Inferiority, Feeling of

views updated Jun 08 2018


The term "feeling(s) of inferiority" refers to a group of representations and affects that reflect an individual's self-devaluation in relation to others. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Sigmund Freud mentioned a dream marked by both feelings of inferiority and infantile omnipotence. The thematic content of this dream is explicitly anal, which is significant, since Freud later often returned to anal issues as forces that can have a positive or negative impact on self-esteem.

Freud addressed feelings of inferiority, notably, in his analyses of the cases of the Rat Man (1909d), Schreber (1911c), and the Wolf Man (1918b). He also took up this theme in his formulations on narcissism (1914c). But above all, he examined feelings of inferiority with especially keen insight within the framework of the oedipal complex. In his paper on a child's fantasy of being beaten (1919e), he wrote that this fantasy, as well as other, analogous perverse fixations, were "precipitates of the Oedipus complex, scars, so to say, . . . just as the notorious 'sense of inferiority' corresponds to a narcissistic scar of the same sort" (p. 193). Within the oedipal framework, the threat of castration that weighs upon the little boy distorts his self-esteem, and the absence of a penis leads the little girl to devalue herself. In both cases, feelings of inferiority are intimately linked to the guilt inherent in the oedipal drama. The loss of love of the object and the sense of rejection accentuate this feeling.

Freud revised these views when he formulated his structural theory of ego psychology. "There is always a feeling of triumph when something in the ego coincides with the ego ideal. And the sense of guilt (as well as the sense of inferiority) can also be understood as an expression of tension between the ego and the ego ideal," Freud wrote in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c, p. 131).

One can thus better understand why Freud so firmly opposed Alfred Adler when Adler wanted to make feelings of inferiority the keystone of his theoretical conceptions in The Neurotic Constitution: Outlines of a Comparative Individualistic Psychology and Psychotherapy (1912/1926). In Freud's view, feelings of inferiority were a superficial manifestationimportant in clinical work, to be sure, but understandable only within the framework of a more general metapsychology.

Roger Perron

See also: Adler, Alfred; Compulsion; Fanon, Frantz; Feeling of inferiority (individual psychology); Masculine protest (individual psychology); Social feeling (individual psychology).


Adler, Alfred. (1926). The neurotic constitution: Outlines of a comparative individualistic psychology and psychotherapy (Bernard Glueck and John E. Lind, Trans.). New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. (Original work published 1912)

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1911c). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides). SE, 12: 1-82.

. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1918b). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1919e). A child is being beaten: A contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.

. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

Inferiority, Feeling of (Individual Psychology)

views updated May 14 2018


As early as 1907 Alfred Adler considered the state of organic inferiority as a factor in neurosis before linking it to the newborn child's state of physiological immaturity. This state of inferiority is the source of the feeling of inferiority that persists throughout life: "Being a man means having a feeling of inferiority that constantly demands compensation" (1912/2002).

The life history of Alfred Adler, who suffered from rickets as a child, goes some way to explaining his insistence on the importance of the states of organic inferiority at the root of the feeling of inferiority. He later observed the various modulations that the family and cultural environment, as well as the child's choices, introduced into this feeling, which he saw as a stimulant to psychic life. By way of compensation the child will elaborate a directing fiction representing an ideal being who has all the qualities that the child lacks, and will project itself into the future "in the shape of the father, mother, an older brother or sister, a schoolteacher, an animal or a God" (1912/2002). The gap between the self and the directing fiction is all the greater if the child has suffered frustrations or ill treatment and encounters no obstacles in its imaginary world.

Very early on this fiction will be adapted due to the influence of social and cultural factors and will express itself in the form of a counter-fiction (1912/2002). Psychic health is characterized by harmonious relations between the fiction and the counter-fiction, whereas the neurotic will remain under the control of the fiction, making an effort "to shine while acting modestly, to conquer while remaining humble and submissive, to humiliate others with his own apparent virtues, to disarm others with his passivity, to make others suffer through his own suffering, to pursue a virile goal with feminine means, to make himself small in order to seem big."

Compensation for an exacerbated feeling of inferiority can take the form of a superiority complex, the different manifestations of which Adler described in The Neurotic Constitution, whereas discouragement will take the form of an inferiority complex. In this case the subject will use neurotically rich symptoms to flee all situations that threaten its prestige, hence Adler's definition of neurosis: "An attempt to maintain the appearance of value at all costs, while desiring this goal without paying the price" (1930/1927).

Cultural influence manifests itself in the elaboration of the fiction through the choice of a model representing a virile ideal that leads to a mode of apperception that is in accordance with the opposition relation: masculine/dominant/superiority, feminine/defeated/inferiority. The social influence constitutes the correcting element that determines the feeling of inferiority. These two factors make up two lines of force that are present in the formation of the child's lifestyle, which can be compared to the program of perception and behavior with which the child complies unconsciously (1929/1964).

FranÇois Compan

See also: Cinema and psychoanalysis; Inferiority, feeling of; Grandiose self; Object; Paranoia; Penis envy; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes."


Adler, Alfred (1972). The neurotic constitution: Outlines of a comparative individualistic psychology and psychotherapy (Bernard Glueck and John E. Lind, Trans.). Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press. (Original work published 1930)

. (1964). Problems of neurosis: A book of case histories. (P. Mairet, Ed.). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1929)

. (2002). The neurotic character. Fundamentals of individual psychology and psychotherapy (Cees Koen, Trans.). San Franscisco: Alfred Adler Institutes. (Original work published 1912)