What causes inferiority complex?

by Chaitanya CharanMarch 3, 2015

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Transcription (edited) by- Keshavgopal Das

Question- What is the cause of inferiority complex and how can we deal with it?

Answer (short)-

  • Inferiority complex is the consequence of shift in socio-cultural perspective from character ethos to personality ethos. This shift has happened mainly due to industrialization.
  • Character ethos refers to qualities like hard work, honesty, sincerity, while personality ethos refers to traits like first-impression, appearance, outgoing.
  • When personality ethos became the definition of success, it brought tremendous pressure to people not having such traits and the result was inferiority complex.
  • We can deal with inferiority complex by developing our understanding at two levels (i) At a spiritual level we need to understand that we are souls who are part of God’s family and irrespective of our personality God still loves and accept us. (ii) At a bodily level, we need to recognize that we have our individual natures and need to choose a vocation that is compatible with our nature.
  • When we understand that God love us in all circumstances we feel secure. When we choose our vocation as per our nature we feel both confident and satisfied.

Answer (long) Inferiority complex as a term as well as a psychological phenomenon is a modern happening. If we look at the history of the world, the western intellectual history, which is largely European and American history, the word ‘personality’ only came in English language in the eighteenth century. And the trait personality which is considered something as desirable (e.g. children should have an outgoing personality), something which is vital to a person, that came in the twentieth century only. There has been a shift towards superficial. Cultural historians have called this as a shift from character ethos to personality ethos. Character ethos refers to a set of qualities that are central to a person, e.g. responsibility, commitment, hard work, honesty, competence at one’s work etc. These are skills which can be developed by people by systematic practice. Anybody can become hardworking, honest, responsible etc. by training.

With the socio-cultural changes that have happened with industrialization, people started moving from villages to cities. In cities there job became dependent on more and more on not what their parents have been doing, but on their qualification and abilities, especially their ability to present themselves. Most often people were hired by strangers who did not know them and with whom they did not have any prior relationship. Once a person got a job, often the job involved marketing, where person has to connect with people with whom he had no prior connection. Hence first impression and appearance started getting lot of importance. This led to a dramatic shift towards the personality ethos. Prior to that, even in the moral books (both religious and secular), the laudable qualities were, as I mentioned, honesty, hard-work, integrity, keeping one’s words etc.

Once the personality ethos became the norm then the viewpoint became that – not whether one keeps one’s word, but how one can mesmerize others with one’s words; not whether one has core character but whether one has a personality. The term personality would start to mean- impress others, dazzle others with one’s appearance, one’s speech etc.

The idea of personality is vague, but it is touted as if it is essential. The cultural portrayal around the term personality is – if a person does not have personality the person will not be able to succeed. The consequence of such a norm was tremendous pressure to conform to certain standards. Those having outgoing personality in terms of being extrovert (e.g. a movie star) were seen as more successful.

There have always been entertainers throughout history, but in the contemporary culture the amount of importance given to movie stars is disproportionately ridiculous. What happened in the process is that these kinds of people became the role model for the society for everyone. Traits like dashing, outgoing, extrovert, dazzling, were cherished instead of good qualities. Even a person with good qualities and good abilities, started feeling diffident – whether I really have this mystical thing called personality! When everyone started getting compared to some mythical standard called personality, then inferiority complex was the natural result. The whole concept of inferiority is psychological that is a product of a particular socio-cultural ethos, which is based more on personality ethic rather than character ethic.

This is the understanding of inferiority complex from socio-cultural perspective.

There was period in the American history, from early till middle of twentieth century, when inferiority complex was considered as a fashionable disorder. Everybody had some inferiority complex and wanted to get cured of it. As a result profession of psychologists thrived as they became counsellors to most of the society suffering from some kind of ‘mental degenerative disorder’. With westernization such things spread all over the world, especially in the urban societies, where the personality ethos is stressed. Consequently, we see many people suffer from inferiority complex.

In the book Paradox of Choice: Why more is less by Psychologist Barry Schwartz, he mentions that in a society people often are much happier when they are recognized as a big fish in a small lake compared to when they are a big fish in a big lake but with much bigger fishes with them. What it means is that if we are in a particular social circle and within that circle if we achieve a respectable position then we feel secured, satisfied. The position may be economic, social, pertaining to power etc. But if we do not achieve such a position we feel as if we are missing something. In today’s culture instead of us having our own social circle, the whole world has practically become a social circle for us. Although we may not be in contact with the whole world, but the best from the world is constantly brought into our living room through the television. For example, if someone wants to look attractive then the most attractive of movie stars are brought into limelight through the television and that is what one compares oneself with. Naturally, such a shift leads to insecurity.

There is another example of a brilliant Chinese student who got 5 out of 5 CGPA. When she was interviewed by some psychologist she said – “It doesn’t matter how clever you are, but what matter is how hot you look!” She had phenomenal brains but as per her perception the campus culture was such that academic performance was not stressed much but what was stressed was one’s ‘sex appeal’.

Often many of the complexes of personality are mainly related to two things- career and romantic relationship. These two areas are the most stress inducing and inferiority complex inducing in today’s society.

If we look at all this from a historical perspective, in the past what was focused was character ethic. That’s why people had their own social circles in which they would achieve a particular position by particular effort. For example, a farmer in a village works very hard in his farm, does all kind of innovation and adaptation required for his farm, gets a good yield, and is recognized in his community as a good farmer. That is a respectable position achieved by the farmer giving him satisfaction. People in the past lived in smaller circles and could achieve respectable positions i.e. they could become reasonably big fish in a small circle. But, the culture in which we are living, the whole world has become our pond. Consequently, there is never a time when we feel that we have achieved something. That is why people always tend to feel inferior.

Now let us discuss the spiritual perspective to this phenomenon of inferiority complex and how can we deal with it.

From spiritual perspective, comparison is not only unnecessary but undesirable. We are meant to live in cooperation, not in comparison. First of all we need to understand that we all are at our core spiritual beings and we are part of one spiritual family of God. In this family every one of us has been given a position. Since everyone has got a position we do not need to feel insecure that somebody will usurp our position. As souls, God loves us and because he loves us and cares for us, He is not going to abandon us just because we do not have certain personality. If we are rooted in this spiritual understanding, that irrespective of our performance in this world, God always loves us, always respects us, this feeling at once brings a sense of security and acceptance. Secondly, we need to learn to reject the single definition of success for everyone. Such definitions for example exist in societies where certain professions become glamourized. Like in India people often think of becoming an engineer or a doctor to be considered as successful. To some extent things are changing now, but still personality ethic is emphasized a lot, but need to be rejected. For example, a student may pursue engineering just because it is glamorized, but the student in reality may have talents and interests like poetry or arts. Such a student probably will never find lasting satisfaction in engineering. One needs to look at oneself thoughtfully and honestly and recognize what are ones talents and strengths and chose a career accordingly.

Of course we need to be aware of weaknesses but we do not have to obsess over our weaknesses. In the personality ethos when we compare ourselves with others who have better personality than us then we obsess over what we do not have and feel inferior. On the contrary, when we focus on the areas where we are proficient then we feel confident.

Firstly, by becoming self-aware spiritually and developing a connection with God, by which we can experience lasting satisfaction in relationship with God, through our practice of meditation and devotion, by which we experience God’s love for us, and that gives us root stability by which we are not constantly struggling and hankering for recognition, but are satisfied. Then after that we look for what is our vocation according to our nature, and then we build on our strengths. In Vedic culture, we have this spiritual understanding that we are not the bodies we are souls, but at the same time at the material level there is also a concept called varnashrama. Purpose of varnashrama is to engage people according to their natures and not otherwise. For example, if Kshatriyas (i.e. rulers, fighters, administrators) becomes the model for everyone then Brahmanas (i.e. intellectual class) will have a lifelong inferiority complex. They might think we can’t use weapons like this or we can’t rule and delegate like the Kshatriyas.

In the Vedic culture it was understood that different people have different natures, so for a Brahmana there should be a brahmanical definition of success, for a Vaishya there should be Vaishya definition of success and so on. So if a Vaishya starts thinking that I cannot sit for hours studying scriptures like the Brahmanas do then the Vaishya will naturally get inferiority complex. So a Vaishya should have a definition of success which is compatible with Vaishya nature.

In today’s society we do not have varnashrama i.e. there is no division of society into varnas, but the broad principle is there that we are souls and we have a particular nature. We understand our nature and engage ourselves according to our nature. When we do that we move forward in our life in a steady way and we will be able to deal with inferiority complex.

If at all there has to be a comparison, it has to be with ourselves. Do not compare with others, compare with ourselves only. By doing so, we will be on a continuous journey of improvement.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan
  • Keshavgopal
    December 26, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Hare Krishna Prabhuji,

    I found your response very balanced and makes much sense. A very nice explanation based on socio-cultural and historical observations.

    I have personally seen this phenomenon happening in my life, specially with some close family members.

    The personality ethos actually encourages ‘materialistic’ mindset and people turn blind to accept reality, for example their inherent natures etc. They tend to live artificial lifes leading to all kind of problems for themselves.

    Thanks for articulating it very nicely.

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