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Inferiority Complex

A psychological condition that exists when a person's feelings of inadequacy are so intense that daily living is impaired.

The term "inferiority complex" was coined in the 1920s by French psychologist Alfred Adler, a one-time follower of Sigmund Freud who became disenchanted with Freud's emphasis on the influence of unconscious factors as motivators in human behavior. While Adler subscribed to the notion that underlying motivations play a part in directing personality, he introduced the notion of "ego psychology" in an effort to give equal importance to the role of conscious factors in determining behavior. According to Adler, all humans experience feelings of inferiority as children and spend the rest of their lives trying to compensate for those feelings. As people replace the dependence of childhood with the independence of adulthood, the feelings of inferiority persist in varying intensity in different people. For some people, the sense of inferiority serves as a positive motivating factor, as they strive to improve themselves in an effort to neutralize the negative feelings of inferiority. Some, however, become dominated—and, as a result, crippled—by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. These people, whose thoughts are so overtaken by these feelings that they cannot function normally, are said to have an inferiority complex. The opposite of inferiority complex, a superiority complex, can also result from the inevitable early feelings of inferiority, Adler believed. This results when a person overcompensates and places too much emphasis on striving for perfection.

Further Reading

Clark, John, ed. The Mind: Into the Inner World. New York: Torstar Books, 1986.

Hergenhahn, B.R. An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences