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An inferiority complex is a lack of self-worth, a doubt and uncertainty, and feelings of not measuring up to standards. It is often subconscious, and is thought to drive afflicted individuals to overcompensate, resulting either in spectacular achievement or extreme asocial behavior. The term was coined to indicate a lack of covert self-esteem. For many, it is developed through a combination of genetic personality characteristics and personal experiences.
Classical Adlerian psychology makes a distinction between primary and secondary inferiority feelings.
Feeling inferior is often viewed as being inferior to another person, but this is not always the case in the Adlerian view. One often feels incompetent to perform a task, such as a test in school.
Stemming from the psychoanalytic branch of psychology, the idea first appeared among many of Sigmund Freud's works and later in the work of his colleague Carl Jung. Alfred Adler, founder of classical Adlerian psychology held that many neurotic symptoms could be traced to overcompensation for this feeling. The use of the term complex now is generally used to denote the group of emotionally toned ideas. The counterpart of an inferiority complex, a "superiority complex" is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person's feelings of superiority counter or conceal his or her feelings of inferiority.
An inferiority complex occurs when the feelings of inferiority are intensified in the individual through discouragement or failure. Those who are at risk for developing a complex include people who: show signs of low self-esteem or self-worth, are of ethnic minority, have low socioeconomic status, or have a history of depression symptoms. Children reared in households who were constantly criticized or did not live up to parents expectations may also develop this. Many times there are warning signs to someone who may be more prone to developing an inferiority complex. For example, someone who is prone to attention and approval seeking behaviors may be more susceptible. Also, children raised in families where everything is done for them, who have developed what Adler called a "pampered lifestyle". These individuals have developed a form of learned helplessness and are unable to overcome the problems of life without assistance. According to Adler "Everyone (...) has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development."
When an inferiority complex is in full effect, it may impact the performance of the individual as well as impact the individual's self-esteem. Unconscious psychological and emotional processes can disrupt students’ cognitive learning, and negatively “charged” feeling-toned memory associations can derail the learning process. Hutt found that math can become associated with a psychological inferiority complex, low motivation and self-efficacy, poor self-directed learning strategies, and feeling unsafe or anxious.
Widely researched, but often not talked about specifically in this area is the concept of self-esteem and that people can feel good about their abilities and have self-esteem in areas where they feel competent and might not hold such personal esteem in other areas of their life. In essence, self-esteem can also be context-driven. Thus, the theory that someone has an overarching inferiority complex is a bit outdated (see Self-complexity theory).
In the mental health treatment population, this characteristic is shown in patients with many disorders such as certain types of schizophrenia, mood disorders, and personality disorders. Moritz found the people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia used their delusions as a defense mechanism against low implicit self-esteem. Alfred Adler identified an inferiority complex as one of the contributing factors to problem child behaviors.