The Inferiority Complex

Feelings of inferiority are common. Indeed, countless marriage breakdowns, addiction problems, and even acts of violence could be traced back to such feelings. Thankfully, therapy can be highly effective.

Alfred Adler

Before looking in detail at the inferiority complex, it would be helpful to know a little about Alfred Adler, the man most often associated with the phrase. Adler was born near Vienna, Austria, in 1870, the second of seven children. In the 1890s, while studying medicine at the University of Vienna, he joined a socialist organization. These socialist beliefs were to influence his later theories. Socialism, Adler believed, would ensure equality and thus reduce the feelings of resentment and inferiority.

Adler was among the first supporters of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, if the psychoanalytic movement began with the five friends who met every Wednesday in Freud’s Viennese apartment, then Adler was there from the beginning. But Adler was also the first to break from Freud. For Freud, the key to personality was sex and the desire for pleasure, for Adler it was inferiority and the desire for power.

It must be stressed that Adler did not believe most people had stable, healthy self-esteem and that it was only a minority who went on to develop inferiority feelings. The inferiority feeling is normal. Human beings are weak, fragile, vulnerable creatures born into a harsh, unpredictable world over which they have very little control. And there is always someone cleverer, richer, stronger, and more attractive.

Life’s Basic Challenges

Inferiority complexLife presents the individual with a series of challenges. For convenience, Adlerians often group these under the headings work, sex, and social life. Such categories are of course very broad and include a wide range of activities. Sex, for example, includes your sexual development, how you relate to those you find attractive, how easy you find it to build and sustain relationships, and so on. Adler identified three basic responses to these challenges: “yes,” “yes, but,” and “no.” Those who say “yes” attempt to change the world around them. They embrace life. Those who say “yes, but” are the neurotics. Such people fear any threat to their self-esteem and often find reasons not to do something. Most serious of all are those who refuse altogether. Someone with a full-blown avoidant personality disorder would be an example of this.

Primary Inferiority

Adler made an interesting distinction between primary and secondary inferiority. Primary inferiority begins in childhood. A human being is born into a strange, incomprehensible world, naked, helpless, and dependent. In childhood, he is surrounded by unpredictable giants on whom he depends for food, warmth, shelter, and nourishment. Adler always stressed the importance of family dynamics and parental expectations. For example, a child whose older brother is the favorite, or whose younger sister is more attractive and intelligent, may go on to develop a sense of inferiority. Children whose parents set impossibly high standards of moral conduct and academic excellence may also develop such feelings.

Secondary Inferiority

This develops in adulthood and is usually caused by a failure to attain certain goals. Adults want two things above all: security and success. They want to control the world around them, ensure a regular, steady income, find somewhere safe to live, and so on. They also want success. But success is a misleading word. What people really want is relative success. Put another way, most people would rather get a B in their exam and have everyone else awarded Cs and Ds than achieve an A and find that everyone else was awarded the same.

The Vicious Circle

People who experience feelings of inferiority often become trapped in a vicious circle. They feel inferior and dislike it. They look around them at friends and family and feel bitter, resentful, and angry. In order to rid themselves of such feelings, they develop grand, dramatic ambitions (what Adler called “compensations”). But these goals are often impossible for them to attain. Inevitably, they fail. And this failure simply reinforces the original sense of inferiority, triggering more bitterness and starting the whole cycle over again.


An inferiority complex is best treated by helping the victim develop more realistic goals and ambitions. People also need to understand where these feelings originated and to recognise that everyone is flawed and limited.

Imagine a boy named John. John is a sensitive, effeminate child, born to a father who values physical strength and macho toughness. The father has been in the army, where he revelled in the camaraderie, took up boxing, played sports, and even saw active service. He is popular with his friends and adored by his wife. But John is a disappointment to him. His father takes him to football practise, but John is scared of being hit by the ball. John backs away from fights and is crippled by shyness. Occasionally, his father loses his temper and yells at him, demanding to know why he hasn’t got a girlfriend and never goes to parties. As John ages, his sense of shame and humiliation deepens. His father’s brother has a son who excels at sport, stands up to the neighborhood bullies, and is a success with women. John feels inferior to his father, his uncle, his cousin, and the other boys in his street.

To cope with his sense of failure, John begins to develop unrealistic ambitions. At 17, he decides to go away to college. But instead of applying for somewhere local, he applies to a top college in London. He has never lived in a big city before and, when he arrives, the place terrifies him. He doesn’t fit in and soon returns home a failure. He then tries a career on the stock exchange, hoping people will be impressed by his big salary and bonuses, but the ruthless atmosphere intimidates him and he quits to work a series of easy, menial jobs. His shame and bitterness grow, flashing out in spiteful, sarcastic remarks. He tells people that such jobs are temporary, that he intends to train as a journalist and become a top war correspondent, visiting the world’s most dangerous places. He never does. Eventually, the pain and unhappiness drive him to seek therapy.

His therapist listens to his story and quickly identifies an inferiority complex. She helps John to understand that all his ambitions have been mere attempts to compensate. John begins to realize that he wasn’t inferior to his father and cousin, just different: more sensitive, introverted, and intellectual. Instead of trying to prove himself, he realizes that he must learn to accept and like who he really is, and then live a life suited to his temperament and personality. He must stop trying to beat or impress others and instead focus on cultivating his own unique self and living up to his own code of honor. Being his own man should, in itself, be enough to give him pride.

Feelings of inferiority are both common and natural. In a sense, the inferiority complex has its roots in human evolution. Human beings are a social species and, like all primates, very sensitive about their status within the group. Understanding this is the first step towards recovery.

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