What Is an Inferiority Complex?

White woman lying down appearing sad
Sad woman.

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An inferiority complex encompasses feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. These feelings may result from an actual physical defect, or they may show up in situations where we feel less intelligent than our peers. In other cases, the supposed inferiority may be concocted from purely imagined shortcomings.

Feeling inferior goes beyond unhappiness that a colleague got a promotion over you, or even feeling sad after making a low score on a classwide test—these are expected, and even healthy reactions to disappointments and are usually nothing to worry about. 

With this complex, however, it isn’t uncommon for a person to appear withdrawn in the presence of others that make him feel insufficient. In some scenarios, such a person may attempt to overcompensate for whatever perceived deficiency they have by behaving in an excessively competitive manner. In other cases, they may act aggressively towards others.

To recognize an inferiority complex, there are several pointers to look out for. This article will cover those signs, causes, and how to cope with feelings of inadequacy.

Signs of an Inferiority Complex

  • Displaying signs of low self-esteem
  • A tendency to over-analyze compliments and criticisms
  • Persistently looking for validation and praise from others
  • Pulling away from family, friends, and colleagues, especially in social situations
  • Attempting to make others feel insecure to make up for feelings of inadequacy
  • The refusal to participate in competitive events for fear of being compared to others

What Causes an Inferiority Complex?

If you are constantly worrying about measuring up to others or turning down invites to avoid interacting with people you believe are better than you, chances are, these feelings of inadequacy didn't turn up overnight.

An inferiority complex is most likely the outcome of one or a combination of factors, some of which may have developed over time. Common causes of an inferiority complex are outlined below.

Childhood Experiences

While feelings of inadequacy tend to stick out in adulthood, these symptoms may result from negative events that took place at a much younger age.

Children that grow up surrounded by adults, especially those who tended to care for their every need, may grow up feeling weak and incapable of caring for themselves without supervision. This can be made worse in situations where children are deliberately made to feel small and helpless.

Likewise, where young ones are raised in an environment of cruelty, one that repeatedly makes them question their worth, they tend to grow up timid and unsure of their value where others are concerned.

Physical Characteristics

It’s understandable to be fussy about your appearance. However, there are times where a person may consider their weight, facial features, or other bodily traits to be real causes for concern. This can lead to extreme self-consciousness.

Other characteristics like living with a speech impediment (e.g., a stutter) can encourage feelings of inadequacy. 

Economic and Social Challenges

There are obvious implications of living with financial difficulties such as sacrificing important needs to pay for more pressing issues, residing in a poorer society, etc. However, one easy-to-miss connection is the toll that living under tight financial constraints often leaves on the mind.

In cases where a person is the least financially successful in their friend group or constantly has to reach out to peers and family members for assistance, this can negatively impact their estimation of self-worth. The same may occur where a person grew up under tough economic circumstances that constantly forced them to ask for help or money.

In addition to these challenges, an inferiority complex may also manifest in adulthood due to circumstances such as an inability to find employment, social setbacks such as difficulty finding a spouse, or public embarrassment that leads to destructive feelings of insufficiency.

Effects of Living With an Inferiority Complex

When you live your life assuming that everyone else is better than you, this can negatively affect your ability to carry out everyday activities. Living life with an inferiority complex is harmful for the reasons outlined below.

Increased Risk of Developing Dangerous Addictions

Constantly having to relate with people you’ve placed on a pedestal and dealing with the outcomes of such interactions can be taxing when you live with an inferiority complex. For an escape and to help manage these difficulties, studies have shown that people living with this complex tend to turn to dangerous drugs.

Likewise, it isn’t uncommon to become dependent on alcohol to get through the day when living with feelings of insufficiency. While these coping mechanisms may offer some comfort, their effectiveness is loudly pronounced at lowering feelings of self-worth. Moreover, these dependencies may even lead to health complications.

Depression

When you don’t feel strong or worthy enough to interact with your friends, family, and colleagues as equals, this can greatly impact your mental health and well-being. 

Constantly second-guessing and shrinking yourself can sometimes lead to feelings of depression and have been shown to encourage frustration in persons saddled with this complex.

Poorer Quality Social and Work-Life

If you're too concerned about appearing incompetent compared to colleagues, this can take away from your focus on the job. Feeling inadequate may also affect the proper execution of your role.

Likewise, when all you can think about is fielding questions from peers and family alike about status in life and achievements, this can prompt you to avoid social interactions with loved ones.

On the flip side, overcompensating for perceived inadequacies by being cruel to others can affect how others perceive you.

Living with an inferiority complex may also increase the tendency of developing a sleeping disorder. The chances of experiencing feelings of suicidal ideation are also higher when you live with an inferiority complex.

Coping With an Inferiority Complex

Going through life with the belief that others are better than you, or consider you inadequate because of some deficiency or other, can be incredibly challenging.

But, it’s important to recognize that you are a unique individual, filled with different strengths and abilities that can make you a positive addition to any setting. 

It may not always be easy to achieve this mindset. To help manage your inferiority complex, let's take a look at some things you do to cope with feelings of inferiority.

Attend Therapy

Telling a stranger about your struggles with self-worth might seem like a bad idea when dealing with an inferiority complex, but seeking professional help might be the guidance you need.

Through approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, negative thoughts and ideas about your value can be identified and changed into a more positive outlook. In addition, therapy can provide a guiding hand as you challenge unfavorable ideas about yourself.

Keep a Journal

Writing down true feelings about yourself and triggers that spur these thoughts can help you keep an eye on your progress with valuing yourself more kindly.

By identifying the factors that cause you to think negatively about yourself, writing out the ways you are, in fact, worthy of respect and love can help with internalizing more positive ideas about yourself.

Practice Positive Affirmations

Making a habit of telling yourself how valuable, beautiful, and talented you are can jumpstart a powerful change in how you perceive yourself.

As a routine, this will not only offer a change to the way you think and speak about yourself; it can help to strengthen your belief in your abilities.

A Word From Verywell

It's normal to struggle with feelings of inadequacy every now and again, but when these feelings become a crippling fear of not matching up to others, this could signal an inferiority complex.

Overcoming thoughts that make you feel like others are better and more qualified than you at work, social interactions, or even just more physically appealing than you may seem daunting. However, through methods like therapy and positive affirmations, a significant improvement can be achieved in how you view yourself and interact with others.

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  3. Hirao K. Comparison of Feelings of Inferiority among University Students with Autotelic, Average, and Nonautotelic Personalities. N Am J Med Sci. 2014;6(9):440-444. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.141627