Generally, “inferiority complex” is an umbrella term describing chronic feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

People with an inferiority complex may experience chronic self-doubt, have low self-esteem, and feel the need to withdraw from social situations. Some people experience symptoms similar to those associated with a superiority complex, such as extreme competitiveness and an inability to admit to their mistakes.

Although an inferiority complex is not a diagnosable mental health condition, people dealing with feelings of inferiority can find help through various means, including psychotherapy, medication, and self-help methods.

Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of an inferiority complex.

a person is standing by some trees to illustrate a height differenceShare on Pinterest
Alina Hvostikova/Stocksy

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines an inferiority complex as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity.”

These feelings may stem from a real or perceived deficiency in some area of a person’s life. This could be a physical or psychological weakness or shortcoming.

The APA further explains that someone with an inferiority complex may present with a wide array of behaviors. For example, a person may become anxious or depressed and withdraw from social situations.

Alternatively, they may overcompensate and become excessively competitive, find faults in others, and have trouble admitting their own mistakes. These types of symptoms are also related to the superiority complex, which the APA defines as “an exaggerated opinion of one’s abilities and accomplishments that derives from an overcompensation for feelings of inferiority.”

When Dr. Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, first introduced the notion of an inferiority complex in 1907, he believed that people are born with some level of personal inferiority, as well as a drive to overcome it.

These days, studies have uncovered various reasons why someone may develop an inferiority complex.

For example, a 2012 study looked at the effects of art therapy techniques on a small sample of teens, which included 20 individuals from disadvantaged families and 10 from “normal” families. The researchers found that teens from disadvantaged families showed higher rates of low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy in their environment, as well as an increased focus on material interests, rebelliousness, and impaired emotional development.

A 2014 study involving 148 undergraduate students aged 18–24 years found potential links between inferiority feelings and personality groups. An autotelic personality, one associated with internally driven people, was significantly less connected to inferiority feelings than a nonautotelic personality, which is associated with externally driven people.

More recently, 2022 research using social media data found that feelings of inferiority might stem from multiple factors, including:

  • personal experiences, particularly negative ones
  • physical inferiority, whether perceived or actual
  • personality traits
  • relationships involving love and affection
  • abilities, including personal and professional
  • social interaction

The study authors note that the research and results are limited to one geographic area and do not include people who do not use social media.

Nevertheless, these findings support the overall consensus that factors such as childhood and adult experiences, social disadvantages, physical challenges, and cultural messages may all contribute to feelings of inferiority.

In addition to feeling inferior and insecure, someone with an inferiority complex might:

  • have low self-esteem
  • experience anxiety or depression
  • often doubt themselves
  • assume the worst in themselves, others, or situations
  • have trouble reaching their goals
  • want to give up quickly
  • find it difficult to accept criticism or believe compliments
  • have a tendency toward self-concealment and avoid social gatherings

Sometimes, inferiority complex symptoms look similar to those of a superiority complex.

When a person has a superiority complex, they tend to have an exaggerated opinion of themselves, including their abilities and accomplishments. Often, having these exaggerated opinions is a way to overcompensate for — and this is where the two intertwine — feelings of inferiority.

The related symptoms include:

  • always striving for perfection
  • extreme competitiveness
  • engaging in attention-seeking actions
  • finding faults and flaws in others
  • the inability to admit their own mistakes
  • finding satisfaction in “doing better” than others

Perhaps the most common and effective treatment option for someone dealing with feelings of inferiority is psychotherapy.

Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy is a way for people to gain a better understanding of their feelings, as well as how to navigate those feelings in more productive ways.

There are several types of psychotherapy. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This common form of talk therapy aims to help a person change their thought patterns and behaviors.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy aims to help people deal with negative feelings and behaviors rooted in past experiences.
  • Supportive therapy: In this type of therapy, a therapist supports a person in building self-esteem, reducing anxiety, improving social functioning, and more.

Many forms of talk therapy are also effective in helping people manage depression and anxiety disorders, which often show up alongside feelings of inferiority.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon for mental health professionals to combine psychotherapy with medication. Although for some people, one treatment works better than the other, for others, the combination brings the best results.

Learn more about types of therapy.

Talk therapy and medication can work well, but a few extra steps may also go a long way in helping someone overcome an inferiority complex.

Someone trying to conquer their feelings of inferiority might consider:

  • creating clear outlines for reaching their own goals
  • developing hobbies and spending time working on their own interests
  • engaging in self-care activities that put the focus back on their own well-being
  • making sure that they surround themselves with honest, supportive people
  • keeping a journal of their experiences and progress

Many people feel insecure or inferior at some point in their life. Occasionally feeling timid in social situations or focusing on one’s high school football glory days does not necessarily point toward a complex.

However, someone who often experiences feelings of inferiority might ask themselves how they respond to those feelings.

For example:

  • Does another person’s success inspire them to reach their own goals, or does seeing other people succeed make them feel like a failure?
  • Do compliments further motivate them, or do they have trouble believing that they are sincere?
  • Do they spend more time thinking about the perceived reasons for those feelings than they spend enjoying life?
  • Have their feelings of inferiority negatively affected their relationships with others?
  • Do they often catch themselves looking for flaws in other people? Do they feel better about themselves if they find a perceived flaw in someone else?

When the negative thoughts and behaviors outnumber the positive ones, it might be time to talk with a mental health professional.

Often, the term “inferiority complex” applies when someone deals with persistent feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and inadequacy.

Although some people with inferiority complexes live with low self-esteem and are more comfortable withdrawing from social situations, others overcompensate with attention-seeking behavior and a reluctance to admit their own mistakes.

Regardless of their specific symptoms, people coping with severe feelings of inferiority may find help through psychotherapy, prescription medication, and self-help treatments.