Whether it’s about Greece’s economic woes or the Socceroos winning football’s Asian Cup, journalists love to bandy around the phrase “inferiority complex” as if it’s catch-all statement to imply doubt and uncertainty.
But the term has its origins in the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and has been used to describe a set of emotionally toned ideas (or a “complex”) revolving around a “lack of self-worth, a doubt and uncertainty, and feelings of not measuring up to society’s standards”. The reason why it crops up in psychotherapy and psychology a lot is that it is “often unconscious, and is thought to drive afflicted individuals to overcompensate, resulting either in spectacular achievement or extreme antisocial behaviour”.
Since Freud, “inferiority complex” has been split into two parts – the feelings of inadequacy in comparison to others, and those related to failure to achieve personal goals. And that’s why it is an important concept to grasp in terms of dealing with social anxiety.
We all have moments of feeling “inferior” to others, and this may in fact be true – unless we happen to have won a swag of gold medals or a Nobel Prize, then chances are there are plenty of people that are better at things than us.
But when we feel this to be globally true: that everyone is better, smarter, more attractive than us, then it can really get in the way. And when we’re feeling that inferiority because of a failure to live up to a fictional, subjective goal, then that is likely to cause a downward spiral – something which often lies at the heart of social anxiety.
This endless sequence of self-perceived failure and worry will be recognisable to anyone who has struggled with social anxiety or phobia, but what is less familiar (and more complex) is how it can lead to what therapists refer to as “over-compensation”.
Sometimes people can over-compensate for feelings of inferiority or insecurity by taking outrageous risks to prove they aren’t the person they fear they are. This can be a good thing short term, but it very rarely solves the problem.
I’ve spoken to plenty of people who struggle with social anxiety in their personal relationships but can’t make sense of how fearless they can be at work. Giving a presentation to a group of 20+ people? Piece of cake! Talking to an attractive potential partner over dinner? Scary as hell!
Human beings are complicated, and while we strive to prove ourselves in one area, we can feel terrified in another. Often feelings of inferiority are a natural reaction to situations in which we feel uncomfortable.
And the solution? Like most things, easier said than done.
In a nutshell: it helps to be able to observe and create distance from the internal narrative that drives these ideas, accept our imperfections and expect ourselves to be human: neither better or worse than most. The acceptance that we are not necessarily comfortable in all situations can then prevent that spiral of anxiety which becomes a complex.
Mindfulness therapy, a core part of treatment, can really help as it assists us to be able to observe ourselves and be more compassionate. Because sometimes it isn’t as complex as we perceive it to be – it’s just as simple as learning to be kind to ourselves.