Feel Inferior To Others? 8 Signs Of An Inferiority Complex

child with puppy

What really is an inferiority complex? And do you have one?

On this page, I’ll reveal several little-known symptoms of an inferiority complex, so you can test and see if you have this deep-seated problem.

Along the way, I’ll also give you some practical tips and insights for how to overcome the feeling of inferiority.

Where Inferiority Comes From

When you were a baby, you were inferior. I know that sounds weird, yet think about it.

A baby can’t even stay alive on its own. It’s completely dependent on adults for survival. And as you grew from a baby into a child, you were still surrounded by older people who were more strong, capable and powerful than you.

The famous psychologist Alfred Adler said that feeling inferior is often a healthy motivation. When you receive criticism or see someone do something better than you, this can drive you to eliminate your weaknesses. You’re motivated to become more powerful in the world so you don’t feel inferior anymore. Feeling inferior makes you learn from the superior people around you. You develop yourself, and eventually become one of these confident adults yourself.

However, some people feel such a strong feeling of inferiority that it stops being healthy or useful. This is what Adler called an “inferiority complex.” Instead of motivating you, an inferiority complex paralyzes you. It can result in extreme shyness or social anxiety, feeling worthless, and the desire to prevent failure through not trying.

So that’s the difference between feeling inferior and an inferiority complex. Feeling inferior sometimes can actually help you improve yourself and your life. But an inferiority complex usually means you feel incomplete, unworthy and unacceptable as a person no matter what you do, achieve or fix about yourself.

Two Main Types of Inferiority

In the people I’ve studied and worked with, I’ve noticed a common pattern. People who feel inferior generally fall into one of 2 categories:

  1. People who “know” they’re actually smart, good looking, successful, etc… but still feel inferior. It’s like a mysterious feeling that they aren’t good enough that they know isn’t based on anything real or solid.
    • If this is you, then people around you may say “You’re so pretty/smart/etc… I don’t understand why you’re so shy/afraid/sad/etc” Well you don’t understand it either, you just feel this way: “I recognize that I’m beautiful, but I still feel ugly.”
  2. People who “know” they’re ugly, dumb, boring, failures, etc… and their flaws make them feel unable to get the affection, support and friendship of others.
    • If this is you, then you probably feel that if you were only really good looking, tall, successful, or whatever else… then many of your problems would be instantly solved and you would feel great about yourself. Here’s a quick test: How would you complete this sentence? “I would be confident, happy and attractive if I was only…”
skinny girl fat man

Yes, both of these people could certainly have an inferiority complex.

Which one do you fit into better? #1 or #2?

The main difference between the two types is that type #1 seems to have a feeling that is unrealistic, while type #2 believes the feeling is caused by actual flaws they have. Whichever type you are, you’ve probably been stuck with this problem for most or all of your life. And here are a few of the ways in which an inferiority complex can reveal itself in your day to day life:

1. Being Ultra Sensitive

When you feel inferior, any small critical comment can often send you into a spiral of depression and self-hate for days. Any slight sign of rejection or exclusion will make you feel totally miserable.

You wish you could just somehow “stop caring what people think” and “not give a fuck”… but it’s not that simple.

Unfortunately, most of the advice you may have read for how to be less sensitive probably tried to give you a rational argument for why you shouldn’t feel bad like: “Their opinion doesn’t really make an impact on your life.” In my experience, this type of advice doesn’t help, because you cannot reason your way out of a feeling you did not reason yourself into in the first place.

How To Actually Stop Caring:

Actually the solution to being sensitive to what people think is NOT to care less… but to care more about what you think of yourself. The people who seem to “not care” the most are actually just firmly rooted in their own values.

Values (definition):

A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.

You stop caring so much about other people’s judgements when your own sense of judgement becomes stronger. (This is an extremely important point, and unfortunately something I can’t explain properly in this short article.)

Women often say a man who “knows who he is” is attractive. I never knew what that meant, until I realized they like a guy who is rooted in his own value system. Meaning he knows what is important to HIM in life, and he’s not constantly changing or bending himself depending on who is around.

2. Always Comparing Yourself To Another Person’s #1 Winning Quality

Comparison causes the feeling of inferiority or superiority. That’s obvious. Now let’s look at the problem closer:

Why is everybody always better than you?

It’s because you focus on their one BEST quality and then compare yourself to that. Reality check: It’s unavoidable that most people are going to be better than you at the #1 thing they spend the most time practicing or have a natural talent for.

  • Joe spends 6 days a week in the gym, so he has a better body than you.
  • Suzy spends her days endlessly chatting on Facebook messenger and parties every weekend, so she has a larger social circle than you.
  • Bill spends every afternoon studying to please his parents, so he’s at the top of every class.

Then you look at them and you say: “I’m worse than Joe. I’m worse than Suzy. Hell, I’m even worse than that nerd Bill!” and you feel inferior. And you know what?

inferior superior quote

An excellent quote from “Psycho Cybernetics” book by Dr. Maxwell Maltz (Image credit)

Yes, it’s true, you’re always going to measure yourself short if you are using a constantly changing ruler. And don’t forget that unusual success in one area usually comes from focus, which means the person you’re comparing yourself to neglects other areas of life.

If you could settle for being the best YOU you can be, it would greatly relieve your inner mental pressure to meet everyone else’s standards.

You are not inferior, you are not superior, you are simply YOU. Your value comes from your uniqueness.

3. Submissive Behavior

In psychology there’s an idea is called “social rank theory.”

This theory says that how you act and feel inside are often determined by what you perceive your social status or rank to be.

So if you FEEL inferior to others, looked down on and low status… then you will start ACTING submissive.

A lot of the behaviors usually called “shyness” could also be labelled “submissiveness”! Think about how a shy person usually acts:

  • Weak eye contact,
  • Talking quietly and timidly,
  • Being afraid to be assertive.

If a scientist saw a chimpanzee acting this way in the wild, he would label it as… submissive! And that’s where a lot of low social confidence comes from: a deep unconscious belief in other people being superior to you, more deserving of respect and higher social status.

If you can overcome this feeling of inferiority, then you will find it easy to stop acting submissive & shy. I talk a lot about this in my System, in the chapter called “Value & The Social Hierarchy”.

This study explores the associations between shame, depression and social anxiety from the perspective of social rank theory. Social rank theory argues that emotions and moods are significantly influenced by the perceptions of one’s social status/rank; that is the degree to which one feels inferior to others and looked down on. A common outcome of such perceptions is submissive behaviour. […]

Results confirm that shame, social anxiety and depression (but not guilt) are highly related to feeling inferior and to submissive behaviour.

– Study by Paul Gilbert: The Relationship of Shame, Social Anxiety and Depression: The Role of the Evaluation of Social Rank

4. Perfectionism

Inferiority and perfectionism often go together because both are usually rooted in comparison. To a perfectionist, nothing they do is ever good enough.

Let me share with you a story…

There was one 19 year old guy named Paul I knew who wanted to be an artist. Just one problem: he considered himself a perfectionist. And he thought being a perfectionist was good because it would make him try harder to be great at his craft. But that’s not what usually happens to perfectionists…

Paul would visit online forums and galleries where the best artists of the world showed off their work. And seeing how amazing every one of these artists were, he felt discouraged. There was no way his works would match up to theirs so what was the point?

Paul wanted his first works to be perfect, like the famous artists he admired. Yet his comparison became unhealthy, causing him feel so inferior to his art heroes that he became discouraged from even trying. And for years, he felt scared to even practice doing art because he knew it would not measure up to his expectations. So he was stuck.

Ironically enough… perfectionism usually WORSENS someone’s quality of work.

Yes, it’s true that some people are born with certain natural abilities… but nobody becomes great at what they do through talent alone. This is a big myth in our modern society that is slowly being busted. The author Malcolm Gladwell famously said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach a level of genius or greatness in any field. And the artists that Paul admired so much were in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They had created years of mediocre art, before making their modern masterpieces.

Which leads me to the next symptom…

5. Procrastination and Inaction

Perfectionism usually leads to procrastination and inaction. Constantly comparing yourself to others and having too high standards for yourself does not make your work better. It’s more like shooting yourself in the foot.

You become so emotionally sensitive to failure that you avoid trying at all. And since it usually takes a million little failures to reach success, you end up trying nothing and accomplishing nothing.

This applies to every area of your life, not just art…

For example, you may avoid meeting new people because you’re afraid of being socially awkward, yet there is no way to become good at conversations except through practice. So if you can avoid beating yourself up when you do poorly (being perfectionistic), then you will actually develop your social skills much faster.

Always keep this motto in mind:

Sucking at something is the first step at being sort of good at it.

6. Social Media Triggers Feelings Of Guilt, Jealousy Or Shame

When you see other people living their lives on Facebook, it makes you feel self doubt and inferiority.

  • Maybe you’re young and all the people at your college seem to be out socializing and partying.
  • Maybe you’re older and your friends are starting families, which makes you question if your own life decisions are correct.
  • Maybe you see how many “likes” other people’s posts have, which makes you feel insignificant or worthless in comparison.

To make matters worse, people tend to only present the best parts of their lives on Facebook. So you are comparing your life to a distorted version of theirs that has all the sad, boring and plain parts edited out. In fact, studies have even proven that using social media too much makes people feel worse about themselves on average. I believe this problem is multiplied when you already feel inferior as it is.

[In a recent study…] researchers found that using social media during the day or night was significantly related to decreased sleep quality, lower self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression levels in the study participants. – LiveScience Writer

(And don’t even get me started on the news or magazines, which beam images of the most successful, attractive and wealthy people in the world straight into your home 24/7.)

7. You’re Secretly Very Judgemental Of Other People

Here’s an interesting pattern I’ve noticed…

Often guys who have been very unsuccessful with women will start to dislike them. A guy who is a 30 year old virgin may feel resentful and angry if he sees a group of happy attractive women walk by. Why? I believe it’s because the women remind him of what he feels inferior about… his own insecurities about his attractiveness, his feelings of failure around the opposite sex, and his loneliness in general.

Another example…

A woman who looks at a magazine cover with a skinny supermodel and is outraged about “society’s unrealistic standards” is totally blind as to WHY the model makes her so mad. The supermodel triggers feelings of unattractiveness and unworthiness inside her, which are truly caused by jealousy and envy. Because she is jealous of the supermodel’s extremely rare good looks, it makes her feel that everyone else is judging women too.

(In my observation, women are more likely to compare their appearance like this than men. Who knows why? There have been HUGE protests against Barbie to make her proportions more “normal”… yet nobody is protesting that Superman or Batman action figures should be more “realistic” so boys don’t feel insecure compared to them.)

Are you starting to see the pattern here? One last example…

People who make fun of a millionaire driving a Ferrari are often trying to cover up the inner feeling of inadequacy and lack they feel that is triggered when they compare it to their rusty Toyota. If they suddenly won a big lottery, they would probably be the first in line to buy an expensive car themselves.

So here’s the lesson…

Inferiority causes you to be judgemental towards other people. Look at when you feel the most hateful and condemning towards others. It’s probably a hint about what you feel inferior about in yourself.

What you perceive in the outside world is really a reflection of what’s happening inside you.

We think we’re being judged and that’s why we compare ourselves. If you don’t judge others, you’re less likely to feel yourself constantly being judged.

8. You Try To Hide Your Flaws Or Distract People From Them… Without Success

Sometimes people who feel ugly or insecure about their appearance will give up trying to improve it completely. Other times they will carefully try to hide whatever it is they feel ashamed of:

  • This could be as simple as wearing baggy dark clothes when you don’t like your body shape.
  • Or maybe trying to always strike a certain pose in photos.
  • Constantly checking your reflection in windows and mirrors.
  • I remember avoiding smiling as much as possible back when I was painfully insecure about my slightly crooked front teeth. I notice teenagers who have braces also often do this, or cover their mouth with their hand when they laugh.
  • And I suppose some women may wear more makeup when they’re feeling ugly, but I’m no expert here.

All of these examples are ways of trying to control how other people see you, so that you can avoid their judgement of your inferior qualities. All it usually does is make you feel more self conscious and stressed, from all the strained effort and constant alertness.

(I only mentioned examples that do with your looks, but this applies to anything about you that you are embarrassed about: lifestyle, personality flaws, past history, etc.)

So Where Do You Go From Here?

Before I finish up, there’s one last point I need to make…

There’s a difference between knowing you’re inferior and feeling inferior. Knowing you’re inferior to other people is realistic, it means you have a good grasp on reality.

For example, Arnold Schwartzenegar probably knows that he in inferior in intelligence than Stephen Hawking. And Stephen Hawking knows he is inferior in acting to Leonardo Dicaprio. But just because they can recognize the true level of their abilities or achievements, does not mean they have to feel inferior as a person because of it.

As one quote goes:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s human nature to try to rearrange the outside world to keep us happy, instead of starting with the only thing we truly can change: yourself. I hope this article has given you a clarity and insight into how your feelings of inferiority work.

Understanding is the first step to change.

About the author

Sean Cooper

I study all areas of psychology, sharing what works (and what doesn't) for overcoming shyness and social anxiety. After curing my own severe social anxiety I created "The Shyness and Social Anxiety System" to help others. This program has received stunning reviews from psychologists and people like you.

Now it's my life's mission is to help 25,000 people get the confidence, friends and romantic partner you want!

Read more about me here.

6 Comments

  • Thanks for this article. I relate to some of the things you pointed out. It’s hard to not feel like I’m less than or a loser even when I know that’s not true. During college, I tried to overcome my shyness and get better at talking to people and making friends. I’ve friend two people on Facebook from club events I’ve participated in. There were a few times I tried to make contact to them, but they almost never responded. Since this past summer, I stopped using Facebook entirely to try to avoid comparing myself to them and others (except this one time in September when I thought I check it out after a while, but the bad feelings of comparison came back and I logged out. Haven’t gone back since then). What’s even worse is that it’s the only way I can contact them. During finals this past Spring, I was eating lunch at the cafeteria and a guy out of nowhere started to talk to me. We ended up exchanging numbers. I never called or texted him because of my shyness and not knowing what to say or do about it. He transferred to another school because of the kind of degree he wanted wasn’t available in the one we were at during that time. Since it’s been months since I’ve had any kind of contact with them, is it too late? Is it that at this point they’re too busy with their own lives now that they might already have jobs and a busy social life to even bother with me?

    Also, this is going a bit off subject but still related to shyness. I don’t know if it also relates to social anxiety though. I’ve heard from online articles, mostly in blogs, that from both non-shy and formally shy people saying that shyness is a form of selfishness because it’s basically focusing more on themselves than on others. Mostly “What about me?” kind of stuff instead of “What can I do for them?” kind of thoughts. Have you heard of this argument before? Do you think there’s any truth to this?

    Thanks for hearing me out. Keep up the good work with the articles and YouTube videos if possible. It helped give me some clarity about myself and answered some questions that I usually don’t get answered elsewhere.

  • Sean, this is so insightful and helpful. I did not expect to feel any different after reading it, but I totally do. Thank you.

  • Thanks Sean for this really good article. I took me a while to actually admit that I may actually have an inferiority complex. I guess this was mainly caused by the PERFECTIONIST part of me. Luckily after searching on Google I landed here.

    The article really helped me. It’s easier to solve problems if they can be pointed out as you have done in this article and only to make it even better, you provided the solutions. Thank you

  • Very insightful and helpful, I almost posted it on my abuse support forum. The only thing that stopped me was the passive aggressive paragraph regarding “why” others are better at something than others. (I’m hoping you don’t really believe that everyone who excels at something more than you is just a self-absorbed narcissist or codependent people-pleaser. That’s a symptom of superiority-inferiority complex, you probably know that. But I’d love to post your insights if that gets edited out or re-explained without the implications. My clients are all Narcissistic abuse and ritual abuse survivors who are adamantly trying to recover, so morbid envy, jealousy and Schadenfreude are pathological in most of their abusers, whether family or otherwise. So I wouldn’t be able to post this article as it is (the implication that those who excel
    at anything are actually butt-kissers or narcissistic reflects their abusers’ mindsets, as does the belief that one’s so-called flaws are real, and not subjective or projected inferiority). Otherwise, fantastic. Thanks for posting.

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