“Everyone I know is much smarter, better-looking, funnier, or more popular than me. I feel like I’m worse than everyone else. Sometimes I wonder why anyone would even want to know me. It’s gotten to the point where I’m avoiding social situations because other people make me feel bad just by being themselves.”
Everyone has times where they worry about how they measure up to others. But for some people, feelings of social inferiority start getting in the way of their everyday life. If this problem sounds familiar, this guide is for you. You’ll learn how to spot the signs of an inferiority complex and how to stop feeling inadequate.
The American Psychological Association defines an inferiority complex as:
“…a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.”
It’s important to know that an inferiority complex isn’t the same as noticing that someone can do something better than you or has something you want.
For example, if your friend is in great shape and runs marathons while you hardly ever work out, it’s rational to think, “Wow, they are so much fitter than me.” These kinds of thoughts don’t mean you have an inferiority complex. However, if you start feeling bad about yourself as a person when you compare yourself to others, you may benefit from the advice in this article.
Comparisons aren’t always bad. Research shows that comparing yourself to other people who are doing better than you can be inspiring and motivating. However, comparisons can also make you feel discouraged, envious, and inferior.
If you’ve fallen into the habit of making unhelpful comparisons, try these tips:
- Limit your triggers if possible. For example, if scrolling through celebrity Instagram profiles makes you feel bad about your body or life in general, uninstall the app or limit your browsing to a few minutes per day.
- Practice gratitude. Research shows that people who are grateful for the good things in their lives are less likely to compare themselves to others. Keep a gratitude journal or use a note-taking app on your phone to keep a record of what’s going well for you.
- Remember that it’s impossible to make a fair comparison between two people. Everyone has their own struggles, and you may never know the setbacks they’ve had to overcome.
- Try to learn from other people’s success. For example, if your friend recently got a great new job, they might be a valuable source of interview tips.
- Avoid making downwards comparisons. It can be tempting to make yourself feel better by comparing yourself to people who are worse off than you. This is called “downwards comparison.” It can temporarily improve your self-esteem. However, it’s not a healthy habit because it encourages you to focus on everyone else’s problems and suffering.
The things you think and say about yourself can lower your self-esteem and make you feel inferior to other people. Examining and challenging negative thoughts can improve your mood and self-image.
The next time you start beating yourself up, answer these questions:
- “Is there any evidence against my negative thoughts?”
- “What would I say to a friend who had this thought?”
- “Is this a helpful thought?”
- “Are there any practical steps I can take to improve my situation?”
For example, let’s say you feel inferior because your friend Alex recently got married, and now they plan to start a family. You have been single for a few years and want to have a partner and children too. You think to yourself, “Alex is already married, and now they’re going to have kids! I’m not even dating someone I like. I’m not good at relationships, and I’ll be alone forever.”
If you thought carefully about the questions above, you might replace those thoughts with a more realistic view. For example:
“When I look at the evidence, it isn’t true that I’m no good at relationships. I have several friends, and I have dated a couple of nice people in the past. If one of my friends was in this situation, I’d remind them of their good qualities and point out that it can take time to find a partner. Thinking like this isn’t helpful because it makes me feel bad about myself, which won’t exactly make me an attractive partner. I can improve my chances of meeting someone by going to meetups and using online dating apps.”
You may have heard that repeating positive affirmations can improve your self-esteem. However, research shows this isn’t always true. They can work for people who are already confident, but if you have low self-esteem, statements like “I love myself” and other similar affirmations can make you feel worse. Challenging your unhelpful thoughts is more effective.
When you are mindful, you are aware of how your thoughts and feelings impact your mood. Mindfulness exercises teach you how to live in the present moment instead of dwelling on your mistakes or worrying about the future. Research shows that mindfulness can improve self-acceptance, which may help you feel less inferior to others.
Setting and achieving goals improves your confidence and gives you a sense of achievement.
Here are some tips for setting goals:
- Make your goal specific and measurable so that you know for certain when you’ve achieved it. For example, “I want to work out for an hour three times per week” is better than “I want to get fit.”
- Break your goal down into manageable milestones. For example, if you want to write a novel, you could aim to write one chapter per month.
- Give yourself some credit for taking action. Just working towards your goal can make you feel better about yourself, even if you don’t get the result you want.
- Some people find that getting an accountability partner can encourage them to keep working towards a goal. You could ask a friend or colleague to check in with you every week and update them on your progress.
- Give yourself a reward when you hit your goal.
Alfred Adler, who made the term “inferiority complex” popular, believed that the remedy for inferiority is to build self-confidence by proving to yourself that you can handle life’s challenges and problems.
If you have a problem that’s been bothering you for a while, set aside some time to make an action plan. Start by identifying exactly what the problem is. Be specific. For example, “I fight with my partner several times per week, and it’s making me unhappy” is more helpful than “I’m unhappy in my relationship.”
Next, make a list of possible solutions. In this case, you might put “Try and talk the problem over with my partner,” “Go to couples’ therapy,” “Read books on better relationships,” and “Ask a trusted friend for advice” on your list.
When you’ve picked one or more possible solutions, plan concrete steps you can take to put them into action. For example, you might set a goal of reading two books on communication this month or making a therapy appointment by the end of the week.
True self-acceptance means accepting your weaknesses, including the sensitive or embarrassing things you try to keep hidden from everyone else. People who acknowledge and own their flaws are less likely to worry what others think of them. Because they are comfortable with who they are, they are less likely to suffer from an inferiority complex.
Let yourself imagine what would happen if someone else discovered your insecurities. Picture the realistic worst-case outcome, and then think about how you’d handle it. Upon reflection, you’ll probably discover that you could cope. Read this article for more advice on how to stop caring what others think of you.
Criticism can be useful. For example, constructive feedback from your manager will help you improve at work. But if you have an inferiority complex, criticism can make you feel even worse if you take it as proof that you’re incompetent.
Here’s how to deal with criticism:
- Focus on what you can learn from it. Decide what practical steps you can take to do better in the future, and draw up an action plan if necessary.
- Remind yourself that criticism of your actions isn’t the same as criticism of your character or worth as a person.
- Listen carefully. If you get distracted by your negative self-talk, it’s easy to miss what the other person is saying. When they’ve finished speaking, summarize what they have said in your own words to make sure you haven’t missed anything important. Learn how to stop negative self talk here.
- Try to see helpful feedback as a gift. When someone makes time to offer suggestions for improvement, they are implying that you are worthy of help and that you have the potential to do better.
Because low self-esteem is linked with depression and anxiety, getting treatment if you have either or both of these conditions may help you overcome feelings of inferiority.
Depression and anxiety can be treated with talking therapies, medication, or both. Talk to a doctor or therapist to work out a treatment plan. This guide from the American Psychological Association can help you choose a therapist.
If you need to talk to someone right now, you can call a helpline. Call the SAMSHA helpline on 1-800-662-HELP (4357) if you’re in the US. If you’re in another country, see this list of helplines. If you’d prefer not to talk on the phone, you can text with a crisis counselor via the Crisis Text Line service.
Caring for your body and mind can help you feel better about yourself and your life.
- Find a way to manage your stress. For example, you could try yoga, meditation, taking up a creative hobby, spending time in nature, journaling, or listening to soothing music.
- Work out regularly. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week.
- Look after your appearance. Research shows that good grooming and hygiene can improve your confidence and body image.
- Get enough rest. Sleep deprivation can cause stress and fatigue, so aim for 7-9 hours per night.
- Practice saying “No, that doesn’t work for me” or “No, I can’t do that” to people who make unreasonable requests. Drawing up boundaries is an important form of self-care. It can help to prepare answers and rehearse them alone so that they come naturally when you need them.
Research shows that doing volunteer work can make you feel more satisfied with your life and increase your self-esteem. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment and can help you meet likeminded people and make new friends.
It’s easier to feel good about yourself when you’re surrounded by people who encourage and support you. Avoid people who interrupt you, undermine you, start pointless fights, gossip about you, or criticize you for no valid reason. Read our guide to the signs of a toxic friendship to learn more about toxic people.
When you have an inferiority complex, you might take any sort of rejection as proof that you are an unworthy or undesirable person. Try to see rejection as a positive sign. When you’ve been turned down, it’s proof that you took a risk and moved beyond your comfort zone. The only way to avoid rejection is to take no chances at all.
However, if rejection is an ongoing pattern in your life, it might be a sign that your social skills need some work. You might like this guide on how to improve your social skills.
If you have low self-esteem, you may be a perfectionist who finds mistakes very hard to bear. But beating yourself up when something goes wrong will probably just make you feel worse.
Instead of assuming that a mistake is proof that you are incompetent, try to show yourself some compassion. Ask yourself, “Will this mistake really matter in one week/one month/one year from today?” and “What would I say to a friend who had made a similar mistake?” When you take a step back and analyze the situation, you may find that it isn’t as serious as you first thought.
Psychologists think that several factors could explain why some of us are prone to feeling inferior.
Negative childhood experiences: If your parents or carers were abusive or distant, you may have grown up with a sense that you are inadequate and unworthy. Bullying, trauma, and overprotective parenting can also lead to chronic low self-esteem.
Genetic factors: Although anyone can learn to feel better about themselves, research shows that your level of self-esteem is partly down to your genes.
Unrealistic social norms: From an early age, we are pressured to live up to unrealistic standards. For example, if you grew up in the US, you probably learned that having a lot of money is a sign of success and that everyone should aim to be rich. If you fall short of your culture’s idea of success, you may feel inferior.
- Being timid around other people because you feel they are “better” than you or even avoiding them entirely.
- Being reluctant to try new things or challenge yourself because you worry about failing.
- Questioning your abilities, even when you’ve done something well or have received praise.
- Feeling depressed.
- Feeling reluctant to open up about your problems or negative experiences to others. This is called “self-concealment” and is partly caused by feelings of inferiority.
- Difficulty accepting compliments or positive feedback. Your belief that you are “less than” others may be so deep-rooted that flattery makes you uncomfortable.
- Sensitivity to criticism. If you are worried that you are inferior, even constructive negative feedback may feel threatening.
- Obsessing over your flaws and how to hide them.
- Overcompensating. Some people who feel inferior to others may seem arrogant or snobbish, but their behavior is actually a way of compensating for their insecurity.
Making fewer comparisons with other people, treating yourself with kindness, and challenging your negative self-talk can reduce your feelings of social inferiority. Forgiving yourself for your mistakes, building healthy relationships, and working towards meaningful goals can also help.