A superiority complex is an idea that your achievements are somehow better than other people’s. It is a defense mechanism that develops over time to help a person cope with feelings of inferiority. People with a superiority complex can come across as self-important, and special. They have an inflated sense of themselves and their achievements. It is a term that emerged from Alfred Adler’s work, part of his school of individual psychology.
Superior or Inferior?
Adler’s idea was that people with a superiority complex are driven to compensate for having a sense of inferiority. It is probably the case that people with a superiority complex are also suffering from an inferiority complex. When the sense of inferiority is provoked it sets off the superiority complex. In the grip of the complex they can’t negotiate or make peace with the sense of inferiority, instead they are driven to create a sense of superiority to cover up the painful feelings of inferiority.
Are you living with someone with a superiority complex?
Have you been told you have a superiority complex?
Confidence is valuable, without it we wouldn’t have the strength to pursue and keep hold of the things we want. But we have to keep a sense of balance and remember that there is more to us than a superiority complex.
When we become over identified with a one-sided perception of ourselves, or caught up in a superiority complex, we lose perspective. We leave ourselves open to collapse and breakdown.
What is a superiority complex?
People with a superiority complex have an inflated view of themselves and tend to think they are smarter, cleverer and better than others.
Often people with a superiority complex will make us feel bad about ourselves, but caught up in the power of their complex they wont be concerned about this. They become too identified with their own superiority to think too much about others, except that is for wanting other people to see them as superior.
Is a superiority complex covering something up?
When working with someone who has a superiority complex I ask myself: is this attitude working to throw people off the scent of something else? of more vulnerable feelings?
If we feel we are in the company of someone with superiority complex we should ask ourselves ‘what is the person compensating for?’
- A superiority complex is often an attitude which develops out of a need to conceal feelings of inferiority and vulnerability.
- When we think someone is over compensating for something we should wonder what is it about the person that they don’t want us to see?
Over compensating and trying to blindly cover up feelings of inferiority is unhealthy and sometimes dangerous:
- the superiority complex is difficult to live with, it alienates people and ultimately means that the relationships they have are based upon false feelings.
- the superiority complex is covering up weaknesses and vulnerability in the person that need to be explored and attended to before more serious problems develop. Ignoring your vulnerability can put you in risky positions.
If the covered up experience or feelings of vulnerability and inferiority is left, not explored and seen for what it is, then there remains the possibility that the complex will suddenly collapse and leave the person in a state of breakdown.
Whenever we detect that someone’s psychological mood or persona feels unbalanced we should wonder what is really going on?
Adler and the superiority complex
After leaving Freud’s circle, Alfred Adler developed his school of Individual Psychology. He developed the term superiority complex to indicate a psychological state that was being used as a defence to cover up weaknesses.
Carl Jung and psychological complexes
Carl Jung, another who broke with Freud, viewed the psyche as a self regulating system ‘that maintained its equilibrium just as the body does’.
‘Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche.’ Jung; The Practical use of Dream Analysis, 1931.
Jung’s approach, faced with someone in the grip of a superiority complex would ask:
- what attitude is being compensated for?
- what is the person concealing from me that needs attention?
Superiority complex – when it suddenly goes wrong
These kind of complexes sometimes play out to tragic effect in the case of sudden deaths and suicides.
Out of the blue we hear that a person who had always presented themselves as strong, reliable, powerful and confident has taken their own life. When this happens we are faced with painful questions:
- what was really going on?
- how did we not see it coming?
They always seemed so strong and confident… now we discover they weren’t. Behind all that superiority and apparent confidence lived a vulnerable person. These cases are tragic and not uncommon.
How do we find a way to intervene before we end up with a tragic or dire outcome? Can we become better at spotting the tendency to one-sided development in ourselves or in others before we are completely unbalanced, crash and breakdown?
Work on your superiority complex in psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is a confidential working relationship in which such experiences can be safely explored.
Within the safety of psychotherapy it is possible to find ways out of the dominating superiority complex, to find other and more collaborative and balanced ways of relating to others, and to start to lead a more even, constructive and satisfying life.