An inferiority complex — persistently doubting your self-worth or feeling that you are inadequate — can affect all parts of your life. Feeling less than others may overwhelm you, triggering abnormal behaviors or reactions, according to the American Psychological Association.
“The term ‘inferiority complex’ was coined by the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler over a century ago and is used by some therapists to describe a sense of inferiority to the world and others,” says Blake Hilton, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. “More modern or commonly used terms among clinicians and researchers would be low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, or low self-confidence.”
It’s normal to experience feelings of inadequacy or inferiority in certain circumstances, like failing a test, getting passed over for a promotion, or being dumped by a partner. But if you have an inferiority complex, these feelings are strong and persistent despite the situation.
“Although responses to these feelings may vary, they can impact our lives in many problematic ways,” Dr. Hilton says.” For example, some individuals experiencing feelings of inadequacy avoid situations and opportunities due to the fear of failure or criticism. Other individuals may overcompensate for these feelings through attacking or criticizing others.”
The good news is that it’s possible to overcome an inferiority complex. Therapy is an important foundation for this work, as it gives you the tools you need to implement other practices, like mindfulness and pushing back against your negative self-talk, into your everyday life.
10 Tips for Overcoming an Inferiority Complex
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Two crucial elements of overcoming an inferiority complex are knowing that people love and care about you, and knowing that you’re making progress towards your goals, says Amy Flowers, PhD, a psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist in private practice in Macon, Georgia. When she has a client who’s working to overcome low self-esteem, she encourages them to keep a gratitude journal, which can serve as proof that these things are true.
In the journal, she recommends writing down “wins” and things you’re grateful for at the end of every day. For example, you might write that your boss complimented your work performance, or that your college best friend who lives across the country called to catch up and check in.
“When you feel like you never measure up or worry that no one likes you, go back and read your past journal entries and see for yourself that these things aren’t true,” Dr. Flowers says.
RELATED: Journaling 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Therapeutic Writing and Drawing
2. Practice ‘Ego-Decentered’ Reasoning
Struggling with an inferiority complex means that you can’t see yourself and your abilities objectively, because you have a negative bias against yourself.
Franki Y. H. Kung, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who studies goals, motivations, and mindset, recommends practicing “ego-decentered” reasoning — essentially, trying to take your feelings and biases out of the equation — as a way to push back against that bias.
Although this approach is more often used as a way to have more productive conversations with people you disagree with, Dr. Kung says you can put the strategies into practice when talking to yourself, too. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2018, Kung and his colleagues tested and outlined a framework for ego-decentered reasoning that includes five strategies, which he calls HOPES:
- Humility Recognize the limits of your own knowledge. Just because you believe something, doesn’t make it true.
- Observer’s Viewpoint Try to look at yourself, your abilities, and your accomplishments from an outside perspective. If you can’t, ask a trusted friend or loved one to offer this perspective for you.
- Perspective Taking Try to understand the situation from multiple angles. Maybe you got passed over for a promotion at work and spiraled into negative self-talk about how you’re not good enough and will never advance in your career. Instead, try thinking of some other possible reasons why this happened: the promotion went to someone with more years of experience, you’re a better fit for another role that will probably become available in a year or so, you’re not quite ready to move up yet but will be soon.
- Evolving Situations Accommodate for fluctuation or change in situations. Realize that you’ll have both negative and positive experiences in your life, and try not to dwell only on the negative ones.
- Search for Compromise Integrate different perspectives into your decisions and actions. Low self-esteem means often taking the worst-case scenario about yourself as truth. Instead, consider all perspectives (see No. 3), and try to compromise on a middle ground.
3. Engage in Your Community
“One thing that’s helpful in challenging negative beliefs about yourself is doing something that helps the community,” said Howard Pratt, DO, a psychiatrist and the Medical Director at Community Health of South Florida, in Miami. “Whether that means volunteering your time or some other kind of contribution, it can greatly improve your self-esteem.”
Doing things in service of others forces you to live in the present moment and get out of your own head, both of which help you end (or at least take a break from) the loop of self-criticism that exists in your head when you have an inferiority complex.
4. Try Meditation
Meditation ultimately helps you bring your mind’s attention to your thoughts without judgment. Although it can be done at home and it costs nothing, meditation is recognized as a form of mind-body medicine that helps ease stress, along with the negative emotions and ideas that are the hallmark of an inferiority complex.
When scientists from Johns Hopkins University looked at 19,000 meditation studies, they discovered that mindful meditation may help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, both of which are associated with an inferiority complex, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
There are many different types of meditation. As a start, Harvard University gives the following tips for a successful meditation practice:
- Sit in a chair or on the floor. Close your eyes if you want to.
- Focus on your breath by paying attention to how your belly moves as you breathe, and how the air flows out of your mouth and nose.
- Once you’re focused on your breath, widen your focus and start noticing the sounds around you, the sensations you feel, and any thoughts that pop into your head.
- Embrace these thoughts and sensations without judging them. Consider them, but don’t mark them as good or bad.
- When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.
- Start with however long you can comfortably sit still and relax. It can be as little as one or two minutes. Aim to increase the number of minutes over time. Research on some forms of meditation have shown that 20 minutes a day is ideal for health benefits, per Harvard Medical School.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Similar to meditation in many ways, mindfulness is a way to bring the practice of being present and nonjudgmental into your everyday life, even when you’re not actively meditating. Kendall Thornton, PhD, a teaching assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, explains that mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally, to the present moment.
“The most important element of practicing being mindful is to accept one’s experience as it is, without judgement,” Dr. Thornton says. “ We too often have self-talk that is immediately judgmental and negative. Only after experiences are accepted, and thoughts as seen as thoughts, instead of reality, will one truly have a choice in how to respond to them.”
The nonjudgmental thinking that’s central to both mindfulness and meditation can be difficult at first. That’s why therapy is such a key part of overcoming an inferiority complex as well.
6. Stop Dwelling on Mistakes
“As much as possible, avoid dwelling on mistakes or negative events of the past,” said Dr. Pratt. “When you ruminate on these mistakes, you tend to think about them as significantly worse than they actually were.”
Mindfulness, as explained above, is a great way to start practicing this. When you find yourself thinking about a past mistake, try bringing your attention to what’s going on in the present moment. Thornton suggests focusing on things you can actually sense and feel in the moment — how different parts of your body feel, what smells and sounds are around you, what you see in front of you — as one way to bring yourself back to the present when your mind starts wandering to things that have gone wrong in the past.
7. Find a Therapist Who Has Experience Working With Low Self-Esteem
A therapist won’t diagnose you with an inferiority complex, since no such diagnosis exists. But Hilton says anyone whose low self-esteem is causing problems in their life should seek out therapy.
While there’s no “right” way to find a therapist, doing some research can help you in your search. Your primary care physician might be able to refer you to someone who specializes in helping people with low self-esteem.
You can also call your health insurance company and ask for phone numbers of professionals in your area who accept your insurance plan. Another option is to search online directories, such as the extensive ones at PsychologyToday.com, GoodTherapy.org, and Zencare.co. Each is searchable by specialty, insurance providers, gender, and more.
Before scheduling a meeting with a therapist, here are some questions to ask, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness and the Depression Alliance:
- Do you have experience treating patients with inferiority complex, also known as chronic low self-esteem? If so, how much experience?
- What other conditions do you treat?
- What do you consider your area of expertise?
- What is a typical session like?
- Do you accept my health insurance plan?
- What psychological philosophies and principals do you use in your therapy sessions?
8. With Your Therapist, Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Different types of therapy can work to help you overcome low self-esteem, but Hilton says that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and evidenced-based treatments. “CBT teaches you ways in which your thoughts and behaviors might affect your feelings of inadequacy, and provides you with concrete skills to actively change and begin living the life you want for yourself, rather than the life your mind is creating for you,” he says.
According to Mayo Clinic, CBT can help you overcome various ways of thinking that are self-sabotaging, including:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking You see everything you do as either good or bad, and judging yourself harshly as a result.
- Mental Filtering You ignore good things — like skills you have and positive things that happen — and focusing only on the bad things.
- Converting Positives Into Negatives When something positive happens, like starting a relationship with someone you connect with, you turn it into a negative, like, “They’ll only date me until someone better comes along.”
- Jumping to Negative Conclusions You assume the worst without any evidence. For example, if a friend doesn’t pick up their phone when you call, you assume that they’re angry with you instead of assuming they’re probably busy at work.
- Mistaking Feelings for Facts When you feel inadequate at work or in a relationship, you automatically assume that you’re failing even if there’s no evidence of that.
9. In Therapy, Explore How Your Past Experiences Might Be Shaping Your Inferiority Complex
If your feelings of inferiority are due to a specific issue, such as poor social skills, a therapist can help you accept your limits as they are now, with self-compassion, and then help you to expand and develop the skills you need and desire.
Sometimes, an inferiority complex is developed as a coping mechanism for childhood traumas or negative past experiences, Thornton says psychotherapy is a safe place for you to talk openly and confidentially about earlier experiences. Understanding how your current thoughts and behaviors are shaped by your past is an important step in changing them, Thornton says.
There are many different types of psychotherapy, each of which can be conducted in an individual, couple, or group setting. Sessions are typically held once a week for 45 to 50 minutes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 75 percent of people who enter psychotherapy benefit in some way.
10. Rule Out Another Cause
Low self-esteem can come with other conditions, like depression and anxiety. If your low self-esteem is routinely getting in the way of your daily life experience, consider getting screened by a mental health professional for other symptoms. If something else is going on, a different treatment, such as medication, may be helpful for you. Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can work to improve your mental health when combined with therapy.