Inferiority complex

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An Inferiority complex is a psychological term used to describe people with intense feelings of inadequacy, often resulting in extreme shyness, self-isolation, or social submissiveness. It often stems from the belief that one is in some way deficient, or inferior, to virtually all others.[1]

According to Alfred Adler, a feeling of inferiority may be brought about by upbringing as a child (for example, being compared to a sibling), physical and mental limitations, or experiences of social discrimination (for example, having limited opportunities due to race, economic situation, or gender).[2]

An inferiority complex may cause an individual to overcompensate for their perceived weaknesses. For example, someone who feels inferior because they are shorter than average may become overly concerned with their appearance - they may go on a strict diet or engage in rigorous exercise, hoping that a slimmer body will make them appear taller. If this is taken to the extreme, it becomes a neurosis.[3]

It may also cause an individual to act out, with behaviors ranging from dramatized attention-seeking to excessive competition and aggression, in an attempt to accommodate for their either real or imagined deficiencies.[1]


According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Psychology, "[i]n Adlerian psychology, a combination of an erroneous belief of an individual that he/she is unable to cope with some aspect of life because of a real or imagined physical or psychological deficiency, feelings of depression, and a cessation of coping efforts in that area". In another sense "A general term for a personal sense of inferiority".[4]


The notion of an inferiority complex was introduced into the psychoanalytic branch of psychology by Alfred Adler, founder of classical Adlerian psychology,[5] paralleling what Pierre Janet had called a feeling of incompleteness (sentiment d’incomplétitude).[6] The idea appears in many of Sigmund Freud's works, but generally to be repudiated as simplistic.[7] It was also used on occasion by Freud's sometime colleague Carl Jung,[8] (who first employed the term complex in general as the denotation for a group of emotionally toned ideas).[9]

Adler considered that many neurotic symptoms could be traced to overcompensation for this feeling of inferiority,[10] as well as such compensatory over-achievements as the oratory of the stammering Demosthenes.[11]

In modern literature, the preferred terminology is "lack of covert self-esteem".[12]


An inferiority complex occurs when the feelings of inferiority are intensified in the individual through discouragement or failure. Those who are at risk for developing a complex include people who: show signs of low self-esteem or self-worth, have low socioeconomic status, or have a history of depression symptoms. Children reared in households where they were constantly criticized or did not live up to parents' expectations may also develop an inferiority complex. Many times there are warning signs to someone who may be more prone to developing an inferiority complex. For example, someone who is prone to attention and approval-seeking behaviors may be more susceptible.

According to Classical Adlerian psychology the second inferiority feeling results when adults feel inadequate from desires to achieve an unobtainable or unrealistic result, "The need for perfection." Stresses associated with feelings of failure and inferiority cause a pessimistic attitude and an inability to overcome difficulties in life.

According to Adler, "Everyone (...) has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development."[13]


Classical Adlerian psychology makes a distinction between primary and secondary inferiority feelings.[citation needed]

  • A primary inferiority feeling is said to be rooted in the young child's original experience of weakness, helplessness and dependency, where there is also a lack of parental acceptance and affection, or an actual constitutional weakness.[14] It can then be intensified by comparisons to siblings, romantic partners, and adults.[15][full citation needed]
  • A secondary inferiority feeling relates to an adult's experience of being unable to reach a subconscious, reassuring fictional final goal of subjective security and success to compensate for the inferiority feelings.[citation needed] The perceived distance from that reassuring goal would lead to a negative/depressed feeling that could then prompt the recall of the original inferiority feeling; this composite of inferiority feelings, i.e. the original feeling recalled due to the secondary feeling, could be experienced as overwhelming. The reassuring goal invented to relieve the original, primary feeling of inferiority (which actually causes the secondary feeling of inferiority) is the "catch-22" of this dilemma. Desperate attempts to obtain therapeutic reassurance and delivery from a depressing feeling of inferiority and worthlessness may repeatedly fail. This vicious cycle is common in neurotic lifestyles.[citation needed]


When an inferiority complex is in full effect, it may impact the performance of an individual as well as impact an individual's self-esteem. Unconscious psychological and emotional processes can disrupt students’ cognitive learning, and negatively “charged” feeling-toned memory associations can derail the learning process.

Hutt found that math can become associated with a psychological inferiority complex, low motivation and self-efficacy, poor self-directed learning strategies, and feeling unsafe or anxious.[16]

In the mental health treatment population, this characteristic is shown in patients with many disorders such as certain types of schizophrenia, mood disorders, and personality disorders. Moritz found that people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia used their delusions as a defense mechanism against low implicit self-esteem.[12] Alfred Adler identified an inferiority complex as one of the contributing factors to problem child behaviors.[17]

Individuals with increased inferiority feelings have a higher tendency toward self-concealment, which in turn results in an increase in loneliness and a decrease in happiness.[18]

Superiority complex[edit]

The counterpart of an inferiority complex, a "superiority complex", is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person's feelings of superiority counter or conceal their feelings of inferiority. Differentiated by Adler from a normal person's strivings for success, the superiority complex is a false assumption of worth, reactive to underlying feelings of inferiority - a form of imposture.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "APA Dictionary of Psychology". Retrieved 2020-11-12.
  2. ^ "Alfred Adler - Individual Psychology | Simply Psychology". Retrieved 2020-07-21.
  3. ^ "Inferiority Complex". (n.d.) In's online glossary.
  4. ^ The Cambridge dictionary of psychology. Matsumoto, David Ricky. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2009. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-511-63499-4. OCLC 495092218.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ R Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 368
  6. ^ E Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (Penguin 1962) p. 399
  7. ^ S Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 2) p 97 and p. 176
  8. ^ C Jung ed., Man and his Symbols (London 1978) p. 51-2
  9. ^ - superiority complex
  10. ^ Inferiority complex. (2013). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
  11. ^ R Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 368
  12. ^ a b Moritz, Steffen; Werner, Ronny; Collani, Gernot von (2006). "The inferiority complex in paranoia readdressed: A study with the Implicit Association Test" (PDF). Cognitive Neuropsychiatry. 11 (4): 402–15. doi:10.1080/13546800444000263. hdl:20.500.11780/3607. PMID 17354078. S2CID 45630645.
  13. ^ Alfred Adler, The Science of Living, Routledge, 2013, pp. 96–97.
  14. ^ R Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 368
  15. ^ Kangata, 2017
  16. ^ Hutt, Guy K. Experiential Learning Spaces: Hermetic Transformational Leadership for Psychological Safety, Consciousness Development and Math Anxiety Related Inferiority Complex Depotentiation. Department of Organizational Behavior, Case Western Reserve University. May 2007 from
  17. ^ Adler, A. The Education of Children. 1930. from
  18. ^ Akdoğan, Ramazan; Çimşir, Elif (2019-10-15). "Linking inferiority feelings to subjective happiness: Self-concealment and loneliness as serial mediators". Personality and Individual Differences. 149: 14–20. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.05.028 – via Elsevier.
  19. ^ H Mosak, A Primer of Adlerian Psychology (1999) p. 82