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

June 21, 2021 7:27 amComments Off on What Is an Inferiority Complex? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and TreatmentViews: 7

By Nuna Alberts, LCSW
Medically Reviewed by Allison Young, MD
Last Updated: April 14, 2020
We all worry at times about our abilities. Although it’s distressing, it’s normal to question whether we measure up to others or to feel momentarily incompetent for, say, scoring lower on a test than those around us, not performing as well as our coworkers, or for not yet being well-situated in life as our friends.

For most of us, these feelings of insecurity and insufficiency (such as being unable to reach an intended goal) are highly situational or occasional. When they arise, we may, for example, brood about them for a time and then move on, deal with them by reminding ourselves that we have other strengths, or use them as motivation to master the underlying problem, says James E. Maddux, PhD, psychologist and author of Subjective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction and coauthor of Psychopathology: Foundations for a Contemporary Understanding.
Even when major events cause our self-doubt to flare — being fired from a job or being dumped by a romantic partner — most of us are able to turn to friends and family and eventually find other ways to feel secure, engaged, and productive.

But if you have an inferiority complex — an old-fashioned term for what Dr. Maddux instead calls chronic low self-esteem — you respond differently. You call yourself names, lament your shortcomings, and believe that your intense self-criticism is reasonable. Just when your self-esteem is most fragile, you attack it even further. This cycle is so deeply rooted that it consistently holds you back personally and professionally.

“You get what you expect and people with very low self-esteem expect very little,” says Amy Flowers, PhD, a cognitive-behavioral therapist in private practice in Macon, Georgia. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” As disappointments mount, you become more discouraged and more vulnerable to being biased against yourself. The result is a pervasive feeling of being “less than” across most aspects of life: psychological, intellectual, social, and physical.
The good news is there are things you can do to curb these unhealthy responses, overcome your psychological distress, rebuild your self-esteem, and enjoy a more fulfilling life, Maddux says.
History of the Term ‘Inferiority Complex’

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines an inferiority complex as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” (1) The term dates back to 1907, when it was coined by the influential psychoanalyst Alfred Adler to explain why so many people seem to lack the motivation to act in their own best interest and go after their goals in life. Contemporary psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals avoid the term now though, notes Maddux, often characterizing it instead as low self-esteem.
Signs and Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex

“Feeling inferior from time to time is human nature,” 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 one responds to those feelings. Do they motivate you to learn and try to do better? Or do they cause you to ruminate and shut down? Or perhaps even worse, do they cause you to feel jealous of others and to put people down in order to build yourself up? Or to always blame others for things for which you should take personal responsibility? When such patterns become consistent across abroad set of circumstances, that is when the term ‘inferiority complex’ may apply.”

The essence of an inferiority complex is having a collection of negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and tendencies. Signs you may have one, according to Depression Alliance, include: (2)

Repetitively focusing on thoughts that are upsetting
Shutting down out of shame, guilt, embarrassment, or an inward sense of defeat
Withdrawing from coworkers, colleagues, or family members
Demeaning others as a way to transfer their feelings of isolation and failure
Psychology Today notes that a person with an inferiority complex may also: (3)

Feel responsible for other people’s shortcomings and failures
Seek attention and validation by pretending to be sick, depressed, or by continually bringing the conversation back to them
Avoid any type of competition where their efforts might be directly compared with others; “People with very low self-esteem don’t take risks. They don’t try things and they end up missing out on many opportunities,” says Dr. Flowers
Be extremely sensitive to both compliments and criticisms
Exhibit personality traits, such as perfectionism and neuroticism (a tendency toward anxiety, depression, and other negative feelings) (4)

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