Competition seems to be everywhere in our modern society, with many of us striving to become more successful than our peers or desperate to get ahead. Social media fuels our views on what success can look like: Is it owning a four bedroom house? Is it securing a huge promotion at work? Is it having that bikini ready body?
While some of us will enjoy a little bit of healthy competition in life, when does our competitive edge become an issue?
Constant comparison can often lead to sadness, anger, and frustration. We can become fixated on reaching the next achievement, conforming to social norms, and portraying ourselves as highly successful to match these modern expectations.
This is where a tendency for overcompensation creeps in and we risk offering false portrayals of ourselves to those around us in order to feel a sense of superiority over others. This is sometimes understood as a superiority complex.
A superiority complex is a defence mechanism where an individual’s feelings of superiority exist to mask or conceal their deeper feelings of inferiority. It exists as a paradox in a sense, with a superiority complex rising from an inferiority complex fuelled by poor self-esteem.
The terms ‘superiority complex’ and ‘inferiority complex’ were coined by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. He believed that all humans felt some sense of inferiority in life, which can be useful as it motivates us to reach for success and achieve our goals.
However, as Adler argued, when an individual becomes overwhelmed by expectations placed upon them, they may swing to one of two extremes: poor self-esteem under an inferiority complex, or an exaggerated feeling of self-importance under a superiority complex.
Individuals who display a superiority complex can then become confused and unable to distinguish between the person they want to be and the person that they actually are. While these people may behave like they are better than others, they will also believe it to be true.
It is important to note the difference between a superiority complex and good old-fashioned confidence. An individual who excels at a particular skill will show confidence when performing their tasks. However, an individual with a superiority complex will have a false belief of their talent and will flaunt abilities that they do not own, believing this version of themselves is true.
There are certain behaviours that can suggest a superiority complex:
Anxiety: An individual can feel a high sense of anxiety when attempting to balance their true sense of identity and the false image they project to others.
Denial: An individual may refuse to acknowledge their opposing identities or that their false sense of self is in fact exaggerated.
Aggression: An individual may feel an intense need for others to view them in the same way that they view themselves, which can lead them to be accusatory, rude, or hurtful.
Excessive Self-Control: An individual may need to have a strong sense of control over their emotions and behaviour in order to keep up their superior image.
Mood Swings: An individual may swing between moods under the pressure of keeping up their superior persona.
Confusion: An individual may appear confused when others challenge them on their faults or lack of skills to avoid the embarrassment of being called out.
Arbitrary Rightness: An individual may disregard the opinions of others if they do not agree with them, adopting an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude.
Rationalising: An individual may attempt to rationalise their actions. If they are met with a failure, they may claim that success was never really their main goal or that they are in fact very happy with the outcome.
Distancing: An individual may avoid or repress their issues with poor self-esteem and instead focus on the image they want to portray to others, driving their complex deeper into their psyche.
Psychotherapy can help individuals with a superiority complex address any issues they may be facing. A professional therapist or counsellor can work with their client to unpack the root causes of their superiority complex in a safe and confidential environment. This may involve first delving into the client’s feelings of inferiority and working on building up healthy self-esteem to tackle the superiority complex.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of talking therapy that may be useful to individuals with a superiority complex. It allows the individual to identity and challenge negative thought patterns that can arise from poor self-esteem and replace them with positive, balanced thoughts.
Self-help techniques and literature may also to help improve self-esteem to tackle a superiority complex. There are a number of self-help books that can offer advice for developing healthy self-esteem and a sense of resilience.