Superiority complex is a term coined by Alfred Adler (1870-1937) in the early 1900s, as part of his school of individual psychology. A superiority complex is a defense mechanism that develops over time to help a person cope with feelings of inferiority. Individuals with this complex typically come across as supercilious, haughty, and disdainful toward others. They may treat others in an imperious, overbearing, and even aggressive manner.
In everyday usage, the term “superiority complex” is used to refer to an overly high opinion of oneself. In this article, we shall discuss what a Superior Complex is.
A superiority complex is when someone acts better than others to escape feelings of insecurity.
Someone who behaves like they’re better than others may have a superiority complex. However, though they may tend to exaggerate their accomplishments and abilities, they may in fact be doing so in order to overcompensate for feelings of inferiority.
Having a superiority complex is quite common, according to Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.” Daramus. In fact, according to a 2013 study, most people are biased toward themselves and would rate themselves as superior to the average person.
Some people have a superiority complex about one issue, such as their appearance or their finances; whereas for others, trying to appear better than others becomes their most dominant personality trait.
This article explores the characteristics, effects, potential causes, and diagnosis of a superiority complex as well as some coping mechanisms that may be helpful.
Table of Contents
Characteristics of a Superiority Complex
These are some of the characteristics of a superiority complex, according to Dr. Daramus:
- Making exaggerated claims of one’s accomplishments or abilities
- Constantly comparing themselves with others
- Overcompensating for real or imagined inadequacies
- Disregarding others’ opinions or contributions and placing excessive value on their own
- Overreacting to situations that dig deep into their insecurities
- Dismissing, bullying, or putting down others who may be better at them at something
- Engaging only in situations where they feel like they’re ahead or winning
For instance, Dr. Daramus explains that someone with a superiority complex may enjoy playing a game if they’re winning, but think that the game is stupid if they’re losing. “They may try to shut down the competition, throw shade at the winners, or overreact to losing because it triggers their insecurities and makes them feel stupid.”
Effects of a Superiority Complex
These are some of the ways a superiority complex can affect someone’s life, according to Dr. Daramus:
- Low self-worth: Internally, the person may focus excessively on their flaws and feel like they’re less worthwhile as a human being because of it. Overtly, they may project an air of being better than others in order to mask their sense of inferiority.
- Relationship difficulties: The person may have a hard time maintaining relationships, except maybe with people who are equally insecure.
- Career problems: The person may have career problems if they bluff or fake their way into positions they aren’t qualified for. On some level, they may recognize that they’re not qualified and feel extremely anxious about it.
Causes of a Superiority Complex
The concept of a superiority complex, and its counterpart, the inferiority complex, was first described by Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist who founded the school of thought known as individual psychology.
A 2022 study that reflects on Adler’s work, including the superiority complex theory, explains that according to Adler, childhood upbringing and mental health conditions are potential causes of a superiority complex, for the reasons explained below.
According to Adler, children who were overly pampered when they were young may have gotten used to having everything handed to them and have yet to have the chance to apply themselves and build their confidence and capabilities.
They may feel entitled and think the world revolves around them, which can dampen their creativity, initiative, and courage. However, once they go out into the world and interact with others who are more capable, they may feel inferior. Rather than learning to cooperate with others and adjust, they develop a superiority complex instead as a way to avoid coping with reality.
Mental Health Conditions
According to Adler, people living with mental health conditions may also develop superiority complexes because they may have difficulty coping and become deeply discouraged. This in turn can cause them to develop feelings of inferiority and feel the need to overcompensate.
Diagnosing a Superiority Complex
A superiority complex is not a mental health condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
However, mental healthcare providers who recognize that someone has a superiority complex can work with them to address it by understanding the root cause of their insecurities and developing healthier coping mechanisms.
According to Dr. Daramus, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is the closest diagnosis, but it’s not exactly the same, because some people with narcissistic personality disorder are insecure and have a superiority complex, but others are narcissists who genuinely believe in their own superiority, which is a different challenge.
Furthermore, Dr. Daramus says it’s a good idea to check whether patients with a superiority complex also have learning or attention problems, in case they’ve been struggling because they’re neurodivergent and haven’t been diagnosed yet.
Coping With a Superiority Complex
If you or a loved one have a superiority complex, these are some coping strategies that may be helpful, according to Dr. Daramus:
- Avoid exaggerating: Be honest with yourself about your abilities and accomplishments. Practice communicating with others without exaggerating.
- Learn to accept imperfections: It’s natural to have flaws and being imperfect doesn’t diminish your worth as a human being. Work on accepting your imperfections—and others’ too.
- Don’t make comparisons: It’s important to be able to recognize others’ abilities and celebrate their successes without comparing yourself to them or feeling bad about yourself.
- Work on building empathy: Remember that your words and actions can hurt other people. Recognize and acknowledge the hurt you have caused to others. Treat them with kindness and empathy.
- Seek therapy: People with superiority complexes often tend to experience other mental health conditions such as anxiety, perfectionism, or depression, as well as other dysfunctional beliefs about how people with imperfections (in other words, everyone else) should be treated. Therapy can help diagnose and address these issues.
In summary, although it sounds counterintuitive, accepting your shortcomings can help you move forward by motivating you to work hard and grow. Overcompensating, on the other hand, can set you up for further disappointment when you find yourself unable to deliver.
Experiencing setbacks can be difficult, but it’s important to learn to cope healthily. If you need support, a mental healthcare provider can help.