Does everyone you know seem to be more successful, popular, funny, intelligent or attractive than you? Do you feel like you’re worthless, and just not ‘good enough’? Or do you hide the ‘real you’ and present a false self to the world? Maybe you’ve even started avoiding social situations because other people’s apparent confidence and success makes you feel bad about yourself. Do you ever ask yourself: “Why do I feel inferior?”

We all feel like we don’t measure up sometimes – usually as a result of a specific, temporary situation. But if you always feel like this, it’s possible you have an inferiority complex. Here’s what it is – and what to do about it.

What is an inferiority complex?

An inferiority complex is not the same as noticing that someone can do something better than you. We all have moments of feeling that other people are more capable or successful than us. It’s how we respond to those feelings that’s important. Do you reflect and feel motivated to pursue your own goals? Or do you get caught in a spiral of rumination, self-blame and inadequacy? Does it feel like a confirmation of a pattern – and your belief in your own inherent inferiority? Do you always feel inferior?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines an inferiority complex as: “A basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” It’s a term that dates back to 1907, when psychoanalyst Alfred Adler used it to explain why so many people seem to lack the motivation to act in their own best interest and pursue their goals in life. Today, we tend to call it ‘low self-esteem’.

Inferiority complex symptoms – what to look out for

If you regularly feel bad about yourself when you compare yourself to others, and it’s interfering with your life, you might have an inferiority complex. You may feel yourself to be physically, intellectually, socially or psychologically inferior to others in your peer group. Feeling inferior can be an isolating experience.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • The smallest criticism makes you feel terrible for days.
  • You’re a perfectionist, and nothing is ever quite good enough.
  • You feel like an outsider looking in – like you’re different in some way.
  • You have an overriding sense of worthlessness and not feeling ‘good enough’.
  • You hide the ‘real you’ from the world because you think you’re unacceptable.
  • You’re a people-pleaser, and constantly defer to others.
  • You always compare yourself against other people’s top qualities.
  • Social media makes you feel miserable because everyone seems to be happier or more successful than you.

If you feel inferior much of the time, you’re at greater risk of anxiety and depression. If you feel you’re not as good as other people, you may feel anxious in many situations – and suffer from social anxiety. And low self-esteem is a key factor in the development and maintenance of depression.

Inferiority complex causes – why you might feel inadequate

Where do these feelings of inferiority come from? There are a number of possibilities – mostly to do with how you think about yourself and others. They may include:

  • Comparison with others. Social media can lead to unhealthy comparisons for some people. Perfectly captured, cropped and filtered images on Instagram can make it seem that everyone is better looking than you and enjoying a more glamorous lifestyle. But social media isn’t real life – and you’re only seeing a highly edited, curated subset of someone else’s best moments. And it’s not just social media. The media as a whole, especially advertising, presents us daily with unattainable images of perfection. Plus you might compare yourself unfavourably to others because you only focus on their best qualities.
  • Failure lifetrap. The failure lifetrap, or ‘schema’, is a pattern of thinking and behaviour that has its roots in childhood. It may result from being constantly criticised by a parent, and can lead to self-sabotaging behaviour. You see yourself and your achievements as never meeting the standards of your peers, and you give up trying – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Social isolation lifetrap. Do you feel like you don’t fit in? The social isolation lifetrap or schema can hold us back because it (wrongly) makes us believe that we’re fundamentally different in some way – and possibly inferior. You might have grown up feeling your family was different from those around you. As you grew up, you may have felt inferior to your peers.
  • Defectiveness lifetrap. If you have this lifetrap or schema you feel like there’s something inherently inferior, flawed or fundamentally wrong with you – and you might avoid putting yourself in situations that will lead to you being judged or evaluated. Perhaps you grew up with a parent who put themselves down a lot, and you internalised this. Or you grew up with parents who were perfectionists and pushed you to succeed – and left you feeling that you’d never be good enough. Or maybe you weren’t given enough encouragement, and grew up feeling like you’d never get anywhere in life.
  • Magnification/minimisation. This is an unhelpful thinking style, or ‘thinking trap’ where you focus on the negative and minimise the positive. Do you, for example, always focus on your flaws and play down your strengths? And do you focus on other people’s best qualities while ignoring their faults?
  • Black-and-white thinking. Imagine thinking “I’m a complete failure” and then, “But he’s perfect. He never gets anything wrong”. The black-and-white thinking trap, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, results in oversimplifying things in this way – rather than seeing things as more complicated, nuanced and in shades of grey.

Inferiority complex – how to overcome it

To start to overcome your feelings of inferiority, try the following:

  • Make fewer comparisons. If you find the endless social media scroll is making you feel inferior, try to restrict the time you spend on these platforms – and the people you follow. And don’t feel you have to ‘live up’ to other people – whether idealised media images or your own friends. Everyone is on their own path, and no one really knows what struggles other people have. Identify your own values and goals – and focus on those.
  • Practice gratitude. Research shows that if you’re grateful for the good things in your life you’ll tend to make fewer comparisons with other people. What are you grateful for? Make a list. Everyone has things to be grateful for.
  • Challenge your thinking. One of the most effective things you can do is to challenge any unhelpful thinking styles and negative thoughts that leave you feeling inferior, unworthy and defective. This is something that therapy can help with.
  • Don’t rely on positive affirmations. This sounds counterintuitive, as we’re often told that repeating positive affirmations can boost self-esteem. But research shows that, while this may work for people who are already confident, if you have low self-esteem it can make you feel worse. Challenging your thinking is more effective.
  • Give yourself a chance. If you tend to avoid situations where you could fail or might feel inadequate, try instead to put yourself in situations where realistic achievements are possible.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation helps bring you back to the present moment instead of ruminating on past mistakes or worrying about the future. Research shows that mindfulness can increase self-acceptance – which may reduce your feelings of inferiority.
  • Practice self-acceptance. Own your flaws and insecurities. No one’s perfect. And that’s OK. Give yourself a break.

Inferiority complex treatment – how can therapy help?

Because low self-esteem is associated with anxiety and depression, seeking help for these problems may help you overcome feelings of inferiority.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be especially helpful for challenging unhelpful thinking styles; and Schema Therapy can help you understand the roots of any persistent negative patterns or ‘lifetraps’. A therapist can also provide strategies, skills and coping mechanisms to help you. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy.

You might also want to try our Self-care audio courses. These include a helpful taster of different therapeutic approaches, and lots of therapeutic skills and exercises that you would learn in face-to-face or video therapy.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Feeling inferior isn’t a result of there being anything inherently wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. Start to become aware of your strengths and capabilities, practice self-compassion, and you’ll soon begin to heal the part of you that feels inadequate.