Inferiority Complex

An inferiority complex is a fundamental feeling of inadequacy due to real or imagined social, psychological, intellectual, or physical defects.

History of Inferiority Complex

Adlerian psychology differentiates between two types of inferiority complexes.

  1. Primary inferiority is experienced by children as a result of their helplessness. This inferiority can be increased when children are compared unfavorably to others, and may lead to an inferiority complex in adulthood.
  2. Secondary inferiority occurs when an adult cannot reach the goals he or she has established to cover up the feelings of inferiority he or she has left over from childhood.

Contemporary psychologists typically use the term as a catch-all for low self-esteem. People experiencing an inferiority complex may have an actual deficit that makes them feel inferior, or may imagine their inferiority.

Treatment for Inferiority Complex

Psychotherapy is highly effective at treating feelings of inferiority. Because inferiority complexes are often the result of unhealthy thought processes and false beliefs, therapists will often work with people to reframe negative and/or damaging thoughts and beliefs.

When feelings of inferiority are due to an actual deficit, such as ineffective social skills, clinicians may help a person develop these skills. However, in many cases, inferiority complexes are caused by perceived deficits. These deficits often occur when a person measures himself according to an unrealistic ideal. For example, a person who wants to look like a supermodel may experience strong feelings of inferiority, but looking like a supermodel is an unreasonable goal; even supermodels do not look like supermodels without airbrushing and expert camerawork.

People may also experience feelings of inferiority after experiencing abuse or trauma. Inferiority is associated with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and clinicians may work to help people talk through their feelings of inferiority and directly address any early experiences that contributed to the development of the feelings.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-10-2015

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