What Is a Superiority Complex?
A superiority complex is a behavior that suggests a person believes they’re somehow superior to others. People with this complex often have exaggerated opinions of themselves. They may believe their abilities and achievements surpass those of others.
However, a superiority complex may actually be hiding low self-esteem or a sense of inferiority.
Psychologist Alfred Adler first described the superiority complex in his early 20th-century work. He outlined that the complex is really a defense mechanism for feelings of inadequacy that we all struggle with.
In short, people with a superiority complex frequently have boastful attitudes to people around them. But these are merely a way to cover up feelings of failure or shortcoming.
How to tell if you have a superiority complex
The symptoms of a superiority complex may include:
- high valuations of self-worth
- boastful claims that aren’t backed up by reality
- attention to appearance, or vanity
- overly high opinion of one’s self
- a self-image of supremacy or authority
- unwillingness to listen to others
- overcompensation for specific elements of life
- mood swings often made worse by contradiction from another person
- underlying low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority
You may believe that you spot some of these symptoms in another person. They can be easy to identify, especially after a long relationship. But matching these symptoms to the complex itself is not that easy.
Many of these “symptoms” can also be caused by several other conditions. These include narcissistic personality disorder and bipolar disorder.
A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, may be able to see beneath the symptoms to the real issue. That is often low self-esteem or a sense of inferiority. If this is discovered, a superiority complex becomes distinct from other possible issues.
Superiority complex vs. inferiority complex
A superiority complex is an exaggerated sense of self-worth. It hides real feelings of mediocrity.
An inferiority complex is an overstated feeling of weakness. It often hides true motives, such as aspirations for power.
In Adler’s theory of individual psychology, a superiority complex and an inferiority complex are tied together. He held that a person who acted superior to others and held others as less worthy was actually hiding a feeling of inferiority. Likewise, some people who have really high aspirations may attempt to hide them by pretending to be modest or even incapable.
Individual psychology is based on the idea that we are all striving to overcome a sense of inadequacy or inferiority, and this leads us to master skills and create a meaningful life of belonging and success.
Overcoming feelings of inferiority are the motivation for us to create the life we want. In this context, a superiority complex is a result or reaction to a failure to achieve one’s goals or to live up to internal expectations.
Freud thought that a superiority complex was actually a way to compensate or overcompensate for areas in which we are lacking or failing. He thought it could be motivating or a way to help us cope with failure.
Superiority complex differs from genuine confidence in that confidence is a result of having an actual skill, success, or talent in a specific area. In contrast, a superiority complex is false confidence or bravado when little or no success, achievement, or talent actually is there.
What causes a superiority complex?
It’s unclear why anyone develops a superiority complex. Multiple situations or incidents may be the root cause.
For example, it may be the result of multiple failures. A person tries to complete a specific goal or achieve the desired outcome, but they don’t succeed. They learn to handle the anxiety and stress of the failure by pretending to be above it.
If they feel protected from their failures in this manner, they may repeat it in the future. In short, they learn to escape feelings of inadequacy by boasting and pretending to be better than others. But to people around this person, the behaviors may be seen as prideful and arrogant.
These behaviors can begin at an early age. When a child is learning to cope with challenges and changes, they may learn to suppress feelings of inadequacy or fear. A superiority complex may develop.
Likewise, it may also happen later in life. As teens and adults, a person has many opportunities to try new things among new people. If these situations are not successfully navigated, a person may develop a superiority complex to overcome feeling isolated or lacking.
Can it be diagnosed?
A superiority complex is not an official diagnosis. It does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). This manual is a tool for mental health experts and healthcare providers can use to diagnose a number of mental health disorders. The DSM-5 also helps healthcare providers decide on appropriate treatment.
However, not being in the manual does not mean the complex is not real. A mental health expert will use a combination of factors to determine if a person has the complex. These include observed behaviors and evaluation during one-on-one sessions. Sometimes, conversations with friends and family members may be helpful, too.
Some symptoms of a superiority complex are similar to other mental health conditions. These include narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and bipolar disorder. Unlike the superiority complex, these have definitive criteria for diagnosis. Your healthcare provider can rule out these and other conditions.
Can it be treated?
A superiority complex does not have a standard treatment. That’s because it is not considered an official diagnosis.
However, a healthcare professional or mental care provider can create a “treatment.” This plan may help you to understand any underlying issues for boastful behavior. It will ultimately help you learn to handle them in a more beneficial manner.
Many people have feelings of inferiority and face setbacks. It’s how you learn to deal with those things that ultimately shape your mental health. An expert, such as a psychologist, can help you learn to find solutions rather than create personas when you feel pressured.
Talk therapy is a common treatment for this complex. In these one-on-one sessions, a psychologist or therapist can help you properly assess your dilemmas. You can then craft more healthful responses. When you feel pressured in the future, you can use those tactics to help you overcome the feelings of weakness.
If you’re in a relationship with someone you believe has this complex, you can encourage them to seek treatment. At the same time, you may benefit from psychotherapy, too. A psychologist or therapist can help you learn to assess when your partner or family member is being honest and when they are feeling vulnerable.
You can help hold them accountable. You can also help encourage them in their quest to be more honest about their feelings and to identify new areas of growth in which they may succeed.
What’s the outlook for someone with a superiority complex?
People with a superiority complex are unlikely to be a threat to anyone’s physical health. However, the continuous lies and exaggerations can become irritating to others and may negatively affect relationships.
If you’re in a relationship with a person you think has this issue, encourage them to seek help. They can find healthier ways of coping with hidden feelings.
You may also benefit from seeing a therapist, and you may consider seeing a therapist with your partner to learn more effective ways of expressing feelings to each other.
The bottom line
Acting superior or displaying other characteristics of a superiority complex is usually a way to mask or hide feelings of inferiority. If you believe you have a superiority complex, treatment from a mental health expert can help.
It takes time to work through these feelings and behaviors. It also requires awareness to avoid them again in the future. Dealing with a superiority complex is possible. Learning to have more honest, open dialogue with other people and how to set and pursue more realistic goals can help.