inferiority complexes

Inferiority complex

An inferiority complex, in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, is a feeling that one is inferior to others in some way. Such feelings can arise from an imagined or actual inferiority in the afflicted person. It is often subconscious, and is thought to drive afflicted individuals to overcompensate, resulting either in spectacular achievement or extreme schizotypal behavior, or both. Unlike a normal feeling of inferiority, which can act as an incentive for achievement, an inferiority complex is an advanced state of discouragement, often resulting in a retreat from difficulties.


Early work in this field was pioneered by Alfred Adler, who used the example of Napoleon complexes to illustrate his theory. Some sociologists have proposed that an inferiority complex can also exist at a wider level, affecting entire cultures. This theory, which is controversial, is known as cultural cringe.


Classical Adlerian psychology makes a distinction between primary and secondary inferiority feelings. A primary inferiority feeling is said to be rooted in the young child's original experience of weakness, helplessness and dependency. It can then be intensified by comparisons to older siblings and adults. A secondary inferiority feeling relates to an adult's experience of being unable to reach an unconscious, fictional final goal of subjective security and success to compensate for the inferiority feelings. The perceived distance from that goal would lead to a "minus" feeling that could then prompt the recall of the original inferiority feeling; this composite of inferiority feelings could be experienced as overwhelming. The goal invented to relieve the original, primary feeling of inferiority which actually causes the secondary feeling of inferiority is the "catch-22" of this dilemma. This vicious circle is common in neurotic lifestyles.


  • Parental attitudes and upbringing - disapproving negative remarks and evaluations of behavior emphasizing mistakes and shortcomings determine the attitude of the child before the age of six.
  • Physical defects - such as disproportional facial features, weight, height, speech defects and defective vision cause inferiority complexes.
  • Mental limitations - brings feelings of inferiority when unfavorable comparisons are made with the superior achievements of others, and when satisfactory performance is expected.
  • Social disadvantages and discriminations - family, race, sex, sexual orientation or economic status


This feeling may be manifested in withdrawal from social contacts or excessive seeking for attention, criticism of others, overly dutiful obedience, fear, and worry.

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