Do I Have an Inferiority Complex? 19 Warning Signs

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One day, my girlfriend asked, “Do I have an inferiority complex?” She caught me by surprise since she usually exudes confidence and positive energy. I decided to research the signs of an inferiority complex to provide a proper answer, which I'll share with you here.

But before detailing the signs, I'd like to point out that when it comes to self-image, there are those who think less of themselves (inferiority complex) and those who have an inflated sense of self (superiority complex). Both types of self-images can have negative effects on your life.

You'll find more details below on the meaning of an inferiority complex, 19 warning signs, triggers, and how to overcome it.

What Is an Inferiority Complex?

Mental health experts refer to an inferiority complex as chronic low self-esteem characterized by an intense and persistent feeling that others are better than you—in whatever way you visualize. The complex stems from overcompensation due to the inability to rectify feelings of inferiority. It might show up as negative self-talk and self-sabotaging behaviors.

Even though it's not recognized as a mental disorder, an inferiority complex is a psychological state that may affect your mental and emotional well-being or overall quality of life. 

Types of Inferiority Complexes

I came across Adler's Classification of inferiority complex while researching, “Do I have an inferiority complex?” In his work, Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, speaks of primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.

  • Primary Inferiority: This type refers to the inherent, natural feeling in infants resulting mainly from viewing their caregivers as superiors they're forced to depend on. Primary inferiority can also stem from being a younger sibling or a parent making the child feel they aren't good enough. According to Adler's theories, feelings of inferiority motivate the child to build their strengths, develop independence, and become an adult with healthy self-esteem.
  • Secondary Inferiority: Grows out of exaggerated feelings of inferiority as a child and turns into what is known as a superiority complex. The child likely felt the need to compete with older siblings for parental attention and began showing off their strengths or abilities to get validation.

Inferiority Complex vs Superiority Complex

A superiority complex is born from an inferiority complex, primarily because the individual is unable to compensate for perceived weaknesses or insecurities through developing their strengths. People with a superiority complex, such as narcissists, tend to exaggerate their looks, abilities, and achievements. In fact, experts agree that inflating one's self is an indication a person is trying to compensate for feelings of inferiority.

Inferiority Complex Causes or Triggers

Common underlying reasons include:

  • Genetics (inheriting hormones that contribute to a negative or pessimistic predisposition)
  • Early childhood experience with primary caregivers
  • Trauma such as physical or sexual abuse
  • Economic challenges or poverty
  • Societal standards that cause you to doubt your self-image or abilities
  • Having a speech or physical impairment, e.g., stuttering or knocked knees
  • Mental health disorders, e.g., anxiety disorder and depression
  • Personality disorders, e.g., Avoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

19 Warning Signs You May Have an Inferiority Complex

As I combed through articles and studies on the topic, I stopped and asked myself, “Do I have an inferiority complex?” That was after realizing that feeling too confident about who I am could be a disguised inferiority complex.

Your self-image and self-esteem influence your experience with yourself, others, and the world as a whole. Academic, career, and relationship successes and failures are tied to your view of self. As you explore the 19 warning signs, be honest with yourself if they resonate with you.

1. Experiencing persistent low self-esteem

Low self-esteem refers to a lack of self-confidence and poor self-image. Signs include feeling unworthy, lacking healthy boundaries, being a people-pleaser, comparing yourself with others in a negative way, negative self-talk, and self-doubt. You live this way almost all the time and nothing seems to make you feel better, even positive experiences. Issues like anxiety or depression are sometimes linked to persistently feeling terrible about yourself.

2. Struggling with a distorted sense of self

With an unstable or distorted self-image, you'll keep changing how you see yourself and can swing from thinking you're an awesome person to someone who's “no good.”

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The complex stems from overcompensation due to the inability to rectify feelings of inferiority.

A chronic feeling of emptiness also accompanies an unstable sense of self. Borderline personality disorder is one of the causes of an inferiority complex. Incidentally, identity disturbance is one of the symptoms.

3. Believing others are better than you

A core aspect of an inferiority complex is convincing yourself you're less than others. You arrive at the conclusion by measuring your appearance, abilities, successes, behaviors, and social or economic status against others. Like everyone else, you have unique talents and abilities that make you a valuable part of the world. Besides, perceived “better humans” could very well be folks who struggle with addictions, commit white-collar crimes, or take advantage of vulnerable people.

4. Struggling with positive feelings about self

You're burdened daily by a collection of negative thoughts and beliefs about who you are. The pessimistic view of yourself frequently leaves you down and out. You also invalidate your feelings to keep the peace. For example, you claim to be fine instead of telling your spouse her actions hurt you. Taking this stance increases personal suffering and self-resentment for not asserting your true feelings.

5. Feeling overly self-conscious

People who feel inadequate tend to worry about what people think of them, from their looks to behaviors. “I'm too short,” “I'm not beautiful,” or “I must always say the right things.” You may try to compensate by always trying to look your best or refusing to assert your needs. There's no way you can always look or behave in ways that please everyone. Resorting to perfectionism to receive social acceptance can lead to unwanted stress and other issues, such as anxiety or depression.

6. Habitually saying “I'm not good enough”

“I'm not good enough” is a classic example of negative self-talk and relates feelings of unworthiness. Repeating those words works to diminish you in your own eyes and the eyes of others. Efforts toward academic or career success are sabotaged because of that belief. You find yourself in unhealthy relationships or accept abuse because you tell yourself you're not worthy of better treatment. You are enough. You are worthy.

7. Withdrawing from social life

Social connection is a human need and helps keep you balanced, provides peer validation and gives a sense of belonging. Perhaps you withdraw when you feel others perceive you wrong or don't give you the admiration you crave. Removing yourself (social withdrawal) and going into isolation for long periods are linked to mood changes, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

8. Thinking in black-and-white terms

You see the world in two extremes, black or white, all or nothing. The all-or-nothing mentality is tied to negative thought processes, known as cognitive distortions. Everything and everyone is either “good” or “bad.” You'll either succeed or fail. Your life is perfect or a disaster. You also love to say, “I will never, ever, ever….” Everything in between isn't valued, whether it's the positive experiences along the journey, lessons learned, or personal connections you made. There are no gray areas. Living life in black-and-white terms affects your problem-solving abilities in relationships and other aspects of life.

9. Viewing positive experiences as negative

Do you or does someone you know have trouble seeing the good in things? Low self-esteem and being prone to negative bias might be at the core of the tendency. Let's say you just started dating a girl. She's kind to you and frequently looks for ways to make you happy. Instead of embracing it as a positive experience, you start thinking she must be out to use you in one way or another. Individuals who don't feel “good enough” or deserving of love might become suspicious when others treat them well.

10. Overthinking or overanalyzing things

Overthinking is excessively worrying or obsessing over something or past events. You might go over every gory detail (overanalyze) of your actions or question whether you did the right thing. This can go on for days, weeks, or years. Overanalyzing or picking apart practically everything you or someone says or does may cause chronic dissatisfaction with life. As a person with an inferiority complex, you may latch onto a negative view or outcome after obsessively replaying the same thought over and over in your mind.

11. Having a tendency to jump to negative conclusions

Thinking negatively by default, also known as pessimism, is something akin to individuals who are insecure about themselves or around others. If this is you, you might notice a habit of making hasty negative or irrational conclusions with little or no evidence to support them. For example, “Oh my gosh, he didn't text me today. He doesn't like me anymore.” Making accusations based on false assumptions is a form of cognitive bias and destroys trust and relationships.

12. Being sensitive to compliments and criticisms

Compliments are intended to make you feel good about yourself. However, receiving them triggers your self-consciousness or causes you to feel embarrassed. For example, your friend compliments your pretty dress. You replied with, “Girl, this is an old dress.” Similarly, you can't tolerate criticisms, even those designed to help you grow or succeed. Here's an example. You receive a positive performance review at work with a few comments on ways to improve. Instead of celebrating your performance achievement, you get mad or feel criticized for not doing better.

13. Avoiding interaction with people you think are superior

If you asked, “Do I have an inferiority complex?” and you're still not sure, this sign is a tell-all. Many people seek to network with successful individuals to draw wisdom and guidance on how to excel.

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Your self-image and self-esteem influence your experience with yourself, others, and the world as a whole.

You shortchange yourself by avoiding those who can positively impact your life. I do understand why. Being around successful people reinforces your feelings of low self-worth and self-confidence. Know that you can improve your self-esteem through subconscious reprogramming and getting rid of limiting beliefs.

14. Persistently looking for validation 

Low self-esteem causes you to invalidate your self-worth. Failing to be your biggest fan and cheerleader pushes you to look outward for validation from those around you. You become upset and feel worse whenever the persistent validation you seek isn't forthcoming. If ever you're given compliments, praises, or positive recognition, you act like you don't deserve the accolades.

15. Putting others down to feel better about yourself

Those with a fragile sense of self are known for badmouthing others to disparage their reputation. Do you find yourself doing this so you can look better in the eyes of others or feel superior? Mental health professionals say people do this to cope with an inferiority complex. I was once friends with someone I suspect was a narcissist. He tried to convince me that everyone he's ever dated, his siblings, and all his friends are no good and are always out to use him. In his eyes, he was a victim.

16. Alienating important people in your life

On one end of the spectrum, you might push away someone that cares for you by telling yourself they're not good enough for you or will hurt you. Alternatively, you say you're not good enough for them, although they do their best to make you feel loved. Pushing away loved ones, because of issues like avoidant personality disorder, sabotages your relationships and decreases happiness. After successfully alienating your support network, you get angry, lonely, or depressed, or complain that no one loves you.

17. Undervaluing your accomplishments and positive qualities

You convince yourself that your looks, talents, abilities, accomplishments, and happiness level are no match when compared to others. You downplay your successes through negative self-talk such as, “I'm an okay teacher. My colleagues do a better job.” Another example is graduating with the highest academic distinction (Summa Cum Laude) and saying, “That's not such an impressive achievement. Anyone could do that.”

18. Thinking others look down on you

After months or years of believing you're not worthy, you begin to project that belief onto others. According to your new inner story, your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even strangers think nothing of you. If they stop talking when you're approaching, you assume they must have been saying something bad about you.

19. Displaying excessive competitiveness

A sense of inferiority can show up as being overly competitive. You might frequently find yourself wanting to outdo the other person. If your friend buys a $40,000 car, you ditch your old car and buy one that costs $50,000. Individuals such as those with narcissistic tendencies thrive on one-upping others. If you can do it, they can do it better. Mental health experts confirm that the behavior is tied to a fragile sense of self-esteem, superiority complex, insecurity, and poor self-identity.

Final Thoughts on Whether or Not You Have an Inferiority Complex

Feelings of inferiority are supposed to serve as motivation to become a better version of yourself… before they turn into an inferiority complex. The warning symptoms speak for themselves and can last for years, or a lifetime, mainly because of chronic low self-esteem and being hardwired for negative thinking.

Fortunately, you can overcome this mental state of mind by surrounding yourself with people who uplift you and validate your worth. Other strategies include being mindful of your definition of self, repeating positive self-affirmations to challenge limiting core beliefs and cognitive-behavioral therapy. A therapist will help you uncover the cause and triggers and provide tools you can use to overcome self-limiting habits.

Begin changing your mindset today with 65 Affirmations for Growth and Personal Development.

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