Superiority complex is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person’s feelings of superiority counter or conceal his or her feelings of inferiority. The term was coined by Alfred Adler (February 7, 1870 – May 28, 1937), as part of his School of Individual psychology.

The superiority complex is an exaggerated striving for superiority in which the individual hides their feelings of inferiority. The inferiority complex, in contrast, is an exaggerated feeling of inferiority in which the individual hides their striving for superiority. While everyone has feelings of inferiority and strive to overcome them, to be called a complex, the feeling or striving must be pathological in nature. In the case of superiority complex, the individual would deny any feelings of inferiority, any attempt to uncover it would likely be met with resistance, or violence.

“If a person is a show-off it is only because she or he feels inferior, because she or he does not feel strong enough to compete with others on the useful side of life. That is why she or he stays on the useless side. She or he is not in harmony with society. It seems to be a trait of human nature that when individuals – both children and adults – feel weak, they want to solve the problems of life in such a way as to obtain personal superiority without any admixture of social interest. A superiority complex is a second phase. It is a compensation for the inferiority [feeling] complex.” –The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler

“The superiority complex is one of the ways that a person with an inferiority complex may use as a method of escape from her or his difficulties. She or he assumes that she or he is superior when she or he is not, and this false success compensates her or him for the state of inferiority which she or he cannot bear. The normal person does not have a superiority complex, she or he does not even have a sense of superiority. She or he has the striving to be superior in the sense that we all have ambition to be successful; but so long as this striving is expressed in work it does not lead to false valuations, which are at the root of mental disease.” –The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler

From Alfred Adler’s point of view, an individual faced with a task wants to overcome or master the task. This is known as striving for superiority. For a well adapted individual, this striving is not for personal superiority over others, but an overcoming of the task, or finding useful answers to questions in life. When faced with the task, the individual will experience a feeling of inferiority or a sense that the current situation is not as good as it could be. This feeling is similar to stress. If the individual has not been properly trained, the task may seem too much to overcome and lead to an exaggerated feeling of inferiority, or intense anxiety. The individual may, after several unsuccessful attempts to accomplish the task, give up on mastering the task, experiencing the inferiority complex, or a depressed state.

An individual who is not properly trained to answer life’s problems may turn from striving for superiority in useful ways to that of a personal superiority at all cost. If an individual cannot be better than another on their own merit, they will attempt to tear down another person or group to maintain their superior position.

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