Feelings of insecurity are common, but there is a fine line between a sense of humility and a sense of inferiority. The original notion of an inferiority complex was born back in the late 1800s, but today mental health professionals focus on how feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy are symptoms of other, more complicated mental and emotional health concerns.
What is an inferiority complex?
"An inferiority complex is an intense feeling of personal inadequacy that stems from a belief that the person is deficient or has certain limitations as compared to others," explains board-certified psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, M.D.
People with this complex often compare themselves with others and consistently believe that they are not good enough, she says. "This is an erroneous belief that the person possesses things that can affect mental well-being and social life. They feel that they will not be able to cope with certain aspects of their life because of some real or imagined physical or psychological deficiency."
The thought of imminent failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a person struggling with an inferiority complex may completely disregard their positive qualities and self-sabotage.
The term inferiority complex was coined in 1907 by Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who believed that the conscious or subconscious overcompensation for these feelings of inadequacy led to many other mental and emotional conditions. Adler posited that everyone was motivated to define and achieve their own sense of fulfillment, but to reach that desired point, we all must balance between cooperating with others (family, classmates, co-workers, and society at large) and striving for greater things. When these elements are off-balance, he posited that it could result in either an inferiority complex, a tendency to over-accommodate and to underestimate our value in comparison to others—or a superiority complex, a pattern of behavior that assumes that a person's abilities and accomplishments are far better than others'.
In the 90 years since Adler first defined the term, our notion of an inferiority complex has evolved. Today, mental health professionals recognize inferiority and superiority complexes as different sides of the same coin, with superiority complexes typically a cover-up for an inferiority complex. According to Arash Javanbakht, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma & Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University, the term "inferiority complex" is no longer in use in clinical diagnostics either. That said, "extremely low self-esteem, which is not founded in truth or a reasonable cause, is not good—it's never normal. I would always see it as pathological."
To figure out if your feelings of self-doubt would be what Adler considered an inferiority complex, it is important to look into the root causes behind the feelings of inadequacy. Javanbakht says that extremely low self-esteem could be correlated with clinical depression or anxiety, which can be treated with talk therapy or medication.
According to Adler's classification, there are two distinct types of inferiority complexes: primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.
According to Gonzalez-Berrios, primary inferiority starts in early childhood as a result of parents or guardians making comparisons between children.
"If one child is constantly reminded of not being adequate or good enough, the child may feel helpless, vulnerable, and anxious. They will develop broken self-esteem, coupled with poor confidence. This unfavorable comparison gives a perceived sense of inadequacy and scarcity to the child," she explains. "The insecurities of early childhood are carried into adult life and can hamper social relationships, workplace adjustment, etc."
Secondary inferiority is the adult manifestation that may—or may not—be caused by residual feelings from childhood. This type stops people from meeting their goals because it manifests as low self-esteem and debilitating insecurity. A person might struggle to socialize or maintain healthy relationships because of their self-deprecating emotions.
Signs to look out for.
According to Javanbakht and Gonzalez-Berrios, some signs of an inferiority complex or low self-esteem include:
- Extreme insecurities
- Anxiety that may manifest in poor eating and sleeping habits
- Being easily accommodating to others, aka people-pleasing
- Being overly self-conscious and self-critical
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Social phobias or withdrawal
- Unexplained or extreme attachment
- Over-competitiveness with others
- An inability to carry out responsibilities
- Depression, anxiety, and hopelessness
- High and unrealistic expectations for oneself
- Passivity in romantic relationships
- Constant scrutiny in romantic relationships
- Feeling unworthy
- Aggressiveness when feeling disrespected by others
- Fear of making mistakes, aka perfectionism
- Feeling sad and lonely
- Slowed thinking and trouble concentrating
- Feeling nervous and restless
- Heavy breathing and a heightened sense of danger
- Persistent worries
- Eating disorders or body dysmorphia
Gonzalez-Berrios reminds that the effects of an inferiority complex can be difficult to differentiate from its symptoms. Rather than debate which is the cart and which is the horse, she says to keep an eye out for these behaviors and feelings.
What causes someone to develop an inferiority complex?
Understanding when and how these feelings of inferiority developed is key to figuring out how best to remedy them, Javanbakht explains.
Some people have been chronically exposed to comments or circumstances that reinforce their low opinion of themselves, he says. For example, these opinions could have come from a condition, like a learning disability or a physical limitation, that was either never diagnosed or addressed properly. Being bullied for those limitations could cause a person to develop negative ideas about themselves that are extremely difficult to dismantle. In such a case, a person's belief may be deeply held because their experience reinforces it.
"Our thoughts and our emotions are always linked to each other," Javanbakht says. "While the reality is that each of us might have a weakness, one may—because of the chronicity of this condition or because of his or her environment—focus too much on that weakness."
A person's self-judgment may also reflect implicit biases. In spaces where certain racial, gender, body type, or ableist biases prevail, people who do not fit privileged norms or preferential groups find themselves on the outs—regardless of how hard they try or how competitive their skill set. Constant exposure to situations of structural inequity can make people of different identity groups believe that they are individually flawed or collectively defective. For example, women in a male-dominated field may regularly get passed up for promotions that their male colleagues easily obtain, and children of color in predominantly white learning institutions may internalize that they are not good enough when curriculums exclude or diminish voices of positive Black and brown historical figures. Prolonged exposure to such situations can lead children and adults to develop learned helplessness and low self-esteem in many facets of life.
How to overcome the complex.
Treatment of the root of the pathology—whether that's anxiety, depression, systemic issues, or something else—will ease symptoms and minimize the effects of low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. Depending on the underlying cause, psychotherapy or medical treatments could really improve a person's quality of life and, thus, their self-perception.
In psychotherapy or talk therapy, a trained psychologist would cultivate a relationship with the person in question and would listen carefully to their self-talk. A therapist knows how to deal with low self-esteem and they—unlike well-meaning family and friends—wouldn't just dismiss worrisome inner dialogue. Instead, psychologists would work with a person to challenge their thinking by providing counterpoints to reconsider the distorted ideas that they carry about their worth, value, or capabilities in comparison to others.
"If they have a more biological reason, then medication can help a lot," Javanbakht adds, noting that a psychiatrist might be needed to prescribe the best solution.
In addition, Gonzalez-Berrios says learning how to overcome an inferiority complex is all about learning coping skills that will reduce mental discomfort. Some examples:
- Do regular positive self-talk, such as "I am good enough," "I'm capable of doing many things that others cannot," or "I can achieve things my own way." (Just make sure you actually do believe the statements are accurate—otherwise, they won't help!)
- Identify triggers. Then, eliminate those you can control and work with a professional to best address unwanted reactions to situations you cannot control.
- Practice self-love and establish boundaries in relationships.
- Do not compare yourself with others.
- Keep in touch with positive people who can help you develop a positive mindset.
- Be self-compassionate to diminish your insufficient and inadequate feelings.
- Share your views and opinions with others. Be assertive and let people know your worth.
- Face your deepest fears and eliminate them rather than hide from them.
- Manage eating, sleeping, and exercise to stay emotionally balanced.
- If your feelings of insecurity stem from your childhood, consider doing some inner child work to begin healing those early-life wounds.
If the root cause is indeed systemic oppression, taking part in advocacy (and self-advocacy) against social injustice can also support individual and collective healing.
The bottom line.
It can be very difficult for a person who has thought of themselves so poorly for a very long time to overcome these feelings easily or quickly. Low self-esteem is always part of a larger ecosystem of conditions, Javanbakht says. Working with a therapist or psychiatrist can help you uncover the biological or environmental reasons for these feelings of inadequacy. Also consider that low self-esteem can manifest as everything from anxiety, depression, unhealthy attachments, eating disorders, or self-harm, all of which can be treated and managed under the care of health professionals.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.