"Hurt people hurt people" is a popular saying for a reason. As humans, we tend to treat people the way we've been treated, and whether it's intentional or not, the way we feel about ourselves often plays into how we interact with those around us. When we're truly content with who we are and the lives we've created, it's easier to support and cheer for others. However, when we are dissatisfied, seeing others thrive may be difficult. There might even be a burning desire to minimize or undermine others to make ourselves feel better, also known as a superiority complex.
What it means to have a superiority complex.
A person is said to have a superiority complex when they have an overly exaggerated, confident, or inflated view of themselves. As a result, this may cause them to treat others in ways that are condescending or demeaning, although they don't always have self-awareness to know this is how they are coming across to people, according to licensed mental health counselor Hailey Shafir, M.Ed., LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS.
The term was originally coined in the early 20th century by psychologist Alfred Adler, who believed the complex to be a way of hiding low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or not feeling good enough.
"Superiority complexes usually are defense mechanisms that come from deep personal insecurities, shame, and feelings of being inadequate in some way. Because shame is such a distressing and uncomfortable emotion, a person may use their defenses to hide these feelings from others, deny them in themselves, and avoid having to experience them," Shafir explains.
Notably, a superiority complex is not a clinical mental health diagnosis, but it can theoretically be treated through therapy, according to Sterlin Mosley, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma.
Common signs to look out for:
The need to be in control.
It's not uncommon for someone with a complex to try to force people to do what they want, says counseling psychologist and psychotherapist Shagoon Maurya. If somebody refuses, they may respond with aggression because they feel challenged. For example: Among students doing a group project, someone with a superiority complex would likely be the one who's always trying to delegate tasks and be the leader even though everybody has the same responsibilities.
An overarching belief that you're better than others.
This doesn't mean that if you know you're better than your friend at taking care of plants you have a superiority complex. However, if you start to believe you're not only better than your friend at taking care of plants but everyone around you, even professional horticulturists, you could be dipping into self-inflation or grandiosity.
"Grandiosity about some skills or talents is normal, especially if we really are good at them. But believing oneself to be superior because of increased skill or talent can be an indication of growing narcissism," Mosley says.
Epic displays of anger or contempt when others don't recognize your talent or skill.
Sure, we go through moments where we feel upset or hurt that someone overlooked an important achievement or ignored something we've created. But for someone with a superiority complex, it's a lot more intense.
"For those with superiority complexes, normal annoyance or yearning for recognition devolve into cantankerous criticism or tirades at worst or biting arrogance toward those who don't recognize them as great at best," Mosley says.
Inability to take criticism.
The inability to take criticism or suggestions for change can be a personality trait, but in those with superiority complexes, there is never an instance where they believe criticism could be helpful, valuable, or even true. That growing sense of grandiosity makes taking correction or accurate self-appraisal difficult.
Persistent low self-esteem.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, those dealing with a superiority complex will often have underlying feelings of low self-worth that are actually at the heart of their behavior. There are often deep feelings of inferiority and pain that never seem to go away.
Feelings of entitlement.
Mosley says someone with a superiority complex will often feel that by virtue of their presence in the world, they are entitled to more love, attention, and recognition than the average person. Many times, they attach this to some skill or trait they believe is more valuable than others.
"For example, a woman may become convinced that she deserves a promotion at work over her more productive co-workers because she is more beautiful or intelligent than her co-workers (despite her co-workers having produced more measurable results in recent projects)," he adds.
What causes a superiority complex?
While there isn't a single root cause, there are identifiable links between certain life occurrences and the development of a superiority complex. Our childhood experiences—particularly the things our parents did or didn't do—play a significant role in shaping who we become. Between the ages of 5 and 12, children begin seeking validation, and this stage of development requires careful navigation since one of the most common links is a disruption in a child's early identity formation.
"For example, a child [may] experience trauma relating to their ability to draw well, and other kids or caretakers laugh at the child's artistic skills. While some children may deal with this through retreating into themselves, another child may develop an inflated sense of themselves to compensate for feelings of inferiority," Mosley tells mbg.
This person may have also grown up in a home where their parents showed favoritism or had a "golden child," who was showered with validation and praise in exchange for achievements. Their superiority complex, therefore, becomes a way of giving themselves the validation that's been withheld.
Superiority complex vs. inferiority complex.
A superiority complex and an inferiority complex are both reflections of the way we feel about ourselves. In both cases, there is an inability to accurately see one's worth, skill level, or likability in comparison to others, but the complexes can manifest in different ways.
"Superiority complex refers to the feeling of superiority or 'being better' than others and having an inflated self-worth, whereas inferiority complex is the feeling of worthlessness or 'being inferior' to others. While the former is overly confident, the latter tends to doubt their abilities," Maurya says.
Additionally, someone dealing with a superiority complex may hide feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth, while an inferiority complex might hide ambition and aspirations as the person attempts to hide their achievements. Brian Wind, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of Journey Pure, says the theory of individual psychology dictates that we all are working hard to improve our skills and achieve more to overcome inherent feelings of inferiority so that we can be successful in our own eyes.
"Hence, a superiority complex can be a reaction to our failure to meet our own expectations, so we don't feel like failures. On the other hand, an inferiority complex may be always modest or downplay their achievements. They may actually have high aspirations for themselves but potentially fear that they may not achieve them. So, they downplay what they have achieved to lower people's expectations of them," he explains.
How it relates to narcissism.
Much like a superiority complex, narcissism causes someone to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but there are a few differences. Narcissism also brings about a lack of empathy and an extreme need to be liked and accepted. Narcissists can have a superiority complex, which makes people feel that they have high self-esteem, but in reality, they don't.
"All narcissists will mostly have an inflated self-worth, but every person with a superiority complex will not have narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists do not value anybody, always belittle others, lack empathy, and want to be liked by everyone," Maurya says. "They can seem similar because they can throw tantrums and show aggression."
It's worth noting that a "superiority complex is not a diagnosis in and of itself, and theoretically can be treated through therapy and a willingness to examine the roots and consequences of the behaviors and attitudes causing impairment," according to Mosley. On the other hand, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be diagnosed, and it's more deeply entrenched and difficult to treat because the person is often unconvinced that there is a problem that needs to be treated.
"A superiority complex can be the precursor to an NPD diagnosis if left untreated (but not always). However, trauma, extenuating stressors, or even sudden success or notoriety can trigger superiority to bloom into full-fledged narcissism," he adds.
How to deal with it.
Dealing with someone who has a superiority complex will require quite a bit of patience and empathy. Sure, that may sound like a tall order when this person is behaving arrogantly or defiantly, but it could be worth the effort.
"Remembering that the person must be feeling terrible pain in the moment that they are behaving obnoxiously, or when they're being boastful or dismissive. It may be difficult to employ empathy, particularly if you're in their line of fire, but it helps give those suffering from a superiority flare-up accurate positive mirroring," Mosley says.
While exercising patience and showing empathy, try not to feed into their grandiose visions of themselves. Instead, tell them something they are truly good at while balancing it with something that may be more accurate about their performance or skill. If they've become abusive, hurtful, or vitriolic, tell them that they're being unkind or arrogant.
It is also immensely helpful to help them recognize their weaknesses in such a way that it doesn't tear down their self-esteem but rather shows them areas they can work on so they can become more highly regarded by those around them.
The bottom line.
Having a superiority complex doesn't automatically mean you're a horrible person who should be shunned. With the right tools, this can be navigated and lead to healthy and meaningful relationships with those around you and, more importantly, yourself.
If you have concerns or more questions, it could be worth discussing it further with a professional. And as you do so, remember that your personality isn't unchangeable, and you are more than your struggles.
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.