Inferiority complex: what is it and how to overcome it?

All of us, at some point, have felt insecure, inadequate and incompetent. Especially when we fail to achieve our goals or when we are not so well placed compared to others. However, people with an inferiority complex experience these feelings constantly, which affects how well they function.

According to the American Psychological Association, the inferiority complex is a feeling of inadequacy and insecurity derived from a physical or psychological deficiency which can be real or imaginary. Manifestations can range from withdrawal to overcompensation for feelings of inadequacy.

History of the term

The term was coined by the physician and psychotherapist Alfred Adler in 1907. He believed that we are all born with a certain inferiority, that is, we come into the world feeling incomplete and unrealized.

Well, everything that is before the baby is bigger, better, bigger and more complete than him. However, we have an innate drive to overcome this inferiority. It will depend on experiences during childhood.

Currently, Mental health specialists avoid this term and it is known as low self-esteem. Psychologist James Maddux calls it chronic low self-esteem. It is a situation in which the person insults himself, regrets his shortcomings and believes that self-criticism is reasonable.

What are the symptoms of the inferiority complex?

It is human to feel inferior; what makes the difference is how we respond to these feelings. In other words, do they encourage you to learn and do better? Do they discourage you and make you ruminate on negative thoughts? Do they make you feel jealous of others and put them down in order to feel better about yourself? Do you blame others for things that should be your responsibility?

When insecurity and inadequacy do not motivate you to move on and negative response patterns become constant, then you probably have an inferiority complex.

The most common signs and symptoms are:

  • Constantly focusing on disturbing thoughts.
  • Always assume the worst.
  • Hold back out of embarrassment, guilt or feeling of defeat.
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and other close people.
  • Feeling responsible for deficiencies and other people's mistakes.
  • Constant search for attention.
  • Avoidance of competition or any situation where they can compare themselves to others.
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism.

On the other hand, feelings of inferiority can also trigger compensatory responses, leading to a superiority complex. Although it is considered as an opposite, it is actually the other side of the coin.

For Alfred Adler, superiority complex is a way to compensate for feelings of inferiority. This author claimed that boastful behavior derives from a feeling of inadequacy.

In this way, it is to be expected that people with an inferiority complex hide feelings of superiority. Consequently, the symptoms can also be these:

  • Constantly looking for faults in the others.
  • Difficulty accepting mistakes.
  • Be highly competitive.
  • Blaming others and circumstances for failures, instead of assuming lack of effort.
  • Feeling better about yourself when you are doing better than others.

Inferiority is perceived from different angles and sometimes there is no single cause behind it.

Also read: Need for approval: how to deal with it?

Causes of the inferiority complex

The causes of this complex are multiple and several can coincide in the same person. They range from genetic predisposition to life-long experiences. Identifying them can be of great help to overcome it.

Genetic predisposition

One study found that people who inherited a variation in the oxytocin receptor (hormone that contributes to positive emotions) felt less optimistic, had lower self-esteem and less personal control than those who had a different receptor type.

Mental health

People with a psychological condition are more likely to develop an inferiority complex. Well, it is very likely that they will find it difficult to recognize and refute false or harmful ideas about themselves.

For example, patients with a history of depression and anxiety are more susceptible to developing feelings of inferiority.

Childhood experience

Self-esteem psychologist James Maddux states that the first caregivers have a great influence on the genetic tendency towards inferiority. So the predisposition can be exaggerated or softened.

Parents who are critical and make derogatory phrases towards their children, such as "you're stupid" or "You're not good enough", can cause a deep sense of failure in them, which lasts throughout life.

Also, bullying, teasing, sibling rivalry, and other experiences can develop weakness, feelings of helplessness, and inadequacy.

Body characteristics

Those people who experience or believe they have a physical deficit they are more likely to develop an inferiority complex. For example, the most common are problems with height, weight, vision and speech, or facial and body features.

Social situation

Social disadvantages, such as a low socioeconomic status or belonging to a minority, it can arouse feelings of inadequacy in some people.

Cultural messages and ideals

The media, social media, and other authoritative advertisers they tend to create and reinforce ideals that lead to feeling dissatisfied with ourselves. The most common example is the disclosure of an ideal of beauty that, by not being within these parameters, awakens feelings of inadequacy.

Possible complications for life

People who constantly perceive themselves as inferior often experience significant psychological distress. In some cases, it is possible that it manifests self-injurious behaviors (such as cutting or abusing substances) or suicidal tendencies.

Furthermore, the inferiority complex can be experienced on a collective level. That is, some cultural groups that face biases of race, class, religion, gender, or sexual orientation may experience a pervasive sense of self-defeat or self-loathing.

Discover: Suicide prevention: the importance of acting together

When to see a professional?

The best way to treat the inferiority complex is to assist with a professional. If feelings of inadequacy and inadequacy are constant and upsetting you, don't hesitate to seek help from a mental health specialist. Remember that manifestations can be aggravated, to the point of self-harm or suicide.

In addition, this complex can lead to other more severe disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Or vice versa, it can be a manifestation of them.

Treatments available for inferiority complex

There are effective treatments that allow you to overcome the inferiority complex. Among them is psychological therapy and, in the most severe cases, combination with medications.

Psychological therapy

It is one of the most effective treatments for the inferiority complex. Among the approaches with the most evidence is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which consists of teaching patients to examine their negative feelings and thoughts and gradually change them. According to this approach, cognitive distortions are those that damage self-esteem.

For its part, psychodynamic or conversation therapy has also been effective in treating the inferiority complex. In these cases, a deep understanding of the origin of the feelings is sought. Next, the change of focus is investigated as a way to restore self-confidence and self-esteem


It is used when low self-esteem is accompanied by other more severe disorders, such as anxiety or depression. For this, antidepressants or anxiolytics.

The use of drugs is reserved for severe cases that are accompanied by depression and anxiety.

Tips and recommendations for the inferiority complex

In addition to the relevance of attending with a specialist, here are some tips that can help you overcome the inferiority complex:

  • Avoid people who make you feel bad: there are people, even very close to us, who can incite feelings of inferiority. If you identify them, do your best to stay away from them. Instead, surround yourself with those who accept and love you for who you are.
  • Observe your emotions and try to understand them: when you feel envy, jealousy or sadness pay attention to them. They may be hiding feelings of inferiority.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others: remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses. In addition, each one is unique and independent. Ideally, you should always aim for the best version of yourself and to improve yourself more and more.
  • Meditate: there are meditations aimed at cultivating self-love and towards others. These techniques have been very useful in self-esteem problems.
  • Avoid self-destructive criticism: Keep in mind that we all make mistakes and it is not bad. The ideal is to learn from them and get the most out of it.
  • Don't try to make everyone like you: this is impossible.

The importance of self love

High self-esteem is the foundation of psychological well-being and happiness. To the extent that we value ourselves, we will be better able to achieve all the goals that we set for ourselves and to face the difficulties of life.

Therefore, the inferiority complex should not be underestimated. If you suffer from it, it is time to take action on the matter.