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Inferiority Complex – Is this Why You Feel So Inadequate?

inferiority complex

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by Claudia Cole

Does the constant sense of not feeling good enough leave your self-esteem running low? Is it consuming enough that you start to feel inadequate when around others? It could be a sign of an inferiority complex.

What is an inferiority complex?

The term was coined in 1907 by psychologist Alfred Alder, in his theory of individual psychology. It’s officially defined as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.”

In other words, an inferiority complex is the persistent and intense sense of feeling less than, often resulting in the belief that one is inferior to others.

According to Adler’s theory, we have all felt a sense of inferiority at some point. Which can be beneficial, as it can motivate you to seek self-improvement and help you to accomplish your goals

While it’s not uncommon to experience these feelings of ‘less than’ from time to time, those with an inferiority complex aren’t just having a momentary lapse of confidence. They struggle with chronically low self-esteem to the extent it is overwhelming. 

The Two types of Inferiority Complexes

Adler also claimed that there were two types of inferiority complexes.

  1. Primary inferiority complex starts during childhood and is due to feeling helpless or being compared to others, such as siblings. Sometimes, the effects of this can be carried into adulthood.
  2. Secondary inferiority complex, on the other hand, occurs when you’re unable to meet your personal goals as an adult. The feeling can build over a period of time, or can be triggered by something that’s happened, such as scoring low on an exam or missing out on a promotion at work.

Inferiority complex vs. superiority complex

inferiority complex

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It is easy to assume that an inferiority complex is the exact opposite of superiority complex, but both can stem from the same origin and overlap.

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A superiority complex refers to an exaggerated opinion of one’s abilities, and an inflated self-importance. Individuals with this complex often have a false sense of confidence, believing they are better than others, despite the lack of evidence to support their beliefs.

Adler argues that these feelings of superiority can also  be a coping mechanism for those that feel inferior. As a way of hiding deep insecurities, a person may exaggerate their sense of worth to feel better.

How can I tell if I have an inferiority complex?

An inferiority complex can present itself in polarising ways. Sometimes you might withdraw from people you perceive to be more accomplished. Other times you can find yourself behaving competitively to overcompensate for certain insecurities. 

The common signs you may experience in your personal and professional life include:

Why do I have this feeling?

inferiority complex

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Going back to Alder’s theory, your childhood experiences can play a large role in feeling inferior. Constant criticism from parents or lack of praise can often affect a child’s view of the world and damage self-esteem. 

Modern research shows that social and cultural pressures to reach certain milestones can also prompt a lack of confidence in one’s ability.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 60% of young people feel so much pressure to succeed that they feel unable to cope.

And the use of social media can also play into feeling inferior. A 2018 study revealed that there was a high correlation between scrolling through your feed and depressive symptoms, such as feeling inferior. You may be exposed to highly edited posts, which can increase unfavourable comparisons and make you feel dissatisfied with yourself.

Is it really a big deal?

If you become too concerned with being judged or how you compare to others, it can affect how you interact with your loved ones. It may even lead you to isolating yourself to avoid feeling worse.

Similarly, the same concerns might creep into your work life, affecting your overall performance. It can cause you to lose focus and may prevent future growth over the fear of not being skilled enough.

Research also shows that feelings of inferiority are significantly linked to depression. It can even lead to poor quality of sleep, and and increase the risk of experiencing a sleeping disorder such as insomnia

How can I manage my constant sense of inferiority?

So then what can you do if this is you?

1. Recognise your strengths.

 You may be putting too much attention on your flaws, triggering the onset of negative self- beliefs.

Jotting down your personal strengths is a great way to balance your self-image, reminding yourself of your best qualities when needed. 

2. Set smaller goals.

Sometimes, our deep-rooted feeling of inadequacy can stem from having high expectations or setting unrealistic goals. That can hinder your progress and prevent you from trying new things. Setting yourself small, manageable goals can help you overcome your inner critic

3. Change the way you compare yourself to others.

Do you tend to put yourself beneath others when doing so? If so, try to untangle your sense of worth from the thoughts you have. For example, if you admire someone’s confidence, don’t automatically assume they’re better than you. Instead, you can use this as inspiration to work on a quality you’d like to improve on.

 4.Get to the root of feeling.

Identifying the root of your complex is the most effective way to manage your feelings of inferiority. It’s likely that it could be traced back to an unpleasant event as far back as even your childhood. This requires you to explore what areas of your personal or professional life make you feel less accomplished.

It’s worth considering cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which focuses on helping you to challenge any limiting beliefs you hold about yourself. With the guidance and support of your therapist, you can address any early experiences that have caused you to feel this way, so you can work towards overcoming them.


Time to stop feeling less than and recognise your inner resources? Contact our Harley Therapy clinics where we connect you with a team of highly regarded London talk therapists. Or use our sister site to find affordable online therapists located in the UK

Claudia ColeClaudia Cole is a London-based writer and journalist. She is passionate about sustainable living, mental health, and wellbeing.

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Blog Topics: Common Mental Health, Self Esteem

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