This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 11 table of contents.

Inferiority Feelings

Most people have heard of the inferiority complex. Adler himself was surprised to find this concept singled out for attention from his entire theory. Wherever he went people asked him about inferiority complexes. Adler explained that there is an important difference between inferiority feelings, which are universal and serve as a positive motivating force, and the inferiority complex, which is relatively rare and tends to paralyze people rather than motivate them.

What did Adler say about inferiority feelings of childhood?

Inferiority feelings begin in childhood and continue to crop up now and then throughout adulthood. They occur when someone does better than you, criticizes you, shows authority over you, hurts you, or otherwise gains advantage over you. Inferiority feelings are normal and even beneficial, because they lead to a compensating drive to become superior or improve yourself to avoid such feelings in the future.

What is the distinction between inferiority feelings and the inferiority complex?

The inferiority complex, by contrast, does not motivate people; it paralyzes them. People with an inferiority complex are convinced they are worthless or that they will fail. They show their low self-esteem in all possible ways: with facial expression, tone of voice, posture, choice of clothing, and choice of activities. They avoid challenge because they are sure they will fail. To Adler, an inferiority complex was a neurosis or personality disorder that might benefit from therapy.

What was Adler's concept of "self-training"?

Adler believed each personality is the result of self-training early in life, when as little children we figure out what "works" in our world, what protects us, what makes us happy, or what pleases the people who matter to us. Then we put those lessons into action. We do whatever we can to make our lives better. Adler wrote that people were continually striving to move from a "net minus" to a "net plus" situation. In the process, we try to eliminate our weaknesses and increase our power.

How did both OJ Simpson and Wilma Rudolph show compensation?

Adler observed that people sometimes over-compensate for early feelings of inferiority by going to great extremes in their drive to triumph over adversity. Examples are easy to find. Wilma Rudolph had polio that left her crippled in childhood, but she became an Olympic gold-medal winning sprinter. Similarly, O.J. Simpson had rickets as a child and was told he would never be able to run again, but he became one of the best football running backs in history. Over-compensation sometimes leads to problems, because it is (by definition) rather extreme: a person's entire life can revolve around overcompensation. However, in some cases this leads to great achievements.

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