Signs of an inferiority complex
The feeling of inferiority is one of the most fundamental, by far the most common feelings most people carry from their childhood. Many people are not aware they carry it within, because this feeling can manifest itself very subtly and is often masked by other emotions, such as arrogance, anger, ambition, guilt … Yet based on my experience with my clients and other people too, I think that at least two thirds, if not more, of human emotional and behavioral problems have their roots in a repressed sense of inferiority from childhood.
People who are not used to introspection often dismiss the idea of subtle, long forgotten childhood feelings influencing them. Yet their external behavior often cannot be well explained by rational motives, or even by instincts, and especially not by healthy and warm feelings. Here are some of the ways in which a subconscious sense of inferiority can manifest:
- the need to prove ourselves (show off), either in subtle or less subtle, constructive or destructive ways (e.g. through physical looks, money, career, cars, expensive clothes, number or social status of love partners …)
- envy of successful people or anyone who gets other people’s attention
- the need to belittle and rationalize (deny) other people’s success
- self-criticism, excessive self-discipline
- on the other hand, there can be irrational defiance and indiscipline (defense mechanism)
- arrogance toward others, excessive self-confidence (compensation)
- a great need to leave a mark in the world, a desire for social recognition or fame
- the desire for our children to be something special
- a sense of guilt if we are not perfect
- seeking attention, quarreling, and power struggles on social media and elsewhere
- susceptibility to authority
- distrust of one’s own opinion and feelings
- excessive selflessness
- fear of what others will say (which often includes excessive control over one’s own children)
- taking on excessive responsibility and an unbalanced need to help others
- feeling threatened, intimidated or resentful when faced with criticism, disagreement, or even ordinary differences between people
- falling in love with authoritative, unavailable or selfish people
- social anxiety / phobia
- the victim role
- an inner feeling of emptiness, self-indifference …
If you are prone to some of these feelings and behaviors, I recommend that you take some time to explore what is behind them. Feel what do you really hope for, what would the fulfillment of those urges mean to you emotionally? You don’t have to worry or feel ashamed if you discover there is a part of you that believes you are not good enough; it’s a perfectly common feeling that doesn’t say anything bad about you. In fact, the more compassionate and innocent a child is, the easier it will be to develop a sense of inferiority in contact with unhealthy adults. That too can be solved with some effort.
These urges can be somewhat mixed with biological instincts, that is, the way in which a sense of inferiority will manifest can be determined in part by one’s biological instincts, which complicates things somewhat. People with a stronger inborn instinct to seek power and status will find it easier to resort to power struggles and status symbols in an attempt to suppress their sense of inferiority. Parental life values and parental models of behavior also have a lot of influence on this.
Some people, trying to get rid of their unwanted feelings, might carry things into another extreme. It is not an expression of health if, instead of obedience to authority, we start to practice uncritical, irrational disobedience; if, trying to trust ourselves more, we end up uncritically believing any feeling that comes into our mind. As long as there is the need to prove ourselves, or some similar uneasy feeling in the background, the cause of the problem has not been fully resolved.
Possible causes of feeling not good enough
Feelings of inferiority are more easily developed in children and people who are more empathetic and cooperative by nature. Such people can easily identify with other people and their emotions, and give them importance, even if those other people behave unhealthily and irrationally. While doing so, empaths find it easier to ignore their own needs or blame themselves for problems, especially while they are still children trying to connect to their parents. In other words, a pronounced sense of inferiority and guilt from childhood often indicates that you are in fact an empathetic and responsible person. I don’t know how comforting it is just from a logical perspective, but that’s the way it is.
A child can easily feel unworthy, unimportant or “less than” even in well-meaning families from time to time, because a child’s perspective is needy and often exaggerated. Some of the circumstances in which feelings of inferiority can develop (besides in obvious cases such as circumstances of abuse, neglect, or excessive criticism) are:
- if one or both parents act too confidently and authoritatively, even when there is no need for it, including not acknowledging their mistakes
- if a parent for any reason has not enough time or interest in the child
- if a parent has to be away from home for a long time due to any circumstances, especially if this is repeated
- if a parent has too high expectations of the child
- if a parent does not understand and does not have patience for the stages of development of the child’s brain and expects the child to think, feel or act like an adult sooner than it’s realistic to expect
- if a parent needs the child to act as a surrogate partner or even a surrogate parent (article: Emotional Incest)
- if a parent favors another child or another family member at the expense of the child
- if there is any kind of chaos or instability in the family (fighting, divorce, illness, fear, grief, death …) due to which the child takes the blame upon him/herself, or tries to take on adult responsibilities
- if parents act from a place of “moral high ground”
- if a parent does not appreciate the child’s feelings and desires (this doesn’t mean the parents should do what a child wants; but it does mean that children need compassionate and thoughtful communication)
- if some of the child’s innate characteristics (gender, appearance, intelligence, talents and affinities …) are not in line with the parents’ expectations,
- if a parent him/herself suffers from the inferiority complex and the child learns from them by imitation,
- if the child misinterprets a particular behavior or intention of the parent
- parental overprotection, which may cause the child to feel incapable of coping with difficulties and challenges
Parents reading this article may now think I’m asking for impossible perfection. But my intention is not to criticize. It is clear to me that modern life is too complicated for any parent to be perfect. Moreover, sometimes parents trying to be perfect end up overprotecting the child, and overprotecting, as I wrote above, can also result in feeling not good enough as well as various other problems. Nor is it good for parents to sacrifice their own boundaries and happiness too much, just to keep the child pleased all the time. Balance is always important, and balance does not always mean perfect feelings.
In essence, I do not think that recognizing and exposing a problem automatically means the problem should not exist at all, and should be suppressed by all means. Even if problems could be completely avoided – which as a rule is not possible – I think experiencing some problems is needed for our development and motivation. (Check out the article Children Need Challenges.) That’s why not everything is up to parents – it is every adult’s responsibility to help themselves heal their self-image, once they grow up.
Inferiority complex in different stages of life
Feeling “less than” may exist at the identity level – i.e. chronic and generalized – or it may be contextual, i.e. may appear only occasionally in specific circumstances. What these circumstances will be, largely depends on the experiences in our early family, that is, what our parents valued or why they criticized us.
Feelings of inferiority often become conscious for the first time in adolescence, when the opinion of our peers becomes especially important to us, and our self-image is unstable. But this does not mean these feelings were created for the first time in that period. The stronger the sense of inferiority, the more generalized and illogical, the more likely it is to originate from an even earlier age.
Sometimes young people can successfully suppress their sense of inferiority when they are just starting out in life and are full of great hopes and goals, faith that they will prove themselves. Then the desired sense of self-worth can be projected onto future accomplishments and drawn from the vision of those accomplishments. But whether you achieve those goals or not, the feeling of inferiority does not come from outside, so it cannot be solved on the outside, either.
People who achieve their ambitions, can one day wake up and realize they still do not feel good enough, that successes have not driven away the underlying pain and emptiness. They may realize that they have wasted years of life chasing other people’s dreams and approval, instead of building their own identity and looking for their own path. Or they don’t realize it at all, so the need to prove themselves keeps driving them on and on. This can often be noticed in powerful and famous people in public life.
People who have failed to achieve their goals may (usually around their 30th or 40th birthday, when they begin to doubt themselves or lose hope) find themselves faced with a sudden resurgence of feelings of inferiority. They have to face a hidden self-image they had mostly successfully avoided until then. Considering it’s a childish self-image, it’s not just reasonable acceptance that we’re among the vast majority of people who aren’t “on top”; it is an irrational but intense feeling that we are flawed, that we are not good enough just by not being among “the best”.
The middle age crisis often involves trying to escape such feelings, so some people may feel an increased need to prove themselves to others, often in reckless ways. They may resort to love affairs without true love, career changes motivated by status and money instead of real affinity, or risky attempts to get rich quick. Anything we do without real inner enthusiasm, to get attention, approval, or a sense of importance from the outside, is typically motivated by a sense of inferiority.
How to heal the sense of inferiority
It is very easy to give in to the urge to seek confirmation from the outside: through money, business success, relationships with popular people, and various power games, from physical violence, to all kinds of manipulation, to games like “I’m a such a victim, I suffer more than others!” Our upbringing, peers, the whole culture around us constantly subtly or less subtly urge us to seek external approval.
But even if we manage to prove ourselves in such ways, external success fails to fill the internal void. Many people lose interest and satisfaction in such success almost as soon as they achieve it, so they usually reorient themselves to some new goal, a new success – and it never ends, it’s never enough.
A healthy motivation for effort and achievement in the outside world is not the hope for recognition and approval of others, but inner inspiration, curiosity and pleasure in developing one’s own potentials. In that state of mind, we have no need to compare ourselves with others, but simply explore, follow our sense of interest and satisfaction, allow our creative urge to express itself. As soon as we start to wonder if what we are doing is good enough, if it will attract attention and recognition, it already means that we doubt our own worth.
In order to be able to live our authentic creativity, we need to find and build a sense of self-worth from within. This is easier said than done, given that childhood impressions and early emotional conditioning are active at a deeper level than rational. It takes perseverance and dedication to work on your relationship with yourself in the long run. Here are some of the most effective, yet simple and enjoyable approaches:
- Imagine looking at yourself from the perspective of someone who loves you. That way, it’s easier to appreciate your virtues while forgiving yourself your flaws.
- Focus on your heart and recognize the qualities you find at the core of your heart. Practice being aware of them and expressing them.
- Identify with the perspective of someone in your environment who has healthy self-esteem. Investigate what it feels like and apply it to yourself.
- Imagine healthy parents who support you, value you and recognize your qualities. This is my favorite and (IMO) the most important approach, given that our inner child still unconsciously follows our parents’ input even when we are already grown up.
If you wish, we can help you with all of this, and apply individual approach in resolving your early conditioning.