What Is an Inferiority Complex? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment Guide

Dr. Serenity
April 10, 2023

Understanding Inferiority Complex: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Feeling inadequate or insecure is a common experience for many of us. But for some, these feelings can persist and manifest as chronic low self-esteem, also known as an inferiority complex. This cycle of intense self-criticism can hold you back personally and professionally, leading to a pervasive feeling of being “less than” in all aspects of life. However, with the help of a cognitive-behavioral therapist and other strategies, you can overcome these negative responses, rebuild your self-esteem, and enjoy a more fulfilling life.


History of the Term ‘Inferiority Complex’

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes an inferiority complex as “a fundamental sense of inadequacy and insecurity, stemming from either actual or perceived physical or psychological deficiency.” The concept was first introduced in 1907 by renowned psychoanalyst Alfred Adler to explain why many people lack the motivation to pursue their goals and aspirations. Although the term was once widely used, contemporary mental health professionals now tend to characterize it as low self-esteem.


Signs and Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex

“Feeling inferior from time to time is a natural human experience,” says Martin E. Ford, PhD, a professor and senior associate dean at George Mason University College of Education and Human Development in Fairfax, Virginia. “The key is how we respond to those feelings. Do they inspire us to learn and improve? Or do they cause us to ruminate and shut down? Worse yet, do they lead us to feel envious of others and belittle people to build ourselves up? Or to always blame others for our failures, instead of taking responsibility for our actions? If these patterns persist across a wide range of situations, then the term ‘inferiority complex’ may be appropriate.”

The essence of an inferiority complex is the presence of negative thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and tendencies. According to Depression Alliance, some signs that suggest the presence of an inferiority complex include:

  • Repetitively dwelling on upsetting thoughts
  • Withdrawing due to shame, guilt, embarrassment, or a sense of defeat
  • Avoiding interactions with coworkers, colleagues, or family members
  • Disparaging others as a means of projecting their feelings of isolation and failure Psychology Today notes that a person with an inferiority complex may also: (3)
  • Feel accountable for the shortcomings and failures of others
  • Seek attention and validation by feigning illness, depression, or by constantly bringing the conversation back to themselves
  • Shun any form of competition where their efforts may be directly contrasted with those of others; “People with very low self-esteem avoid taking risks, leading to missed opportunities,” says Dr. Flowers
  • Be highly sensitive to both compliments and criticisms
  • Display personality traits such as perfectionism and neuroticism, which are characterized by anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions.


Causes and Risk Factors of a Sense of Inferiority

Various factors contribute to the behavioral and psychological characteristics associated with a sense of inferiority, including:

  • Genetic Predisposition: Research indicates that people who inherit a variation in the receptor for oxytocin, a hormone that contributes to positive emotions, may have lower self-esteem, feel less optimistic, and have a diminished sense of personal mastery compared to those who inherited a different receptor for oxytocin, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Family of Origin: According to self-esteem researcher Maddux, early caregivers have a significant impact on whether a genetic tendency toward self-doubt is exacerbated or softened. Children who receive repeated criticism from highly critical parents, such as being told “You’re stupid,” “You’re a klutz,” or “You never do anything right,” may internalize these admonishments so deeply that they carry them into adulthood. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, shame, shyness, and lack of enthusiasm, as explained by psychologist Elaine N. Aron, PhD, author of The Undervalued Self.
  • Society: Unrealistic standards propagated by advertisers, social media, celebrities, and other figures of authority can create or reinforce perceptions about oneself that lead to significant self-doubt. As licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Caren Shapiro notes, messages from society about how one should act, what one should acquire, and how one’s body should look can lead to individuals internalizing these messages and feeling diminished in their self-assessment of worth.
  • Comparison with Others: People with low self-esteem often compare themselves with others, particularly those who are more successful. This can lead to a negative perception of oneself and reinforce feelings of inadequacy, as noted by Flowers.


Diagnosing an Inferiority Complex

Unlike a diagnosable mental health disorder, clinicians typically use low self-esteem as a possible symptom when assessing for other psychological issues, including anxiety and depressive disorders.

  • Anxiety Disorders

According to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, feeling inferior to others can provoke anxiety in many situations. Anxiety disorders can lead to excessive and irrational worry about everyday situations, interfere with daily activities, and cause physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and heart palpitations.

  • Depressive Disorders

Research shows that low self-esteem is a key factor in the development and maintenance of depression. In fact, a large-scale meta-analysis of 77 studies published in Psychological Bulletin found that low self-esteem is a significant predictor of depression. Symptoms of depression can include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and worthlessness, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may be struggling with low self-esteem or related psychological issues, seeking professional help from a mental health provider is recommended. A licensed therapist can provide a thorough evaluation and recommend appropriate treatment options tailored to each individual’s needs.


Understanding the Duration of an Inferiority Complex

An inferiority complex can persist for a prolonged period of time, often lasting a lifetime, especially when it goes untreated. According to Dr. Aron, people with deeply ingrained negative self-perceptions may find it challenging to internalize positive information that contradicts their self-doubt. Psychological Science research published in a landmark study supports this observation. The study discovered that when people with low self-esteem were instructed to repeat positive affirmations, such as “I am enough,” it was not only ineffective but could also be harmful. Repeating positive self-statements may be useful for some individuals but counterproductive for those who require it the most. As the study authors stated, “When people with low self-esteem repeated the statement, ‘I’m a lovable person,’ or focused on ways in which this statement was true of them, neither their feelings about themselves nor their moods improved — they got worse.”

Dr. Aron also stresses that overcoming an inferiority complex alone is nearly impossible, as it requires another person to validate and affirm one’s worth until it becomes believable.


How to Overcome an Inferiority Complex: Treatment, Medication Options, and Tips

An inferiority complex can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s life. However, there is hope for healing. Treatment options for low self-esteem typically involve either cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, or a combination of both, in addition to medication, if needed.

CBT Approach: Challenging Negative Thoughts

CBT is an effective and structured approach to therapy that helps people examine their negative thoughts and feelings and gradually change them over time by checking their validity. By identifying and challenging cognitive distortions, which are negative thought patterns that erode self-esteem, individuals can begin to shift their focus towards more positive and realistic perspectives.

Common cognitive distortions that affect individuals with an inferiority complex include:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: Seeing things as either all good or all bad.
  • Mental Filtering: Focusing only on the negatives and distorting one’s view of themselves.
  • Converting Positives Into Negatives: Undervaluing successes and compliments.
  • Jumping to Negative Conclusions: Reaching a negative conclusion when little or no evidence supports it.
  • Mistaking Feelings for Facts: Confusing feelings or beliefs with facts.

Psychodynamic Therapy: Uncovering Underlying Issues

Psychodynamic therapy involves exploring the root causes of an individual’s inferiority complex by delving into the messaging received in early life and exploring the situations that reinforced the feeling of not being good enough. By shifting the focus away from what one lacks and towards positive aspects of their life, individuals can begin to repair their sense of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Medication: Treating Psychological Conditions

In some cases, medication may be warranted for individuals with low self-esteem who also have certain psychological conditions, such as severe anxiety or depression. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are options that can increase the levels of mood-lifting hormones in the brain by preventing their reabsorption by neurons.

Tips for Overcoming an Inferiority Complex

It’s important to note that overcoming an inferiority complex is a gradual process and requires effort and commitment. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and self-reflection, such as meditation or yoga.
  • Build a support system: Surround yourself with people who validate and affirm your worth.
  • Challenge negative self-talk: Replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations and realistic self-talk.
  • Set achievable goals: Set small goals and work towards achieving them.
  • Celebrate successes: Recognize and celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem.

In conclusion, there are effective treatment options available for individuals struggling with an inferiority complex. With the help of therapy, medication, and a commitment to self-care and self-reflection, individuals can begin to overcome their negative self-view and develop a more positive and realistic sense of self.


Complications of Chronic Inferiority

While an inferiority complex may seem like a minor issue, it can lead to serious mental health concerns, including self-injurious behavior and suicidal ideation. According to Maddux, individuals who persistently view themselves as inferior or unable to meet societal expectations may experience high levels of psychological distress that increase the risk of engaging in harmful behaviors, such as cutting or substance abuse.

In addition, an inferiority complex can have a profound impact on entire cultural groups that face systemic discrimination and prejudice based on their age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other attributes. Aron notes that women, for example, are particularly vulnerable to developing an inferiority complex due to pervasive societal messages that they are inferior to men, particularly in certain fields like science, sports, and business. Even if a woman’s self-esteem is relatively intact, she may struggle to feel confident and assertive in the workplace due to factors like the gender pay gap and lack of female representation in leadership positions.

These cultural messages can have a measurable impact on individuals’ confidence and perceived abilities. Studies suggest that women are less likely than men to view themselves as ready for promotions, expect to perform worse on tests, and generally underestimate their capabilities. As such, it is crucial to address the underlying causes of an inferiority complex and provide support and resources to help individuals and groups develop a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth.


Understanding Related Conditions of an Inferiority Complex

Apart from anxiety and depression, individuals with low self-esteem may also suffer from eating disorders. Negative feelings regarding body image contribute to eating disorders, which an estimated 30 million Americans, including 10 million boys and men, experience at some point in their lives, as reported by the National Eating Disorders Association. (13)

Distinguishing Between a Superiority vs. Inferiority Complex

An opposite sign of an inferiority complex is narcissistic personality disorder, also known as a superiority complex. The American Psychological Association (APA) definition states that the tell-tale signs of a superiority complex include “an exaggerated opinion of one’s abilities and accomplishments,” which arise from “an overcompensation for feelings of inferiority.” (14) As Mayo Clinic experts explain, individuals with narcissistic personality disorders may appear to have an inflated sense of their own importance, but behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.


Our Recommended Resources

  • Favorite Online Support Network

  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

Connecting with others can help work through symptoms of depression and anxiety related to feelings of inferiority. If you are looking for support, the ADAA can help. You can search for a support group near you or start your own.

  • Favorite Self-Help Tools

  1. The Undervalued Self

If you can’t visit a therapist just yet, this book by psychologist Elaine Aron offers deep yet simple to understand insight into why we sometimes feel defeated and worthless, compelling examples of how others have escaped feelings of shame, defeat, and depression, along with useful strategies for transforming your inner voice to enhance your self-worth.

  • Self-Esteem-Experts.com

If you’re looking for ways to manage your dips in self-esteem, this site offers numerous worksheets and activities for boosting your confidence and changing the way you feel about yourself.

  1. Centre for Clinical Interventions

This online service provided by the Government of Western Australia is a valuable resource for people worldwide. It provides extensive information about low self-esteem, as well as a downloadable workbook for improving self-esteem.

  • Favorite App

  1. Moodfit

This app offers cognitive therapy tools that help convert negative thoughts into positive messages, create new habits that reduce anxiety, depression, and other signs of an inferiority complex, and even track how well any mood-related medication you’re taking is working.

  • Favorite Video

  1. ‘Meet Yourself: A User’s Guide to Building Self-Esteem’

In this short TED Talk, Niko Everett, founder of the Girls for Change organization, highlights the impact our thoughts have on our self-esteem and shares some techniques children and adults can use daily to enhance their image of themselves.

Author Dr. Serenity

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