What is Alfred Adler’s Inferiority Complex?

What is Adler's inferiority complex?

Do you remember wanting to grow up quickly as a child? To finally turn those magical 16, 18, 21 years of age and overcome the dependency on your parents? Most of us have had those feelings. And while they may be completely innocent, they could be the start of Adler’s inferiority complex.

Growing up, a child will often feel incapable of matching the skills, knowledge, and authority that comes with being an adult.

But as the child grows and turns into an adult, this sense of inferiority persists and can manifest itself in a variety of ways, most typically in a frustrated desire for perfection and recognition. This sense of self-doubt and sometimes global lack of self-esteem was termed by the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler inferiority complex

Adler thought that these feelings were part of the wider explanation as to why so many people strive for self-improvement, but are plagued by feelings which make them incapable of development. 

Adler’s Inferiority Complex: Beginnings

Alfred Adler portrait

Adler was an early follower of Sigmund Freud. Around the 1910s, however, he split off from the Freudian school as he grew more convinced that individual outlook, and not necessarily libido and sex, drove human behavior. Adler’s theories on inferiority and compensation were two of the major drivers of his split with Freudian psychoanalysis. 

What does the term ‘inferiority complex’ mean?

To be sure, Adler did not think this pathological sense of inadequacy was universal. He believed it only manifested in people who felt inferiority as children but were not able to compensate for it correctly.

In contrast, those who are able to escape it would often strive to overcome these original inferiority feelings by improving on their weaker traits by facing the world with a problem-solving attitude. The feelings of self-improvement that come with overcoming some of their weaknesses would bring a certain relief from the feelings of inadequacy.

According to Alfred Adler, to feel inferiority complex is to feel human.

Alternatively, they might succeed in mastering a skill to near-perfection, which would compensate for an unrelated weakness.

In his book The Science of Living, Adler states:

“Everyone (…) has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development.” 

Alfred Adler, The Science of Living

Interestingly, according to Adlerian psychology, this sense of (primary) inferiority is what can propel people to their best possible selves (what Maslow might have later called self-actualization). He might say that it is what amplifies the emotional impact that our weaknesses have on our minds and lives. It forces us to overcome our limitations and to strive for perfection.

It could be seen as that feeling of not being comfortable in our skins when we perceive ourselves as insufficient and lacking. We subsequently take action to free ourselves from its discomfort and improve as people.

But inferiority, to Adler, is also the inability to compensate for the feelings of inferiority in childhood (primary inferiority feelings) through reaching a reassuring final goal, often subconscious and fictional. The frustration of not obtaining that goal could lead to a painful recall of the original feelings of inadequacy from the person’s childhood (what are called secondary inferiority feelings). This would often result in the development of Adler’s inferiority complex.

The resulting complex web of inferiority feelings, which could in some cases stretch the present, past and future, can often be experienced as overwhelming. The severity of the feeling would mirror the perceived distance from the goal.

Thus, unbeknownst to the person, the original goal, which was meant to provide reassurance that would negate the original feelings from childhood, causes the exacerbation of the inferiority experience.

But why would that goal be as important, as capable of providing reassurance and therefore as frustrating when it is not achieved? Because it is often unrealistic as it is meant to provide relief from the inferiority feelings. It is a purposively fictional challenge that the mind cannot achieve, but which, if achieved, would satiate ‘the need for perfection’. It is seen as a savior from inferiority.

Symptoms of Perceived Inferiority

In some cases, this could trigger a vicious cycle. The unmet need might cause a desire to overcompensate for the failure to meet it. The person would then suppose that setting even more difficult targets that would prove to them that they are worthy.

Expressions of inferiority complex

According to Adler, inferiority complex’s symptoms arise from the safeguarding techniques that an individual may employ to excuse oneself from (or altogether avoid) an imagined failure. Among these symptoms are:

  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal
    • Withdrawal may include the physical and emotional distancing from seemingly threatening people and situations
  • Guilt
  • Self-deprecation and accusation

Often these symptoms become a part of one’s lifestyle. Inside the individual’s mind, they may often be seen as coping mechanisms. These are tools meant to shield them from facing up with their real problems and with the risks of living. They are designed to protect the individual self-ideal (ego ideal) and the relationship of that ideal with the wider world.

Their appeal lies in the promise that through withdrawal from the inherent difficulties in living life, the ego would not be exposed. Therefore, it would not be harmed.

Symptoms of inferiority complex include withdrawal, anxiety and depression.

Moreover, according to Adler’s ego psychology, the individual would only exhibit these coping mechanisms if he or she feels inadequate in relation to an important goal. Usually, these would be goals related to friendship, love or work. Unimportant or trivial goals are unlikely to trigger such feelings and might not affect a person’s mental health.

Superiority Complex

In some cases, these mechanisms could lead to the manifestation of an inferiority complex as a superiority complex

Adler thought that it too arises from childhood feelings of inferiority. But in this case, rather than withdrawing from the world, the individual attempts to overcompensate and places too much emphasis on the pursuit of perfection. Commonly, the individual would exaggerate and overemphasize their personal abilities and accomplishments. The subconscious aim is to overcompensate for the deeper feelings of inadequacy.

Adler’s Theory of Personality

Central to Alfred Adler’s theory of human behavior was the need to overcome the feelings of mediocrity. According to Adlerians, inferiority feelings drive the individual to move through life and to want to achieve the most of it. They are driven towards perfection or at least superiority compared to their past selves and/or others.

Based on these fundamentals, Adler described four distinct psychological types of people. In agreement with his personality theory, he proposed that all aspects of an individual- thoughts, feelings and behavior are united in a consistent pattern that results in their style of life. 

According to him, in the three types where inferiority manifests itself, it is impossible for people to move away from themselves. Only the fourth, social type has conquered his or her feelings of inadequacy.

  1. The Ruling Type
    1. According to the Austrian psychologist, this type describes people who would be aggressive and would seek to dominate others to get what they want. They would exert considerable effort to do so and are seen as the most energetic of the four types. It would include bullies, alcoholics and sadists but not always. Some Ruling Types may direct the destruction inward.
  2. The Learning Type
    1. Describe by Adler as sensitive and withdrawn. Their low levels of energy often result in them relying on other people to help them deal with life’s difficulties. They are prone to phobias, anxieties and obsessions.
  3. The Avoiding Type
    1. People of this type would be the most withdrawn and avoidant of all. Adler thought they would have the lowest energy levels of all and the highest risk of becoming psychotic and shelled in their personal worlds.
  4. The Socially Useful Type
    1. A healthy, in the fullest sense of the word, person. They are energetic but not neurotic and display an interest in others.

Thus began the movement which Adler called individual psychology. But despite this method’s name, a lot of Adler’s work had a focus on the social. In particular, Adler wanted to find ways to help people become healthier individuals with a strong (but not oppressive) social interest, unhindered by the self-defeating feelings of personal inadequacy.

Treatment for Inferiority complex

Therapy can help you overcome inferiority complex.

Adler thought that letting go of the perfectionist, unrealistic self-ideal (as well as Adler’s safeguarding techniques) is an integral part of treating inferiority complex. And he emphasized the function which psychotherapy could play in that process. Psychotherapy, at its best, can be a way of discovering the courage to find out what we are truly striving for. This, in turn, will calibrate our self-ideal and help the person adopt a courageous style of life that will allow him to coexist with the uncertainties of life.

Who was Alfred Adler?

Adler was an Austrian doctor and therapist who began the school of individual psychology. He was born to a big Jewish family in 1870 on the then-fringes of Vienna. In his community, Adler was a popular child but sickly child. His poor health as a kid and his familial role as a second child are thought to have contributed to the development of Adler’s theory on the inferiority complex and organ inferiority.

After graduating with medicine from the University of Vienna, Adler began a career as an eye doctor but quickly reoriented his career toward general practice. In 1902, he was invited by Sigmund Freud to join a discussion group at Freud’s house where papers in psychology would be discussed and analyzed.

In 1908 Adler presented his seminal paper “The aggressive instinct in life and in neurosis” to this group. The paper was at odds with Freud’s theory as it put forth the aggressive drive as a key part of human behavior. The tension between Freud and Adler persisted and in 1911, the latter withdrew from Freud’s circle. Throughout his later life, he maintained that he was not a student of Freud, but rather a contributor, who Freud had invited to share his ideas.

In contrast to Freud who attempted to explain behavior through libido, Adler pointed out the importance of power, politics, gender, and compensation. Adler’s theory on the inferiority complex is a major driver behind his beliefs.

In the 1930s, amidst the waves of antisemitism, Adler’s clinics in Austria were closed because of his Jewish origins. He subsequently left the country and became a professor at the Long Island College of Medicine in the United States. His move across the Atlantic led to the spread of his theory of inferiority overseas.

During a lecture tour in Scotland in 1937, Adler died of a heart attack.

Inferiority Complex Conclusions

Adler’s theory of inferiority predicts that a developed inferiority complex may result in avoidance and withdrawal from the world or may manifest in a superiority complex. And so according to Adlerians inferiority feelings will either make people distance themselves from their world (as in the learning and avoiding types) or try to bullyingly dominate it (e.g. the ruling type).

And while Adler’s theory has its drawbacks (oversimplicity and questionable scientific backing) it rings true. And so does the patient calm that we can imagine follows after the resolution of an inferiority complex and the inadequacy feelings that it brings.

At The Neuroscope, we believe that these feelings can be resolved and that we can live fuller, happier lives. If you think that seeking a therapist’s help could help you, please don’t hesitate to look for help.


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