What Does It Mean to Have a Superiority Complex?

An exaggerated sense of self may negatively affect relationships and the individual

<p>Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health</p>

Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health

Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

A superiority complex is a psychological phenomenon in which a person exaggerates or inflates the perception of their significance, skills, and accomplishments. It is a set of behaviors and characteristics that stems from a person's belief that their abilities and achievements are far above others.

Alfred Adler, the Viennese psychologist who coined the term "superiority complex" in the early 1900s, explained that the normal desire for achievement is different from a superiority complex, which stems from a need to overcome feelings of inferiority (an inferiority complex). This can lead to people interacting in smug, disdainful, condescending, or even aggressive ways.

This article will explore superiority complex, how it manifests itself, and how a person can work through the beliefs and behaviors that contribute to it.

<p>Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health</p>

Illustration by Zoe Hansen for Verywell Health

Superiority Complex: What Does It Mean?

A superiority complex encompasses a set of beliefs, behaviors, and characteristics that a person may express to assert their feelings and fantasies of supremacy over others.

Adler proposed that developing a superiority complex could be a response to being unable to attain a goal or live up to an expectation.

A superiority complex is not a diagnosis recognized in the standard classification manual of mental disorders referred to by U.S. mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Rather, it is a complex—a structure of unconscious thought—related to traits and behaviors.

There is no clear answer as to why someone might develop a superiority complex. Adler believed that the environment in which someone grows up influences their sense of self, as well as feelings of inferiority and vulnerability, and may contribute to developing the defense mechanism of superiority complex.

Additionally, other psychological, social, and cultural factors can contribute to feelings of superiority.

Examples of a Superiority Complex

People with a superiority complex may engage in behaviors such as:

  • Belittling or dismissing other people's opinions and contributions

  • Competing for attention and admiration

  • Behaving condescendingly toward others they deem inferior

A superiority complex can lead to mental health and interpersonal challenges, further impacting values, including self-esteem if left unaddressed.

Examples of real-world superiority-complex behaviors in the workplace include:

  • An employee tries to "one up" a colleague recognized for something positive.

  • They lie about a specific skill set to seem more accomplished or knowledgeable than their peers.

  • They accuse others of bragging if they cannot exceed their peers' accomplishments.

Superiority vs. Inferiority Complex

A superiority complex refers to the attitudes and behaviors that can accompany an overly inflated sense of self-importance and the thought that the self is better than others. Conversely, an inferiority complex is characterized by feelings of inadequacy, negative feelings of self-worth, and the belief that the self is not as good as others.

A person with a superiority complex may behave in a way that is harmful to others to try to boost their feelings of self-worth and power. Someone experiencing feelings of inferiority might think or act in ways that are hurtful to themselves, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

Superiority Complex and Narcissism

Superiority complex and narcissism share similar traits. However, there are some key differences.


Similarly to people with feelings of superiority, those with narcissistic tendencies may experience an inflated sense of self. They might think themselves more important, influential, and superior to others. Additionally, individuals with feelings of superiority or narcissism may behave in a way that is hurtful or damaging to others.


A main difference between narcissism and a superiority complex is how people with these tendencies interact with others. Those with a superiority complex tend to be less concerned about what others think about them and may be haughty and dismissive. People with narcissistic traits often need a steady stream of admiration and attention and may behave in manipulative and harmful ways to get it.

Communicating With Someone With a Superiority Complex

Communicating with someone who is constantly trying to emphasize how they are better than others, putting others down and being dismissive of the contributions and accomplishments of others, can be challenging. As a result, you might find yourself getting easily frustrated, defensive, or wanting to check out of the conversation altogether.

Here are some tips for communicating with someone who has a superiority complex:

  • Practice empathy: A person’s superiority complex likely stems from deeper feelings of inferiority, insecurity, or vulnerability. Keep that in mind during your conversation.

  • Provide balanced feedback: Discuss areas where they can improve or change while balancing that with something they are doing well.

  • Keep your composure: If someone tries to intimidate or belittle you, responding with anger or defensiveness may intensify the situation. Remain neutral and express your boundaries at the beginning of the conversation.

  • Be assertive: Be clear about your limits and what feels hurtful. Calmly express your feelings of disagreement or explain how what they are doing makes you feel disrespected.

How to Work Past a Superiority Complex

It is possible to work past a superiority complex. If you recognize aspects of a superiority complex in yourself, here are some steps you might take:

  • Examine your thoughts: Increasing awareness of your attitudes and beliefs about yourself and others can provide insight into your thinking and how those thoughts show up in your behavior.

  • Be empathic: Imagine yourself in the shoes of someone else. Consider how others might experience or perceive a situation. Looking at things from a different point of view can be a starting point for shifting how you view and treat others and yourself.

  • Focus on personal growth: Identify your insecurities or ways you are afraid to be or appear vulnerable. Set realistic goals for yourself, seek ways to improve those areas, and cope with unsettling feelings about them.

  • Seek support: Getting honest and constructive feedback from people you trust is a great way to get a perspective outside your own. It may help to understand how others view your actions.

  • Seek professional help: Getting help from a psychotherapist to better acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective underlying feelings that might be driving your superiority complex may allow you to grow your capacity for more realistic and resilient self-esteem, and allow healthy connections with others.

Working with a mental health professional can help you identify what’s contributing to your beliefs, develop healthier thinking, and improve relationships. If you or a loved one is struggling with a superiority complex, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 (HELP) for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see the National Helpline Database.


A person with a superiority complex may inflate their self-importance, accomplishments and sense of self as a coping mechanism to hide and deal with feelings of inferiority. The behaviors that accompany it can lead to conflict and strained relationships, isolation, depression, and anxiety.

If someone with a superiority complex has the desire to change, they can overcome this complex with self-awareness, openness to constructive feedback, support, and psychotherapy.