Learn about Adler’s idea of the inferiority and superiority complex.
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If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that we feel inferior one way or another. The moment we’re born we can hardly do anything. We cannot talk, we cannot walk, we cannot even use our hands properly. But still, as babies we’re the most curious creatures on the planet. You’ve probably seen babies repeating the same thing again and again and again. Not because they like the repetition, but because they actually want to grow, become better, and more competent.
You will see that it’s incredibly important to understand the ways in which you feel inferior and strive to grow. Because this striving directs your whole life. Every goal you consciously or unconsciously have is guided by this striving.
Someone who put the striving for competence (or superiority) at the center of his psychology was Alfred Adler. And perceived inferiority and superiority open up the playing field in which this happens.
Striving for Superiority
“I began to see clearly in every psychological phenomenon the striving for superiority. It runs parallel to physical growth and is an intrinsic necessity of life itself. It lies at the root of all solution of life’s problems and is manifested in the way in which we meet these problems. All our functions follow its direction. They strive for conquest, security, increase either in the right or in the wrong direction. The impetus from minus to plus never ends. The urge from below to above never ceases. Whatever premises all our philosophers and psychologists dream of self-preservation, pleasure principle, equalization, all these are about wake representations attempts to express the great upward drive.”Alfred Adler
In his original German work Alfred Adler uses the word “Minderwertigkeitsgefühl”. This is not just a damn long German word but it is important to understand what it actually means because the English translation is not as clear. “Minderwertigkeitsgefühl” determines a feeling (-gefühl) of being of less (Minder-) value (-wertigkeit-). This means, it’s not an objective judgment but a subjective feeling you have towards yourself. We all heard beautiful people say they think they’re ugly or smart people fearing that they fail the test.
Feeling inferior is completely normal. Everyone feels that way about one area of their lives or many areas of their life. And you can actually use that feeling of inferiority for a healthy striving for growth.
If we take a look at superiority, the striving is always a compensation for where you feel inferior. You can call this striving many names: striving for self-actualization, striving for security, striving for self-preservation. But in the end it comes down to the fact that we all want to feel complete, safe, and competent.
Adler chose the word superiority when he was mostly working with neurotic patients (which means with patients that had psychopathologies). That is why in the beginning his definition of superiority really referred to something that was very much centered on the person. It was a sense of greater self-esteem, security, power.
But after a while when he was focusing more on “normal” people he found that superiority can actually also refer to other things, to other people, to other objects. It can be much less focused on the person and much more focused on doing something good for society.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Striving
The way that striving for superiority differs between being healthy or unhealthy lies in how great the sense of inferiority is and what the striving is centered around. Unhealthy people tend to have a much greater feeling of inferiority. They need a more extreme form of superiority in order to compensate for that. Additionally, their striving is much more centered on themselves. They want to feel more powerful, they want to feel more worthy, they want to have a greater self-esteem.
For healthy people we can find that the striving is also directed towards the greater good. They want to contribute to a better relationship, family, community, group of friends, or society.
Awareness of Our Own Striving
The issue is that most people have no idea what actually drives them. They have no idea where they feel inferior. They have no idea how they consciously or unconsciously try to compensate for this inferiority with striving. Because these unconscious goals that we follow affect every area of our lives, we really have to get more conscious about them.
The results can be terrible for an individual because they might be striving for the wrong goals. They might be striving for something that actually will never bring them any more meaning or better relationships. It’s also terrible for society because you can imagine if the collective has no idea where they actually feel inferior or what they’re striving for, this will probably not lead to a better society.
I would really like to urge you to take some time and deeply think about the ways in which you might feel inferior and what you strive for. For as long as your goals are unconscious, you can never know whether they’re good goals or just lead you astray.
If your feelings of inferiority become too strong and you lack courage to strive for health growth, it can result in the “Inferiority Complex”.
What healthy inferiority would look like is that you compare yourself to your ideal self and not to others. Often the reason why we have this need to feel special is because we cannot accept ourselves as the flawed individuals that we are. Adler elaborated on this by comparing self-acceptance to self-affirmation.
If you have an inferiority complex but you cannot accept your incapable self, it can result in a “Superiority Complex”. By any means necessary you will strive to compensate and look for an easy way out of inferiority.
Many people then try to be special. Either they wear expensive brand clothing or they’re friends only with powerful people. The thing is that they themselves lack a sense of self-worth and therefore need to borrow authority from people or brands. That ultimately leads them to live according to other people’s value system. They end up living other people’s lives which is a highly unsatisfied way of life devoid of meaning.
This is how they enter the never ending circle of feeling inferior ➡️ trying to feel better with fake superiority ➡️ ending up feeling worse.
Another way to be special is being especially bad. If trying to be especially good has been a lost cause, some people attempt what Adler calls easy superiority. This is actually very closely linked to revenge: “I don’t get what exactly I want, so now I’m going to make everyone else’s life a living hell”.
Another way to be special is by always portraying yourself as the victim. Sometimes people use the misfortunes that happen to them, either real or imagined, in order to control other people. They demand that everyone has to tiptoe around them, everyone else needs to change their behavior, and adjust to their needs. Adler recognized this early on and said:
“In our culture weakness can be quite strong and powerful.”Alfred Adler
In the end, you reveal you real goal to be getting attention – which you will get – but not the feeling of satisfaction, meaning, and peace that comes from a life lived in healthy relationships and developing competence.