Low self-esteem can lead to feelings of inadequacy, which can in turn lead to a need to overcompensate by constantly putting oneself above others through arrogant or condescending behaviour. This can manifest as a superiority complex.
"Hurt people hurt people" is a popular saying for a reason. The way we feel about ourselves often plays into how we interact with those around us. When we're truly content with who we are and the lives we've created, it's easier to support and cheer for others. However, when we are dissatisfied, seeing others thrive may be difficult. There might even be a burning desire to minimize or undermine others to make ourselves feel better, also known as a superiority complex.
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. These are some of the characteristics of a superiority complex:
Attention to appearance, or vanity.
A self-image of supremacy or authority, a need for control, and feelings of entitlement.
Unwillingness to listen to others, unable to take criticism or feedback.
Disregarding others’ opinions or contributions, at times by being sarcastic and condescending.
Placing excessive value on their own actions, and displaying anger or contempt when others don't recognize their talent or skill.
Dismissing and being arrogant towards others to safeguard themselves before the other person has a chance to 'view' their real or perceived weakness.
Bullying or putting down others who may seem better than them at something.
Engaging only in situations where they feel like they’re ahead or winning, and not putting any effort or less effort into other tasks to avoid failure and perceived humiliation.
Is a superiority complex covering something up?
A superiority complex is often an attitude that develops as a defense mechanism out of a need to conceal feelings of inferiority, real or perceived inadequacy, shame, insecurity, and vulnerability.
Interesting Fact: During the early days of developing the criminal profiling system in the Behavioural Science Unit, the FBI's findings after interviewing various serial killers like Ed Kemper, suggested that rape, arson, and sexually driven violent killings are acts of power, control, and a way to compensate for feeling inferior and humiliated in other areas of their life (mostly in the immediate family environment).
How is this different from an inferiority complex?
An inferiority complex is an overstated feeling of weakness. Some people may be always modest or downplay their achievements. They may actually have high aspirations for themselves but potentially fear that they may not achieve them. So, they downplay what they have achieved to lower people's expectations of them and avoid humiliation or embarrassment.
On the other hand, some people who have really high aspirations may attempt to hide them by pretending to be modest or even incapable. This often hides true motives, such as aspirations for power.
A superiority complex and an inferiority complex are both reflections of the way we feel about ourselves. In both cases, there is an inability to accurately see one's worth, skill level, or likability in comparison to others, but the complexes can manifest in different ways.
Is this a disorder, disease, or illness?
A superiority complex is not an official diagnosis. It is rather a symptom of an underlying illness or a disorder. Mental healthcare providers address the root cause of these insecurities and help in developing healthier coping mechanisms.
Effects of a Superiority Complex
Over-compensating and trying to blindly cover up feelings of inferiority is unhealthy and sometimes dangerous:
A superiority complex is difficult to live with, it alienates people and you feel disconnected and lonely around close ones as these relationships were based on false self-image.
Ignoring your vulnerability can put you at risk of developing a type of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). (Note: Some people with NPD have a superiority complex to compensate for their low self-esteem, but there are people with NPD who genuinely believe that all others are inferior to them and have a grandiose sense of self.)
If the covered-up experience or feelings of vulnerability and inferiority are not processed, then there remains the possibility that the complex will suddenly collapse and leave the person in a state of breakdown, as the reality will not match their sense of self.
It is important to remember that everyone's experiences and emotions are unique and can be complex. Different people's experiences paired with the subjective state of mind lead to different outcomes. If you or someone you know is struggling with low self-esteem or other mental health concerns, it is important to seek professional help.
Causes of a Superiority Complex
While there isn't a single root cause, there are identifiable links between certain life occurrences and the development of a superiority complex.
The concept of a superiority complex, and its counterpart, the inferiority complex, was first described by Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist who founded the school of thought known as individual psychology.
According to Adler, children who were overly pampered when they were young may have gotten used to having everything handed to them and have yet to have the chance to apply themselves and build their confidence and capabilities. They may feel entitled and think the world revolves around them, which can dampen their creativity, initiative, and courage. However, once they go out into the world and interact with others who are more capable, they may feel inferior. Rather than learning to cooperate with others and adjust, they develop a superiority complex instead as a way to avoid coping with reality. Their superiority complex, therefore, becomes a way of giving themselves the validation that they are used to.
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.
Is an unhealthy upbringing the only cause?
Poor attunement in infancy can interfere with the development of brain circuitry and functioning, or there may be an inherent neurological dysfunction due to genetic heredity, which renders the child to be predisposed to develop aberrant behaviour, and in extreme cases even develop personality disorders, including psychopathy.
For example, two children can suffer the same terrible childhood but one will cope and the other will not, as one had a neurological predisposition and the other did not.
This doesn't mean that all individuals with neurological predispositions are prone to psychological issues. For example, a person with diminished functioning of the amygdala who grows up in a loving and healthy environment may not develop dysfunctional personality traits or disorders even if he is biologically predisposed to them.
Coping With a Superiority Complex
If you or a loved one have a superiority complex, these are some coping strategies that may be helpful:
Avoid exaggerating: Be honest with yourself about your abilities and accomplishments. Practice communicating with others without exaggerating.
Learn to accept imperfections: It’s natural to have flaws and being imperfect doesn't diminish your worth as a human being. Work on accepting your imperfections—and others’ too.
Don’t make comparisons: It’s important to be able to recognize others’ abilities and celebrate their successes without comparing yourself to them or feeling bad about yourself.
Work on building empathy: Remember that your words and actions can hurt other people. Recognize and acknowledge the hurt you have caused to others. Treat them with kindness and empathy.
Seek therapy: People with superiority complexes often tend to experience other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, as well as other dysfunctional beliefs about how people with imperfections (in other words, everyone else) should be treated.
How Do I Be A Better Parent/Caregiver?
The best parenting style is a balance between pampering and neglectful. Children should be provided with opportunities and protection in some instances. However, they should not be protected from everything. They should be allowed to make mistakes and get hurt from time to time.
Avoid Excessive Compliments
Complimenting your kid even when he or she does not deserve or complements that encourage wrong actions have powerful negative effects. Secondly, excessive complimenting means the compliment loses its value as it is so easily available and the child loses interest in achieving something worthwhile to gain a genuine reward.
Avoid Deriding Other Kids
Often parents spark feelings of superiority in kids when they constantly negatively compare other children to their own. Parents need to differentiate between praising children and praising children with the help of negative comparisons. For example, telling a child that his or her performance in the school drama was good is a healthy way of praising. However, telling your kid that everybody else performed badly and theirs was the only good performance is an unhealthy way of praising. This teaches your kids that it is okay to feel superior about oneself and keep deriding other people.
Expose Your Kids to Challenges and Experiences
The best way to curb the development of a superiority complex is to genuinely expose your children to the amazing range of talent that the world offers and allow them to develop new skills. Push them towards activities that promote interpersonal growth and group dynamics. Allow them to face failures and help them learn from these failures while creating a healthy outlook toward others.
Be Emotionally Available
As mentioned earlier superiority complex stems generally from an inferiority complex. Unless that complex is tackled the manifestation of arrogance and attitude will not go away. Notice your child's inner fears, insecurities, and what seems to be causing them distress. Sometimes the fear might be so deep-rooted or well-disguised that it might not be possible for you to detect it. In this situation do not hesitate to take your kid to a child counsellor. Often the fear has a lot to do with feelings of inadequacy and avoidance of perceived failure.
Level Your Expectations
The development of a child’s superiority complex often sets out from the excessively high expectations projected by the parent. As a parent, you must learn to be able to differentiate between healthy reasonable expectations and unreasonable high expectations. For example, expecting your child to perform well in academics is a reasonable expectation but pressurising your kid to top the exams is an unreasonable expectation.
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