In the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, an inferiority complex is an extremely deep feeling that one is inferior to others. It is often unconscious, and is thought to drive afflicted individuals to overcompensate, resulting either in spectacular achievement or extreme antisocial behavior. Early work in this field was pioneered by Alfred Adler, who used the example of the "Napoleon complex" to illustrate his theory. According to Adler, even the deepest and most destructive inferiority complexes can be cured through his therapeutic process, which uses our natural ability to make positive change in our lives.
Classical Adlerian psychology
An inferiority complex is an extremely deep feeling of inferiority that can lead to pessimistic resignation and an assumed inability to overcome difficulties. Unlike a normal feeling of inferiority, which can act as an incentive for achievement, an inferiority complex is an advanced state of discouragement, often resulting in a retreat from difficulties. This neurosis is caused by an attempt to attain an extremely unrealistic personality ideal, while, at the same time, the belief in one's own significance has already been severely shaken by a deep-seated sense of inferiority. On the other hand, an inferiority complex can lead to successful overachievement accompanied by self-imposed social ostracism, as the individual is pushed to extremes to overcompensate for their perceived inferiority while believing that others see them only in terms of that inadequacy.
The concept of the inferiority complex was first introduced by Alfred Adler in his Individual psychology. Adler defined mental health as a feeling of human connectedness, and a willingness to develop oneself fully and contribute to the welfare of others. When these qualities are underdeveloped, an individual experiences feelings of inferiority, or an attitude of superiority that may antagonize others. The perception of superiority leads to self-centered behavior and the individual may become emotionally or materially exploitive of other people. Adler's theory of Individual psychology of psychological compensation states that "the stronger the feeling of inferiority, the higher the goal for personal power."
Adler postulated that, as a result of initial helplessness, an infant feels inferior and attempts to overcome feelings of incompletion by striving for a higher level of development. Feeling inferior, and compensating for that feeling, becomes the dynamic principle of motivation, moving an individual from one level of development to the next. This striving occurs continuously throughout life, beginning in infancy, as children become aware of their inadequacies, especially when comparing themselves to older children and adults. Adler described the resulting experience of feeling inferior was as a "minus situation." These inferiority feelings become the motivation for striving towards what he called "plus situations."
Adler made a distinction between primary and secondary inferiority feelings. A primary inferiority feeling is rooted in the young child's original experience of weakness, helplessness, and dependency. A secondary inferiority feeling refers to an adult's experience of being unable to reach an unconscious, compensatory, fictional, final goal of subjective security and success. The perceived distance from that goal leads to a "minus" feeling that could then prompt the recall of the original inferiority feeling. This composite of inferiority feelings could be experienced as overwhelming.
The problem with these feelings of inferiority is that the goal invented to relieve the original, primary feeling of inferiority actually causes the secondary feeling of inferiority. This vicious circle is common in those suffering from neurosis. The secondary inferiority feeling is exacerbated when the individual has adopted an unrealistically high or impossible compensatory goal. In addition to the distress of not achieving this goal, the residue of the original, primary feeling of inferiority may still haunt an adult.
Napoleon complex (or Napoleon syndrome) is a colloquial term used to describe a type of inferiority complex suffered by people who are short. Alfred Adler used Napoléon Bonaparte as an example of someone driven to extremes by a psychological need to compensate for what he perceived as a handicap: his small stature. In actuality, though, Napoleon was not especially short, being slightly over 168 cm (5 feet, 6 inches).
Typically, people with this complex compensate in many ways. For example, a person with a Napoleon Complex may set pictures in their home to lower levels and make other such accommodations that enable them to feel taller in their surroundings. Compensatory behavior may also include being overly aggressive, or argumentative, and a tendency to want to over-achieve, all of which serve to give the person a sense of greater self worth.
Inferiority complex in children
Adler believed that the feeling of inferiority typically begins in childhood. Children may have developed feelings of inferiority on the basis of real shortcomings, or from misinterpretations about their body, or their social or physical relationship with their environment. Adler believed that a fictitious goal of superiority is set higher, and will be adhered to more tenaciously, the longer and more clearly the child perceives his insecurity, the more he suffers from actual physical or mental impediments, and the more intensely he feels being neglected. At some point the striving for power and dominance over others becomes exaggerated and intensified until it is considered pathological.
The concept of inferiority as a motivational force for children is not unique to Adler. One of Adler's students, Anthony Bruck, cautioned that labeling children as aggressive, or otherwise antisocial is only superficial. He believed that the desire for significance and feelings of inferiority are causal factors. Feelings of inferiority hurt children and make them aggressive. On the other hand, he believed that inferiority feelings can be very useful in education. This is particularly important from the viewpoint of the teacher, as the interest of children in their education springs from their feeling of inferiority, provided it remains within tolerable limits. He pointed out two significant reasons that thwart a child's interest in learning: One is an excessive feeling of inferiority which leads to despair and feelings of hopelessness at achieving mastery. The other, the usual consequence of the former, is the development of a striving no longer towards security and equality, but towards power and superiority.
Erik Erikson described the fourth stage of psychosocial development as the task of inferiority vs. industry. He discovered that for the child at this stage it is essential to discover pleasure in being productive and to experience success. In school, a child is challenged to learn academic skills, new socializing skills with peers, as well as develop physical abilities through games and sports. Difficulty in any of these areas can lead to a sense of inferiority, failure, and incompetence. With an adult's support, however, the child can develop a sense of competence. If the adults in a child's life do not support the child, feelings of inferiority are likely to develop which in turn lead the child to invest less and so to further failure.
It has been suggested that the inferiority complex can also exist at a wider level, affecting entire cultures. In such cases, known as "cultural cringe," people of a particular nation suffer a sense of embarrassment caused by feeling that their national culture is inferior to others. While controversial as a sociological theory, the term has entered into popular parlance, particularly in Australia, Scotland, and other countries with historical ties to England.
Adler believed that the desire of groups to escape or compensate for their crushing sense of inferiority is a contributing factor to national hatreds, class struggle, and even war. He attributed such a sense of inferiority to the individuals in crowds clamoring for war as a solution to perceived threats to their security, and the still larger crowds that have accepted war as a solution.
Adler concluded that his principles of individual psychology could also be applied to groups, rallying the latent forces for good, as it had for individuals. If used on a larger scale, he postulated, this approach could be developed into a powerful instrument to rid nations and groups of their destructive collective inferiority complexes, just as it had cured individuals from their sense of inferiority.
The primary indication of mental health in Adlerian psychotherapy is the person's feeling of community and connectedness with all of life. Attempts to compensate for an exaggerated inferiority feeling by a fictional final goal of superiority over others is a major hindrance to development of a feeling of community. This sense of unity provides the real key to the individual's genuine feeling of security and happiness. When adequately developed, it leads to a feeling of equality, an attitude of cooperative interdependence, and a desire to contribute. Consequently, the central goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to strengthen this feeling of community.
The therapeutic process is simultaneously focused on three aspects of change. First, the painful, exaggerated feelings of inferiority are reduced to a level that can be used to promote growth, development, and a healthy striving for significance. Second, the patient's destructive striving for superiority over others, manifested in a compensatory lifestyle, must be released. The third aspect is the fostering of equality and feeling of community. Underlying this approach is a firm belief in the creative power of the individual to freely make choices and correct them when given sufficient information—an extremely optimistic view of human nature and our ability to change.
- Adler, Alfred. 1987. The Child's Inner Life and a Sense of Community. Individual Psychology. Vol. 44 No. 4, September 1987.
- Boeree, C. George. 1997. Alfred Adler
- Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington
- Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development
- 'I want to end the Scottish cringe' - news story quoting Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister.
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