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We all have insecurities. But if you obsess over inadequacies or believe that you don’t deserve happiness, you could be dealing with an inferiority complex.

Persistent negative self-talk can put a serious damper on daily life. But it doesn’t have to. Here’s everything you need to know about the signs, effects, and treatment of an inferiority complex.

What is an inferiority complex?

An inferiority complex is chronic low self-esteem or deeply negative self-image because of perceived inadequacies. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.”

Though an inferiority complex isn’t a formal condition recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it *can* be a sign of:

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illustration of person feeling small next to long legsShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa.

Remember, an inferiority complex isn’t a medical diagnosis. The concept was coined by doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler in 1907. It caught on in pop culture and some psych circles, but experts and researchers typically refer to it as low self-esteem.

Symptoms of an inferiority complex might include:

  • feelings of worthlessness
  • feeling anxious or worried
  • lack of motivation
  • low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • struggles with social skills
  • poor work or school performance

An inferiority complex might trigger different behavioral responses depending on the person’s personality. To the outside world, they might:

  • appear withdrawn
  • seek attention or flattery
  • act nervous or anxious around others
  • seem self-absorbed (making everything about them and their woes)
  • struggle to make friends or stay in a relationship

An inferiority complex could stem from mental health issues like anxiety or depression *or* outside factors like negative societal pressures or past trauma.

Risk factors

There hasn’t been a lot of research on what causes an inferiority complex. But researchers have investigated low self-esteem.

A small 2018 study and a 2011 survey of more than 6,000 teens identified several risk factors for developing a negative self-image:

The survey also unearthed several factors that boost self-esteem. It seems reasonable that the absence of these positive influences might also raise the risk of developing an inferiority complex:

In general, a collection of negative external circumstances — whether abuse, unemployment, or dissatisfaction with the way you look — can lead to damaging feelings of helplessness and inferiority. It’s easy to see how racism, sexism, classism, and ableism could chip away at self-worth. Negative representation online or in the media can destroy self-esteem too.


Depression can cause negative thinking and feelings of worthlessness.

If you’re experiencing depression, it makes sense that the spiral of negativity, hopelessness, and even lack of motivation could look a whole lot like an inferiority complex. Of course, not everyone with depression exhibits the same symptoms, so if you suspect depression, it’s always best to talk with a doctor.


Not everyone with low self-esteem has anxiety.

However, many people with anxiety — especially social anxiety disorder — struggle with feeling judged by others and thinking that they don’t measure up.

Believing that you’re not worthy of love, happiness, and success is more than unhelpful. It’s potentially destructive.

Persistent feelings of inferiority can have several negative effects.

  • Anxiety and depression. A 3-year study published in 2017 found that low self-esteem is linked to a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.
  • Attention problems. The same study found that high self-esteem acts as a protection against the development of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Suicidal ideation. A lack of will to live is a serious, sometimes fatal effect of low self-esteem. (Many folks dealing with suicidal ideation find therapy helpful. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline also offers free, confidential emotional support.)
  • Risk of substance misuse. A 2018 study suggested that low self-esteem raises the risk of binge drinking and substance misuse.
  • Social isolation. Feelings of inadequacy cause some folks to avoid interacting with other people. This can have devastating effects on your professional potential, dating life, and closeness with people you love.

An inferiority complex is not a medical diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help!

If you’re struggling with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or low self-image, talk with your doctor or therapist. Tell them:

  • what you’ve been feeling
  • how often you feel that way
  • whether the feelings are chronic or triggered by certain situations or people

Remember, your inferiority complex may be a sign of underlying depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue. Be open and honest so that your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist can pinpoint a diagnosis, if necessary.

So many folks experience insecurity, imposter syndrome, and low self-esteem. One of the first steps on the road to overcoming them is realizing that you’re not alone. Reaching out to other humans, whether a friend or a therapist, can help you shake loose from the perpetual loop of negative self-talk.

Seeking help for an inferiority complex will pay off. It’s a brave step toward a happier, healthier life!

Practice positive self-talk

It’s so easy for one negative thought to lead to another. Instead of obsessing over your perceived flaws and inadequacies, try complimenting yourself. Say it out loud!

Positive self-talk helps you rewrite the script in your head, gradually lifting yourself away from self-judgment and toward kind, loving self-affirmations.

Get moving

Did you know that research has pinpointed a link between physical activity and self-esteem? Exercise releases all kinds of good stuff, from endorphins to serotonin.

Plus, breaking a sweat is an accomplishment — physical proof that you have power and strength within you. You’ve got this!

Try therapy

There’s no shame in seeking professional help for your negative self-image. Your therapist can help you understand why you’re dealing with feelings of inferiority, then offer an array of coping mechanisms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can be especially helpful for folks experiencing anxiety or persistent negative thoughts. With CBT, you’ll learn to cope with your emotions differently. You’ll be able to understand why you have certain thoughts, then come up with alternative perspectives when those thoughts are not accurate or healthy.

It’s tricky to predict exactly what will happen if you don’t address an inferiority complex.

  • You might miss out on potential relationships.
  • You might not apply for jobs or promotions that could improve your life.
  • If your inferiority complex is a symptom of depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, you might start experiencing more or worse symptoms.

Basically, who knows what you’re missing out on if an inferiority complex is holding you back from being your whole self? Seeking help is rarely easy, but it’s usually worth it.

Helpful resources for coping with an inferiority complex

Talking with a doctor or therapist is the gold standard, but there are useful self-help resources too.

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline. The helpline is a free information service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
  • AETAS. Designed by a therapist, this app includes a self-discovery quiz and exercises designed to rewrite negative, obsessive thoughts.
  • Sanvello. This app based on CBT is built to help folks deal with anxiety, depression, and stress.
  • MindShift. This stress management tool teaches you new ways to cope with anxiety and increase your awareness of the body-brain connection.
  • Self-esteem worksheets. These self-help resources from the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Australia help you understand how self-esteem develops and how to improve low self-esteem.
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  • An inferiority complex = persistent low self-esteem and insecurity because of a perceived deficiency.
  • An inferiority complex is not a formal mental health diagnosis.
  • Some folks with an inferiority complex react by isolating themselves, while others seek constant attention.
  • Experiencing an inferiority complex *could* indicate an underlying health condition like anxiety or depression.
  • Positive self-talk, exercise, and therapy can all be helpful when you’re dealing with an inferiority complex. If your insecurity and negative self-image are interfering with your daily life, it’s time to talk with a doctor.