Feelings of insecurity and self-doubt often come and go throughout our life. While it’s perfectly natural to compare ourselves to others—and social media makes this all too easy to do—living with an ongoing, overwhelming sense of inadequacy can be a sign of an inferiority complex.
While not a diagnosable mental health condition, someone with an inferiority complex may have difficulty taming their inner critic. Still, plenty of strategies exist to overcome it and live a more comfortable, confident life.
What Is Inferiority Complex?
Inferiority complex describes a persistent feeling of self-doubt and a belief that one is inherently inferior or less capable than others, explains David Tzall, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist in New York City. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes the term as a “feeling of inadequacy and insecurity stemming from true or imagined deficiencies.” These perceived deficiencies can be physical or psychological, and can lead to a range of behaviors such as immobilizing timidness to excessive competitiveness and aggression, per the APA.
Generally, you can think of an inferiority complex as a state of mind or a feeling of being unworthy compared to others, adds Jenny Maenpaa, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of Forward in Heels.
While occasionally comparing ourselves to others can be a healthy motivator—like when it causes us to positively pursue certain goals after seeing someone achieve something we’d like to have, which can be a rewarding experience—someone with an inferiority complex tends to have a chronically negative inner monologue, which makes comparison to others a negative experience instead of a rewarding one, notes Maenpaa.
“When your inner monologue can only focus on how your shortcomings make you an inherently unworthy person, you’ve moved beyond usual insecurities and into an inferiority complex that is defining who you are as fundamentally inadequate,” Maenpaa says.
Inferiority complex is not a diagnosable disorder on its own, so you won’t find it in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR), says Dr. Tzall. Still, he points out, it may be a feature of other disorders.
Some disorders where you may see an inferiority complex at play, according to Dr. Tzall, include:
- Eating disorders
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
- Dependent personality disorder (DPD)
If your focus is always on how you don’t measure up to others, it’s possible for those inner thoughts to lead to symptoms like insomnia, loss of interest in once pleasurable activities or restricting your food intake in an attempt to look a certain way, adds Maenpaa.
“If enough symptoms are present for long enough, you might meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health disorder,” she says.
Causes of Inferiority Complex
A mix of individual, social and environmental factors may be behind the development of an inferiority complex, according to Dr. Tzall.
Here is a look at some possible causes that can play a role in the development of an inferiority complex:
- Childhood experiences and relationships: An inferiority complex is often caused by not feeling valued growing up, explains Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, Colorado. “Most of the time, this person received a lot of criticism growing up or was neglected and never felt good enough for anyone,” he says.
Maenpaa adds that it’s often a result of a child hearing themselves compared unfavorably to other children—whether it’s from parents, teachers, coaches or other adults. For example, it might result from a parent saying something like, “why do I always have to ask you to clean your room multiple times when your brother keeps his room clean without even being asked?” Or in a school setting, it could result from a teacher comparing a child’s grades to their peers’ higher scores, Maenpaa adds. Additionally, social exclusion in childhood can impact feelings of inferiority. A 2022 study in China found that youth social exclusion influences feelings of inferiority through rumination thinking.
- Adulthood and social media use: “In adulthood, inferiority complex can look like using social media to measure your success against others’ and feeling that your life is less exciting, interesting or worthwhile than everyone else’s,” Maenpaa explains. Dr. Tzall also suggests limiting social media exposure, saying it can significantly impact self-esteem.
- Traumatic experiences: Traumatic events can also profoundly impact a person’s self-esteem and lead to a persistent sense of inferiority and unworthiness, according to Dr. Tzall.
- Rejection in relationships: “Receiving negative feedback or experiencing rejection in personal relationships, friendships or romantic endeavors can reinforce feelings of being unworthy or not good enough,” says Dr. Tzall. Research notes that whether romantic, platonic or in family dynamics, rejection can have a multitude of consequences—including emotional, psychological and interpersonal.
Signs of Inferiority Complex
Along with persistent feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, other possible signs of an inferiority complex, according to experts, can include:
- Fixation on what others have that you do not: Maenpaa points to this preoccupation as one common sign. This can look like obsessing over someone’s new car, promotion at work or relationship with an emphasis on your lack of those things.
- Comparing yourself to others: “This can include both people you know and strangers whose real lives you know nothing about,” Maenpaa says.
- Inventing details of others’ lives: This can look like automatically filling in what you don’t know about others with positive attributes, Maenpaa explains.
- Negative self-talk: This can involve constantly criticizing yourself, according to Dr. Tzall. Focusing on perceived weaknesses or flaws may degrade any positivity you feel toward yourself.
- Striving for perfection: An individual may try to overcompensate for their feelings of inadequacy by striving for perfection, excessive achievement or seeking attention and validation from others, according to Dr. Tzall.
- Procrastination: Procrastination with an inferiority complex may be due to a belief that your efforts are worthless, so you shouldn’t even bother trying, notes Maenpaa.
- Resentment: Someone with an inferiority complex, according to Maenpaa, may feel resentment toward others who seem to have success come to them easily or quickly.
- Self-sabotage: This can mean engaging in behaviors that undermine one’s own success and achievements due to a subconscious fear of success or a belief that they do not deserve it, according to Dr. Tzall.
- Avoidant behaviors: People may avoid situations that trigger feelings of inferiority or situations where they fear failure or judgment, adds Dr. Tzall. This can include avoiding social interactions and relationships to shield themselves from potential rejection or judgment.
- Competitive or aggressive behaviors: The APA notes that an inferiority complex can include overcompensation through excessive competition and aggression.
While outward signs may be more subtle, a few physical cues can signal that someone may be dealing with an inferiority complex. According to Dr. Fisher, some of these signs can include:
- Lacking eye contact
- Talking quietly
- Avoiding being in the spotlight
7 Strategies for Overcoming Inferiority Complex
Dealing with an inferiority complex can feel overwhelming. However, there are plenty of strategic steps you can take to conquer persistent feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
Here are some strategies for overcoming an inferiority complex that you can try today.
- Become aware of negative self-talk: Becoming aware of your negative inner dialogue may be half the battle. “When you catch yourself thinking negatively about yourself, challenge those thoughts,” Dr. Tzall says. Instead of going along with the negative thoughts and agreeing with them, Dr. Tzall encourages people to treat themselves with the same kindness and understanding that we tend to freely offer to a friend facing similar challenges.
- Fact-check your internal narrative: Maenpaa encourages people to find out if self-criticism is truly rooted in facts. “Or are there facts that support your worthiness?” she asks. Dr. Fisher suggests capturing and countering your thoughts. “Watch for negative self-talk and correct it with more adaptive language.” For example, he says that instead of thinking, “work was bad today and it’s all my fault,” counter it with, “work was rough, and some of it was my fault, some of it was my supervisor and some of it was the client’s fault.”
- Implement self-esteem boosters into your life: This may mean communicating your needs and boundaries effectively with others, explains Dr. Tzall. He suggests learning to assert yourself in a respectful manner to help improve self-esteem and lower feelings of powerlessness. Dr. Fisher adds that it helps to take a strengths inventory and start doing things you’re good at to build your confidence. You may also consider self-affirmations for improving confidence.
- Identify and celebrate your strengths and accomplishments: Dr. Tzall points to this step, emphasizing that it doesn’t matter how small a win may feel, it’s still worth celebrating.
- Consider seeing a mental health professional. A professional can offer guidance and action plans that make sense for your life. “They can provide valuable insights, support and practical techniques to address the underlying causes,” Dr. Tzall adds.
- Build and maintain a strong support system: Nurture friendships with safe and supportive people in your life, building your sense of connection with others, suggests Dr. Fisher.
- Focus on the next step. Instead of thinking about how far away you are from where you want to be, Maenpaa recommends asking yourself, “what is the next thing I can do to move forward?” The size of the step doesn’t matter—focus on the next step, no matter how small it feels. “Every success, big or small, starts with a first step, then a next step and then another next step until the result is achieved,” she says.
If a deeply negative inner monologue has been running in the background of your life for a while, try these strategies to overcome feelings of inferiority. With consistency and patience, you can begin to feel relief and see improvement.