Alfred Adler : The Inferiority and Superiority Complex

We sometimes hear these expressions used to describe certain personality traits of people we know, but what do they actually mean?

Inferiority Complex: An acute feeling of inferiority, often resulting in shyness or (through compensation) exaggerated aggressiveness.

Superiority Complex: An exaggerated feeling of being superior to others. A psychological defense mechanism which allows an individual to overcome or conceal feelings of inferiority.

According to the psychologist Alfred Adler “Behind everyone who behaves as if he/she were superior to others, we can suspect a feeling of inferiority which calls for very special efforts of concealment. It is as if a man/woman feared that they were too small and walked on their toes to make themselves taller.” He also wrote “to be a human being means to feel oneself inferior. The child comes into the world as a helpless little creature surrounded by powerful adults. A child is motivated by feelings of inferiority to strive for greater things. When he has reached one level of development, he begins to feel inferior once more and the striving for something better begins again, which is the great driving force of mankind.”

Adler used the examples of Demosthenes who became a great speaker despite having an early speech defect, and Annette Kellerman who became a champion swimmer despite having to wear steel leg braces as a child. Adler believed that feelings of inferiority motivate us to be the best we can be. But if that is the case why do some individuals not seek to achieve more with their lives? He believed that in many cases people construct a fantasy world whereby they blame life events, or other people, for their failure to better themselves. In other words they chose to give up and make excuses for their inaction. So how does this fit in with the inferiority and superiority complex?

Adler felt that negative responses to feelings of inferiority develop into a complex. Those with an inferiority complex will act and feel inferior, living in denial of their chance to better themselves. The individual with a superiority complex will take these feelings of denial and behave in an aggressive way to compensate, working towards attaining selfish goals. Characteristics include the need to dominate, refusal to cooperate and taking but not giving. Both are symptoms of poor self image.

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