An inferiority complex consists of feelings of not measuring up to standards, a doubt and uncertainty about oneself, and a lack of self-esteem. It is often subconscious and is thought to drive afflicted individuals to overcompensate, resulting either in spectacular achievement or extremely asocial behavior. In modern literature, the preferred terminology is "lack of covert self-esteem".
Stemming from the psychoanalytic branch of psychology, the idea first appeared among many of Sigmund Freud's works and later in the work of his colleague Carl Jung. Alfred Adler, founder of classical Adlerian psychology, held that many neurolytic symptoms could be traced to overcompensation for this feeling.[clarification needed]
The use of the term complex now is generally used to denote the group of emotionally toned ideas. The counterpart of an inferiority complex, a "superiority complex", is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person's feelings of superiority counter or conceal their feelings of inferiority.
An inferiority complex occurs when the feelings of inferiority are intensified in the individual through discouragement or failure. Those who are at risk for developing a complex include people who: show signs of low self-esteem or self-worth, have low socioeconomic status, or have a history of depression symptoms. Children reared in households where they were constantly criticized or did not live up to parents' expectations may also develop an inferiority complex. Many times there are warning signs to someone who may be more prone to developing an inferiority complex. For example, someone who is prone to attention and approval-seeking behaviors may be more susceptible.
According to Classical Adlerian psychology the second inferiority feeling results when adults feel inadequate from desires to achieve an unobtainable or unrealistic result, "The need for perfection." Stresses associated with feelings of failure and inferiority cause a pessimistic attitude and an inability to overcome difficulties in life.
According to Adler, "Everyone (...) has a feeling of inferiority. But the feeling of inferiority is not a disease; it is rather a stimulant to healthy, normal striving and development. It becomes a pathological condition only when the sense of inadequacy overwhelms the individual and, far from stimulating him to useful activity, makes him depressed and incapable of development."
Classical Adlerian psychology makes a distinction between primary and secondary inferiority feelings.
When an inferiority complex is in full effect, it may impact the performance of an individual as well as impact an individual's self-esteem. Unconscious psychological and emotional processes can disrupt students' cognitive learning, and negatively "charged" feeling-toned memory associations can derail the learning process.
Hutt found that math can become associated with a psychological inferiority complex, low motivation and self-efficacy, poor self-directed learning strategies, and feeling unsafe or anxious.
In the mental health treatment population, this characteristic is shown in patients with many disorders such as certain types of schizophrenia, mood disorders, and personality disorders. Moritz found that people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia used their delusions as a defense mechanism against low implicit self-esteem.Alfred Adler identified an inferiority complex as one of the contributing factors to problem child behaviors.