We all know a superiority complex when we see one. Marked by an exaggerated sense of importance, this complex is actually a defense mechanism that compensates for feelings of unworthiness. It says, “Look at how fantastic I am! Don’t you love me?” It’s textbook, really. Who hasn’t met a giant a-hole exhibiting this “big dog” syndrome at some point?
Identifying an inferiority complex, however, can be a little harder to do. These are the victims, the martyrs, the chronic sufferers of imposter syndrome, the excuse-makers, and often the hypochondriacs. Paranoia is a huge sign of an inferiority complex. (The irony here is that being paranoid that everyone is out to get us might mean we think we’re a little more important than we really are.) The confusion is that at our most neurotic, don’t we all feel a little less-than? Don’t we all make excuses and feel like we’re just not good enough from time to time? Absolutely! We’re human. This negative thinking only becomes a complex when it takes over our lives. If we find ourselves powerless to change our circumstances (like, for years, not just for a rough season), we probably need to admit that we’ve got an inferiority complex. (Medical conditions and abuse are excluded from this conversation, though it’s important that treatment is sought in these situations, too.)
So how do we distinguish whether we’ve got an inferiority complex or just low self-esteem? We can start by examining whether our fears are based on the external world or our internal worlds. When we have low self-esteem, we feel sort of betrayed by our bodies and minds. We either think we’ll mess up and embarrass ourselves, or we ruminate over a situation in which we really did mess up and embarrass ourselves. Basically, we’re critical of our imperfections. An inferiority complex, however, is made up of persistent thoughts or obsessions that we cannot possibly live up to someone else’s standards (even when they’re imaginary). We cannot seem to stop caring what other people might think, we assume everything being thought about us is bad, and feel like we’re at the mercy of their opinions. We get caught up in a mental web of anxiety and paranoia, making excuses for why we have no control or say in pretty much any situation. We end up unhappy with every area of our lives and in many ways, we create self-fulfilling prophesies. And yes, at the root of it all, we may have low self-esteem, too. Ultimately, an inferiority complex comes from a feeling of unworthiness.
If you suffer from an inferiority complex, first and foremost, you need to unpack this with a therapist. You cannot go it alone with self-help books and Jesus. Secondly, you need to keep your support system strong.
Often if we suffer from an inferiority complex, we are so wrapped up in our own lives that when friends start to walk away, we chalk it up to yet another uncontrollable loss. We see it as one more reason we are victims of circumstance. Not only do we need positivity and friendship in our lives when we’re feeling like human garbage, but we also desperately need to take back our power. How do we do that? By owning our shit and making some changes. Here are three ways our inferiority complexes might be hurting our friendships, and ways we can get back on course:
We can’t support our friends. Overextending is not a healthy solution, but friendship is a two-way street. How often are our friends running to our rescue and vice versa? Do we support their successes instead of seeing their achievements as reminders of our own perceived failures? Can we be truly happy for our friends? Are we able to give them what they need, or are we doing whatever we think will make us look good? Do we act only to receive or feel appreciated? (Suggested reading on how to love others the way they need to be loved: The Five Love Languages) We have to consciously set aside any desire to prove something to our friends and instead be mentally present. Showing up is not enough, if we’re bringing baggage and expectations with us.
We can’t stop comparing ourselves to our friends. Comparison is a beast that often sends inferiority complex sufferers down a rabbit hole, searching for worthiness. We need to actively think about our own contributions before the urge to compare even arises (because we know it will). Try this: Jot down all of the ways you are inherently good or talented or attractive or likable. No explanations, no judgments, no going back and scratching out, no caveats, no time for mental bullshit. Just fake it till you make it with the smallest of successes. In this way, we stand a chance of looking at our friends with love instead of contempt. They are not a mirror. If our friends seem to be more successful in one area, how lucky are we that we have them to teach us how it’s done, make the necessary introductions, or simply be a contagious force of motivation in our lives?
We create self-fulfilling prophesies. Maybe we think friends, coworkers, or in-laws feel negatively about us even when they don’t. Maybe we think there is conflict or drama when there isn’t. Inferiority complexes cause us to feel intimidated, paranoid, and defensive. No one acts rationally when they feel this way! We need to let our guards down, stop assuming the worst, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and open up an actual dialogue (without accusations) before jumping to conclusions. Either directly and maturely discuss concerns or let them go. Otherwise, our friends, co-workers and in-laws will feel negatively about us. Our relationships will crumble. People will leave us. And then we will be left stroking our own egos, thinking we were right not to trust anyone.
While healthy relationships are vital to happiness, it’s hard to have them when the symptoms (behaviors) of an inferiority complex push people away. We may scientifically still be animals, but we have something they don’t: the gift of rational thought. If this sounds too familiar, take back your power with help from a therapist, and take a different approach with your friendships from now on.