When teaching my students about psychological defenses, many of them have a good understanding of the superiority complex. They easily describe the school bully, who enacts a type of superiority in order to mask his sense of inferiority, or the short guy whose inferiority takes the form of a Napoleon complex, or the other “short guy” who has the biggest truck in the parking lot. They understand that behaving in superior ways often belies a deeper sense of (real or imagined) inadequacy or inferiority.
To be sure, this is a rather sophisticated understanding of this psychological phenomenon. An understanding that is in line with Alfred Adler’s original description of the superiority complex: “If we inquire into a superiority complex and study its continuity, we can always find a more or less hidden inferiority complex” (Adler, The Science of Living, chapter 2, page 2).
However, what is less understood is the complexity of the opposing complex: the inferiority complex. When I ask about it, my students shrug or suggest that it’s just another name for the superiority complex.
Indeed, popular descriptions of the two have been conflated. Often, the inferiority complex is only considered with regard to its outward expression—that is, when an individual devalues himself/herself or their capabilities. But like the superiority complex, the impetus for this psychological dynamic is to be found beneath the surface.
Adler writes: “We should not be astonished if in the cases where we see an inferiority complex, we find a superiority complex more or less hidden.” So, these two complexes are reflections of each other; perhaps, two sides of the same coin. They are similar in that both are egocentric complexes, where one form is generally found to be masking the other; however, their manifestations appear quite different.
Popularly the inferiority complex is often described as a type of self-loathing resulting from being compared or comparing oneself to others. The implication is that this causes the individual to have an undervalued (inferior) sense of themselves and/or their abilities in whole or in part.
Yet, this is only a half-understanding of the complex, and altogether misses the root of the problem. Like the superiority complex, where the expression of superiority is understood to be a façade masking a deeper felt (sometimes unconscious) sense of inferiority; the inferiority complex is also a façade that masks a deeper felt (sometimes unconscious) sense of superiority.
How else could a sense of inferiority emerge except from a deep-down sense that one really is (or should be) superior?
While not necessarily evidence of a full complex, examples of this inferiority dynamic are observable when we do things like reject praise we duly deserve, fish for compliments via self-deprecation (e.g., humble-bragging), or portray helplessness during situations in which we have power.
In a society that, on the one hand, espouses the virtues of humility while also promoting self-importance, the inferiority complex emerges as one way that we try to reconcile these two disparate ideals. The problem is that this complex, which at first glance may appear to be aligned with humility, is primarily self-serving and has more to do with narcissism than with true humility.
The ways in which we decry our inferiority only serve to call attention back to ourselves, where we hope others will recognize our true brilliance or lift us up to such a place. In other cases, our expressions of inferiority serve as a means to abdicate responsibility in our lives; to throw our hands up in situations where acknowledging our power means being held accountable for how, when, and if we use it. The truth is that having power (in any its many forms, e.g. influence, intelligence, beauty, money, privilege, etc.) while denying it or insisting that it is inconsequential is itself an expression of power.
When asked about the difference between an inferiority complex and humility, the monk Radhanath Swami responded, “An inferiority complex is when the (false) ego is frustrated; whereas, humility is when the (false) ego is rejected.” He goes on to explain that inferiority is about appearances. In a society that glamorizes humility, the enactment of humility becomes more important than a true embodiment of it.
True humility doesn’t seek happiness in the recognition of others, and in that way, has no one to feel inferior to.
Adler, A. (1923). The Science of Living. London: Lowe and Brydone.