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This article reviews the concept of the inferiority complex refers to the feelings of inadequacy or inferiority that some people experience, whether they are real or imagined. These feelings may result from a physical defect, a lack of intelligence, or a negative childhood experience. An inferiority complex can affect how a person behaves in social situations, either by withdrawing, overcompensating, or acting aggressively. The term can also apply to macro societal structures, which are the large-scale patterns and institutions that shape society, and helps explain their behaviour.
Origin of the term
The term “inferiority complex” was coined in the 1920s by Alfred Adler, a one-time follower of Sigmund Freud who became disenchanted with Freud’s emphasis on the influence of unconscious factors as motivators in human behaviour (Encyclopedia.com, 2018). Adler proposed that a feeling of inferiority may arise from various sources, such as physical defects, social disadvantages, or psychological traumas. He also suggested that people may try to overcome their inferiority by striving for superiority, either in a healthy or unhealthy way (Wikipedia, 2022).
According to Adler, a healthy way of coping with inferiority is to develop one’s abilities and talents in a realistic and socially beneficial manner. This is known as the “striving for perfection” or the “will to power”. A person who follows this path may achieve a sense of self-worth and confidence. An example of this is Demosthenes, a famous Greek orator who overcame his speech impediment by practising with pebbles in his mouth (Wikipedia, 2022).
Jung’s insight on Inferiority
Carl Jung was one of the pioneers of psychology who contributed to the concept of the inferiority complex. According to Jung, an inferiority complex is a feeling of inadequacy that arises from the unconscious and affects one’s personality and behaviour. Jung believed that everyone has an inferior function, which is the opposite of their dominant function, and that this function is often repressed or neglected, leading to feelings of inferiority (Jung, 2020).
Jung also suggested that inferiority complexes can be overcome by integrating the inferior function into one’s conscious awareness and developing a superior self, which is a state of harmony and self-realization. Jung wrote: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” (Jung, 2020). By making the darkness conscious, Jung meant that one should confront and accept the aspects of oneself that are hidden, unassimilated, or antagonistic, and use them as an incentive for greater effort and achievement (Jung, 2020; Academy of Ideas, 2020).
An example of how Jung applied his concept of the inferiority complex to his own life can be found in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Jung described how he felt inferior to his father, who was a pastor, and how he struggled with his own religious doubts and questions. He also recounted how he overcame his complex by exploring his own unconscious through dreams, visions, and active imagination, and by developing his own psychological theories and methods (Jung, 1963).
Karen Horney on inferiority
Another famous thinker who contributed to the concept of the inferiority complex was Karen Horney. Horney was a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst who challenged some of Freud’s views on women and sexuality.
Horney proposed that the inferiority complex was not a biological phenomenon, but a result of social and cultural factors that create feelings of insecurity and anxiety in individuals. She also suggested that people cope with these feelings by adopting one of three interpersonal orientations: moving toward, moving against, or moving away from others. These orientations reflect different ways of seeking safety and satisfaction in relationships. For example, someone who moves toward others may be compliant, dependent, and self-effacing, while someone who moves against others may be aggressive, domineering, and narcissistic. Horney believed that these orientations were not fixed, but could change depending on the situation and the person’s level of self-awareness.
One of Horney’s famous quotes on the inferiority complex is: “The dread of being nothing is the root of all our aspirations” (Horney, 1950, p. 17). She argued that people who suffer from an inferiority complex have a distorted self-image and a low self-esteem. They may try to compensate for their perceived flaws by striving for perfection, power, or prestige.
However, these attempts are often futile and frustrating because they do not address the underlying causes of their insecurity. Horney advocated for a more realistic and positive view of oneself, based on one’s own values and potentials, rather than on external standards or expectations.
Wholeness explanation for inferiority
According to the wholeness theory of self-esteem, the cause of inferiority is the incongruence between one’s self-concept and one’s actual experience (Wholeness Self Transcendence, n.d.). In other words, when people have a distorted or rigid view of themselves that does not match their reality, they feel inadequate and insecure. For example, someone who believes they are incompetent may feel inferior when they face a challenging task or receive negative feedback.
To overcome this sense of inferiority, the wholeness theory suggests that people need to develop a more accurate and flexible self-concept that incorporates all aspects of their personality and experience. By doing so, they can achieve a higher level of self-esteem and wellbeing. As Carl Rogers, creator of the person-centred approach, stated: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change” (as cited in Carl Rogers Theory & Contribution to Psychology, n.d., para. 9).
One way to illustrate this point is to use the metaphor of a mosaic. A mosaic is a picture or pattern made of small pieces of coloured material. Each piece represents a part of one’s self, such as a trait, a value, a skill, a memory, etc. Some pieces may be bright and shiny, while others may be dark and dull. Some pieces may fit well together, while others may seem out of place. However, when all the pieces are arranged together in a harmonious way, they form a beautiful and unique image that reflects one’s wholeness.
Therefore, instead of denying, rejecting, or hiding some parts of themselves that they consider inferior or unacceptable, people can embrace and integrate them into their self-concept. By doing so, they can appreciate their diversity and complexity, and recognize their strengths and potentials. They can also be more open and authentic in their relationships with others, as they do not need to pretend or conform to unrealistic expectations.
Some quotes that support this idea are:
“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” Carl Jung (as cited in What is self-esteem? 3 Theories on the Function of self-esteem, 2010)
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Buddha (as cited in A 3-Part Process for Living Into Wholeness | Psychology Today, 2023)
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (as cited in A 3-Part Process for Living Into Wholeness | Psychology Today, 2023)
The negative impact of Inferiority
Some people may resort to an unhealthy way of compensating for their inferiority, which is to exaggerate their importance and achievements, or to belittle and dominate others. This is known as the “striving for personal superiority” or the “will to pleasure”. A person who follows this path may develop an inflated ego (egoism) and a disregard for others’ feelings and needs. An example of this is Napoleon Bonaparte, a French emperor who conquered many lands but also suffered from a short stature and a fear of being ridiculed (Verywell Mind, 2022).
An inferiority complex occurs when a person has an exaggerated sense of inadequacy and a persistent feeling of being inferior to others. This may result from negative childhood experiences, such as being abused, neglected, or compared unfavourably to siblings or peers. It may also result from physical or mental limitations, such as being shorter than average, having a learning disability, or suffering from depression. A person with an inferiority complex may withdraw from social situations, avoid challenges, seek constant validation, or act aggressively or competitively towards others (Verywell Mind, 2022).
An inferiority complex can negatively impact one’s mental health and wellbeing. It can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, isolation, resentment, anger, jealousy, or even suicidal thoughts. It can also interfere with one’s personal and professional growth, such as limiting one’s career choices, sabotaging one’s relationships, or preventing one’s self-expression (Verywell Mind, 2022).
Coping with feelings of inferiority
Coping with an inferiority complex requires recognizing and challenging one’s negative beliefs about oneself and others. It also requires developing one’s strengths and skills in a constructive and realistic way. Some strategies that may help include:
- Seeking professional help from a therapist or counsellor who can provide support and guidance
- Practising positive self-talk and affirmations that highlight one’s qualities and achievements
- Keeping a journal that records one’s thoughts and feelings and identifies the sources of one’s inferiority
- Meditating or doing other relaxation techniques that can reduce stress and increase mindfulness
- Surrounding oneself with positive and supportive people who can offer encouragement and feedback
- Setting realistic and attainable goals that can boost one’s confidence and motivation
- Pursuing one’s interests and hobbies that can provide enjoyment and fulfilment
- Volunteering or helping others who can benefit from one’s talents and compassion
Transcendence as the ultimate way of coping
One way to cope with an inferiority complex is to adopt a self-transcendent perspective, which means going beyond one’s own ego and focusing on the welfare of others and the larger world. According to Adler (2013b), “self-transcendence is the true expression of our humanity” (p. 12). He believed that mental health is characterized by reason, social interest, and self-transcendence; mental disorder by feelings of inferiority and self-centred concern for one’s safety and superiority or power over others (Britannica, 2023).
By transcending one’s own limitations and fears, one can overcome the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that plague the psyche. For example, a person who feels inferior about their academic abilities may decide to volunteer as a tutor for underprivileged children, thus using their skills to help others and gaining a sense of purpose and meaning in life. This may also boost their self-esteem and confidence, as they realize that they have something valuable to offer to the world.
Another example is a person who feels inferior about their physical appearance may decide to join a charity run or a yoga class, thus improving their health and fitness while also contributing to a good cause or a supportive community. This may also enhance their self-image and happiness, as they appreciate their body for what it can do rather than how it looks. self-transcendence can be seen as the ultimate coping strategy for an inferiority complex, as it allows one to shift the focus from oneself to something greater and more meaningful.
Application to macro societal structures
The inferiority complex can also apply to macro societal structures, which are the large-scale patterns and institutions that shape society. One example of a macrostructure is patriarchy, which is the system of economic and political inequality between women and men in most societies. Patriarchy can create an inferiority complex among women, who may feel less valued, respected, or capable than men. This can lead to low self-esteem, depression, or internalized sexism.
Another example of a macrostructure is colonialism, which is the domination and exploitation of one country or group by another. Colonialism can create an inferiority complex among the colonized people, who may feel less civilized, cultured, or worthy than the colonizers. This can lead to self-hatred, oppression, or assimilation.
The concept of the inferiority complex as it applies to macro societal structures has been noticed and researched by various scholars and activists. For instance, Frantz Fanon (1963), a psychiatrist and anti-colonial thinker, wrote about the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized people. He argued that colonialism creates a “colonized mentality” that makes the colonized people feel inferior and dependent on the colonizers. He also suggested ways to overcome this mentality, such as cultural resistance and national liberation.
Another example is Betty Friedan (1963), a feminist writer and activist, who wrote about the dissatisfaction and frustration that many American women felt in the 1950s and 1960s. She argued that patriarchy creates a “feminine mystique” that limits women’s roles and potentials to domesticity and motherhood. She also advocated for women’s rights and opportunities, such as education, work, and political participation.
Societal inferiority complexes can lead to war, an example that affected governmental structures and led to wars is the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. After Germany’s defeat in World War I and the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, many Germans felt humiliated, oppressed, and exploited by the victorious Allied powers. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of Adolf Hitler and his ideology of racial supremacy and national expansionism. Hitler exploited the Germans’ sense of inferiority and resentment to gain power and to justify his aggressive policies towards other countries, especially those he considered racially inferior or enemies of Germany. This resulted in World War II, one of the most devastating wars in human history.
Another example of a societal inferiority complex that influenced governmental structures and contributed to wars is the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. After World War II, these two superpowers emerged as the dominant political, economic, and military forces in the world, but they had different ideologies and interests that clashed with each other. The Soviet Union felt threatened by the United States’ capitalist system and its nuclear arsenal, while the United States feared the spread of communism and its potential threat to democracy and freedom. Both sides engaged in a series of proxy wars, espionage, propaganda, and arms races to assert their superiority and influence over other countries and regions. The Cold War lasted for almost half a century and had significant impacts on global politics, culture, and society.
These examples show that societal inferiority complexes can apply to governmental structures and can result in wars. However, this is not a deterministic or inevitable outcome, as there are other factors that influence the causes and consequences of wars, such as resources, alliances, ideologies, personalities, and events.
These are some quotes and examples that illustrate the concept of the inferiority complex as it applies to macro societal structures:
“The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive: ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true: there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.” (Fanon 1963, p. 36)
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?'” (Friedan 1963, p. 15)
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Adler, A. (2013b). The science of living. Routledge.
Encyclopedia.com. (2018). Inferiority Complex. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/psychology/psychology-and-psychiatry/inferiority-complex
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.
Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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Verywell Mind. (2022). What Is an Inferiority Complex? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-the-inferiority-complex-5186892
Wikipedia. (2022). Inferiority complex. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferiority_complex