptoms.
1. Everything Must Be Perfect
You feel that nothing you do is good enough, which can be a good thing. It means you always do your best. But the problem occurs when it affects other areas of your life - when your desire to be perfect results in delays, procrastination or neglect of other important things.
2. You Withdraw From Others
Other people make you feel inferior, so you find it best to avoid them. Or you’re afraid that a group will reject you once they see your flaws.
You gradually cut yourself off from friends and avoid making new ones. You avoid getting close to your colleagues and rarely consider starting social hobbies. The less close people are to you, the safer you feel.
3. You Think You’re Different
You think that you’re not like other people in some important ways. Because these differences make you feel inferior, you have trouble making new friends. You focus almost entirely on how you’re different from others as opposed to how you’re similar or your shared experiences. This drives a wedge between you and others.
4. You Criticise Others
Because you feel inadequate, you often have the urge to make others feel bad too. You nit-pick and find faults in others, and you blame others for your mistakes.
You don’t realise that you’re nasty to other people, because you secretly treat yourself in the same way.
5. People Hurt You
Mild criticism hurts. Your skin is thin and you’re prickly.
Even if someone likes you and only wants to help, you still take it severely. You can’t stand people telling you that you’re wrong or that you could improve. People often say that you don’t take feedback well and that you get hurt too easily.
6. You’re Supersensitive
You’re sensitive to what others think, do and say about you. You’re prone to feelings of inadequacy and shame. This affects many of your actions, including how you use social media.
When you post something, for example, you’re always checking to see if people like and comment on what you’ve said. You worry that someone will say something bad about you and you constantly check your feed to see what the response is.
7. You Crave Attention
You go out of your way to get people to say pleasant things about you. You try to be extra helpful, to do exactly as someone else wants, and to make sure you fit in.
You have a strong need for others to love you. You depend on flattery for your happiness.
8. Your Flaws Are Secret
You pretend to others that you’re perfect. No one should know about your flaws. You avoid anything that might make you look bad.
This makes you steer clear of risks. But it also means you feel like you’re putting on a show. You feel a little false, like you’re an actor in a play.
9. You Fear Failure
You feel nervous whenever you have to do something in front of others. You fear failure or others laughing at you. You avoid taking chances and so miss out on opportunities for personal growth.
10. Others Disrespect You
Your low self-esteem means you let others get their way, even if it’s not in your own best interest. You’re afraid to speak up. You often put their needs before yours and neglect yourself. You end up feeling worse about yourself.
But an inferiority complex isn’t the only way feelings of inadequacy can surface.
Inferiority Complex Vs Superiority Complex
The opposite of an inferiority complex is a superiority complex.
If you have a superiority complex, you feel you’re superior to others. You’re overly confident. You think you’re better than others. That others are less physically fit or attractive, less adept socially or intellectually inferior.
Ironically, sometimes a superiority complex can be a mask for an inferiority complex.
In this case, your sense of superiority is false. It is a cover for your low self-esteem. Your false superiority compensates for feelings of inferiority that you can’t bear.
Those with a superiority complex always think they’re better than others and can’t do anything wrong.
Here are some key behaviours exhibited by someone with a superiority complex:
- If someone doesn’t agree with them, they will write the person off as an idiot.
- They lack empathy for other people.
- They always brag and boast about themselves.
- They only care about things that are important to them.
- They are often anxious and experience mood swings.
- They tend to be arrogant and look down on other people.
People with a superiority complex only admit they have a problem when their behaviour causes them to lose everything, and circumstances force them to admit they have a problem. A lot of the time, their drive to prove they are better than others means that they do well financially, which gives their ego some protection.
Inferiority Complex Treatment: 8 Ways to Overcome An Inferiority Complex
An inferiority complex does not need to last forever. It is a pattern of thinking that once served to protect you and kept you from harm, but now it is time to change it.
There are several steps you can take to overcome an inferiority complex. For sure, you can undertake these yourself, but if you’re struggling, consider getting professional help.
You’ll know your succeeding when you start to feel more confident and less concerned with what others think. You won’t be doubting yourself as much or worried that your weaknesses will be found out.
1. Be Kind To Yourself
One of the main ways you can overcome feelings of inferiority is to start practising self-compassion.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. Everyone makes them. Mistakes are how you learn and grow.
Everyone fails from time to time.
If something goes wrong, try to learn from it. Don’t let yourself get caught in a spiral of anxiety and depression.
2. Don’t Let The Past Define You
Whatever happened to you, or whatever you have done, know that it’s in the past.
Forgive yourself for the things you have done wrong. Come to terms with how others have wronged you. In what ways has your upbringing affected you? In what ways were you criticised and made to feel inferior?
Don’t define yourself by the way you were treated. Or define yourself by the mistakes you have made. If you do so, you will never surpass the barriers that others have set for you.
Your father may have thought you’re worthless, but that doesn’t mean you are. Teachers may have called you dumb, but you’re not less worthy of respect than others are.
Don’t let others negative beliefs about you hold you back.
3. Be Strong
Don’t let your weaknesses hold you back.
Don’t focus on what you can’t do or what you do poorly. Don’t compare yourself to others if you can avoid it. Remember that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses.
Focus on the things that you do have and what you can do well. Are there any activities that you like, and you're reasonably good at? What do people compliment you on?
Remember, it’s not about being the best or doing something correctly. It’s about engaging in activities that you find rewarding, and that give you a modest sense of accomplishment.
4. Stand Up For Yourself
Don’t internalise society’s discrimination.
Just because society is narrow-minded and shallow doesn’t mean you have to be.
As hard as it is, you need to rise above the discrimination and not let it affect your character. If you do this, then you’re winning against those who would put you down. You’re defeating the criticism and stereotypes of the chauvinists.
The best way to defeat prejudice is to live life on your terms and learn to be content despite everything stacked against you.
For example, although society has body image ideals such as being tall and skinny, if you are neither of those, this doesn’t make you any less of a person. Ignore society's prejudices and try to be comfortable in your own skin.
5. Build Helpful Relationships
Avoid people who are negative towards you.
Stay away from anyone who is critical and says terrible things about you. Accept constructive criticism from those who have your best interests at heart, but don’t spend time with those who don’t support you.
Choose friendships with people who help you grow and become a better person and who bring the best out in you.
6. Say No
Don’t agree with everyone’s demands. Learn to stop feeling obligated.
You’re not any less competent than anyone else, and you don’t always have to do what they say.
Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that if you say ‘no’, then people won’t like you, or that they’ll abandon you. As long as your demands are reasonable, then your colleagues, friends, and family should respect that. If they don’t and they do cut ties, then you’re better off without them.
The more you say “no”, the more others will respect your time and space. Psychologists call this setting boundaries. Doing so will make you feel more confident.
7. Ask For What You Want
Establish boundaries in your relationships with others and stick to them.
Respect other people’s needs and opinions, but make sure others respect yours' too. Stand up for yourself if someone has wronged you. Leave bad friendships and relationships. Learn to state what you want.
Assertiveness is a skill that you can learn. The more you ask for what you want and say “no” to what you don’t want, the more others will respect you.
8. Become Who You Are
Don’t let society put you down.
If you’re a little different or outside the average range for a particular physical characteristic (height or weight, for example), then don’t let your fears about people’s perceptions get you down.
Most people fear what is different, so have a plan in mind when you go out. Use positive body language and know how to react to staring. Don’t let strangers’ curiosity bother you and try not to be defensive; sometimes people are simply curious.
Inferiority Complex Vs Normal Self Esteem
You might be able to relate to many of the inferiority complex symptoms listed above, or maybe only one or two. You don’t need to have all the symptoms to have an inferiority complex.
Remember this, though:
There is no exact and agreed definition of what an inferiority complex is. It is not something you either have or don’t. Many people exist on a continuum from normal to feeling inferior. Or they may feel inferior in some areas of their life and superior in others.
Moreover, from time to time, everyone feels inferior and making comparisons is normal.
Occasional feelings of inferiority are a normal part of being human.
You only have an inferiority complex if the symptoms present for a long time. Moreover, your sense of inferiority must colour the ways you interact with others. Your belief in your inferiority must be making your life worse in some way, either through increased stress, anxiety and depression or through limiting beliefs that are stopping you reach your full potential.
Learn To Feel Comfortable in Your Skin
There are things you don’t like about yourself.
You may feel sensitive and worry that others can see your flaws.
Now you think about it, these feelings of inferiority may be seeping into other areas of your life. And your feelings of inadequacy may be affecting some of your behaviours.
Go through the post again and look at the eight ways you can overcome feelings of inferiority.
Choose one or two to begin with and work on those. Once you have mastered these points, go onto the next ones.
Keep going until your feelings of inferiority subside.
If you’ve had these feelings for a long time, it could be hard to get rid of them, but it’s possible.
One day you’ll be feeling full of high-self-esteem, well-balanced and optimistic. No feelings of inferiority will remain.
You’ll accept yourself for who you are, have no doubts about yourself and not think others are judging you.
You’ll achieve what you want with grace and passion, never worrying what others think.
Does this sound like an unachievable dream?
You’re not inferior.
It’s time for you to realise this yourself.
So take the first steps today and embrace your new, confident life.
- Stanford University: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/overcoming-inferiority-complex
- Study.com: https://study.com/academy/lesson/birth-order-and-the-inferiority-complex-according-to-adler.html
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferiority_complex
- Taylor and Francis: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00223980