Attachment Theory and
Inferiority Complex 

Attachment Theory and
Inferiority Complex 

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of an inferiority complex, it is “a basic feeling of inadequacy and insecurity, deriving from actual or imagined physical or psychological deficiency.” These feelings of inferiority go beyond unhappiness that someone got a job promotion over you, or not excelling in an exam in comparison to a sibling. An inferiority complex is when our self-talk and beliefs about ourselves are consistently negative. In a way, we become a bully toward ourselves.

The roots of an inferiority complex can be traced back to the attachment styles we developed as children: If we perceived that our caregivers didn’t meet our needs in the way we required, we determined that we weren’t worthy of having our needs met in general.  

The good news is that understanding why we think and feel in certain ways and taking steps toward positive change can help us to overcome feelings of inferiority–and, in time, increase our self-esteem and self-confidence. To help you start this journey this article covers:

  • What an inferiority complex is
  • How feelings of inferiority can be linked to attachment theory
  • The symptoms of an inferiority complex

If you would like to learn how to overcome feelings of inferiority, check out our article on 6 Tips for Overcoming an Inferiority Complex for Insecure Attachment.

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What Is an Inferiority Complex?

We all experience moments when we feel less-than others. Perhaps we fail to achieve a personal goal, didn’t get a promotion, or feel that our friend is more popular, attractive, or successful than we are. Feeling inferior in situations like this is normal. However, feelings of inferiority become a problem when they’re persistent, all-encompassing, or overwhelming–and when they interfere with day-to-day life. 

The father of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, was the person to coin the term “inferiority complex.” Adler believed that we are all born with an innate inferiority complex, and it is these feelings of inadequacy that motivate us to behave, think, feel, and act in desirable ways to prove that we are superior to others. However, if our early years don’t promote a sense of worthiness and desire to grow and evolve, we may develop a strong sense of being less-than others or of being a failure.

Inferiority Complex Subtypes

According to Adler’s theory, there are two types of inferiority complex; primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.
Primary inferiority is believed to be the product of childhood experiences. For example, growing up with caregivers who didn’t meet your needs, or made you feel inferior as a child. If the beliefs that result from such a parenting style aren’t targeted, they can affect your thoughts and actions as an adult–resulting in the feeling that everyone around you is better than you.

In comparison, secondary inferiority starts in adulthood. Repeatedly experiencing negative events, such as being turned down time and time again for dates, or not getting hired after multiple interviews can result in this form of inferiority. Unexpected events such as major disappointments can also result in secondary inferiority. 

As previously mentioned, the parenting style we received as children can have a major impact on our self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. 

The Link Between Attachment Theory and Inferiority Complex

According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, a close early bond with our primary attachment figures sets us up for a more secure experience in life: It allows us to forge healthy internal working models for how the world works and how we fit into it. 

However, if our early experiences with caregivers were less than positive, we may form negative or inaccurate interpretations of our environment and ourselves. One such example of this is our feelings of self-worth and adequacy: If we perceived that our needs were left unmet by our caregivers we internalized the message that we were unworthy and unimportant. This internalized message is carried into our adult lives and manifests as feelings of inferiority. Let’s take a further look at how our early experiences impact our feelings of self-worth.

Parenting Styles and Inferiority Complex

In line with Adler’s theory of inferiority, the way in which a child is parented can either help a child overcome feelings of inferiority or leave them struggling with these feelings throughout life. These concepts are closely related to the development of an insecure attachment style

There are two polar parenting styles associated with Adler’s theory: pampering and neglectful. A caregiver who pampers their child caters to a child’s needs to the extent that the child doesn’t have to do anything for themselves, and, resultingly, doesn’t develop a sense of accomplishment in their abilities. They attribute any successes in life to external means. In contrast, a neglectful caregiver disregards the child’s needs and teaches them that they need to be self-reliant. As a consequence of neglectful parenting, a child embodies the belief that they are unworthy of having their needs met, and become fearful and distrustful of others’ intentions.

Insecure Attachment and Inferiority Complex

The ideal parenting style requires a balance between being pampering and neglectful; children should be protected and have their core needs met, but they should also be taught to foster independence and a belief in their ability to succeed (and recover from inevitable failure). This balance is theoretically close to the concept of secure attachment, where a caregiver is a supportive and safe base for a child, but also encourages them to explore their environment. 

In opposition to secure attachment, an insecure attachment forms when caregivers are rejecting, neglectful, or inconsistent regarding their childrens’ needs. As a consequence of such parenting styles, a child learns that they are unworthy and inadequate. 

Although insecure attachment styles and inferiority complexes tend to be stable traits, they are possible to change. The first step of the process of change is possessing an awareness of your attachment style, as well as its traits and triggers.  If you don’t yet know your attachment style, the free quiz on our website provides you with a report within minutes. The second step in this process is understanding the symptoms of and how to overcome an inferiority complex. 


Inferiority Complex Symptoms

Unique personal experiences can lead to an inferiority complex, therefore the symptoms can look different for each and every person who struggles with feelings of inadequacy. Moreover, sometimes people are so entrenched in their negative self-beliefs that they may not even realize that they have an inferiority complex. Having said as much, the following are some of the common signs of an inferiority complex.

1. Depressive Symptoms

It’s common practice for medical professionals to use the symptoms of depression to assess for an inferiority complex. Furthermore, studies have shown that there is a strong association between feelings of inadequacy and depression. The common signs of depression include chronic feelings of unhappiness or hopelessness, low self-esteem, and struggling to find joy in things you usually enjoy. Depression is a serious mental illness, so if you identify with this description, it’s important to talk to a professional about treatment.

2. Mental Symptoms

Feeling inferior to others can have a serious impact on someone’s mental well-being. Although the impacts can be different between people, some of the common signs include:

  • low self-esteem
  • negative self-attitudes
  • lack of motivation
  • irritability and frustration
  • withdrawal from day-to-day activities and social interactions
  • constantly comparing yourself to others
  • insomnia

If you’re experiencing a number of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, you may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional for guidance. It can be difficult to see the wood from the trees if you have an inferiority complex, but you don’t have to deal with it by yourself. 

3. Perfectionism

In line with Adler’s concept of an inferiority complex, we are primed to battle against low self-esteem from a very young age. However, those of us with an inferiority complex may never have conquered the feeling of being less-than others. For this reason, a common symptom of an inferiority complex includes the desire to be perfect or to prove you’re better than the people around you. This perfectionism is an attempt to prove to both ourselves and others that we aren’t inadequate–but it’s impossible to be perfect in everything we do. Setting such high personal standards sets us up for failure, and once this happens, we only deepen the internal belief of being inferior to others.

4. Difficulties accepting positive feedback

Research has shown that people with an inferiority complex often struggle to accept positive feedback. They may, in fact, prefer others to view them in a negative light as they’re uncomfortable accepting positive feedback that contradicts their belief of being less-than others.

Furthermore, someone with an inferiority complex may doubt the sincerity of compliments and positive feedback. They deem the compliments to be untrue, so they become uncomfortable receiving such flattery.

5. Blaming others

People with an inferiority complex may struggle to attribute personal shortcomings or problems to their own actions. This is often a protective strategy to compensate for their negative self-attitudes; recognizing personal weaknesses or shortcomings can further compound their negative self-beliefs, so it’s easier to find someone or something else to blame.

6. Constantly comparing oneself to others

In the era of social media, we have all become more likely to make comparisons between ourselves and the “ideal” images we see online–which has consequences for mental health in general. However, for those of us with an inferiority complex, constantly comparing ourselves to others (both in “real life” and online) and coming up short is part and parcel of everyday life.

7. Putting others down

Attempting to put others down to feel better about ourselves is often an attempt to disguise painful feelings of inferiority. This symptom connects to the need to be perfect, but it’s an unsustainable way of increasing self-esteem as we can’t always feel like we’re the most accomplished, best-looking, and most popular person in the room. In such instances, the focus is more on being better than those around us rather than improving ourselves for personal reasons.

8. Hypersensitivity to criticism

Having an inferiority complex can make us overly sensitive to criticism as we may perceive it as a personal attack and take offense even if none was intended. What’s more, criticism can cause someone with an inferiority complex to respond aggressively, such as by shouting and creating an argument, as they may believe that they are being disrespected. Overall, feeling criticized is difficult for someone with an inferiority complex as they perceive this information as evidence that they are inadequate.

Final Words on Insecure Attachment and Feelings of Inferiority

We all worry from time to time about our abilities and successes in life. Yet, if you have an insecure attachment style, you may be more prone to either feelings of inferiority or an inferiority complex. 

Every single individual has personal strengths and weaknesses, so there’s no concrete reason to feel less confident or valuable than others. If you would like to understand more about how to alter feelings of inferiority, make sure to check out our tips on how to overcome an inferiority complex. In the meantime, remind yourself that you can break free from these feelings–just because your past did not help you to feel as confident as you deserve, there’s no reason why you can’t carve an optimistic and positive future for yourself. 

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