Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
You know you’re in the presence of people trying to show how important they are by the way they make you feel inferior. For reasons you can’t quite explain, you look at yourself more critically when you’re in their presence and may start to wonder why you’re such a failure. It’s a relief to get away from them, so you can relax and be yourself.
But people who feel inferior will often puff themselves up on a pedestal to alleviate their own sense of weakness. The Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler was one of the first theorists to address such individuals by defining the quality of “striving for superiority.” Adler, who also coined the term “inferiority complex,” believed that people who were convinced of their own weaknesses would build an outward shell in which they went through unusual efforts to present themselves in the most favourable possible light, in order to avoid confronting their own weak and wobbly interiors.
Although not always recognised for the important impact it had on contemporary psychology, Adler’s theory indeed became the basis for much subsequent research on self-concept and identity. That division between real (i.e., weak) and ideal (i.e., superior) selves can be seen as the basis for failure to find true fulfillment in life. Therapy, according to this model of personality, involves helping individuals confront and accept their true, if flawed, selves. However, until people actually receive such an intervention, they will continue to do whatever they can to create the impression that they’re more magnificent than everyone around them. The longer they can avoid confronting their true selves, the better they will become at these manipulative strategies.
Anadolu (Turkey) University’s Ramazan Akdoğan (2017) explored the ways in which inferiority, as defined in terms of both Adler’s theory and the attachment theory of John Bowlby, would predispose individuals to feelings of loneliness. You can imagine that a person constantly needing to feel self-important would have difficulty confiding in others. To show their weakness would threaten their fragile sense of self, so rather than let others in, they create a shell around themselves that they rarely let others penetrate. In the Akdoğan study, a sample of 422 Turkish undergraduates completed self-report questionnaires assessing their feelings of loneliness, attachment style, and inferiority. The primary focus of the investigation was to predict loneliness scores from attachment, and indeed, people with insecure attachment did receive high loneliness scores. However, inferiority scores played an important role as well. Feelings of inferiority were higher among people with an insecure attachment style, and these inferiority feelings in turn predicted perceived loneliness.
This was a correlational study, so there’s no way to know whether people who feel inferior tend to feel lonelier, or whether the lonely perceive themselves as inferior to everyone else. There were also no measures of striving for superiority, so that all we know is that perceptions of inferiority can lead individuals to feel isolated. When you’re looking for signs of striving for superiority in others, keep in mind that to the extent that they are based on deep-seated inferiority feelings, the individuals who display them aren’t all that content with their relationships or, quite likely, themselves.
Here, then, are the seven ways people who feel inferior will try to show that they are anything but:
1. They pretend they’re in a rush.
People trying to seem important will act as if their schedule is so full that they can’t really spend any time with you. They’ll look at their watch, glance at their phone, walk unusually fast, and in general seem harried and overworked. After all, the higher you are on the social or career ladder, the less you can afford to dawdle or relax.
2. They relabel ordinary events with terms meant to impress.
Terms such as “board meeting,” “conference call,” or “executive committee” sound like they must be events reserved for only the most successful in life. The “board meeting” may be no more than a gathering of friends planning a community fundraiser, but it certainly makes it sound like one is on an exclusive list.
3. They put on an air of preoccupation.
Busy people are worried people, and so to feign an air of self-importance, they avoid appearing relaxed or open to distractions. They frown or squint and seem to have a great deal on their mind.
4. They use away messages on email even if they’re not away.
This wisdom of leaving an “out of office” email when you’re away is debatable. Taking this one step further, people who want to seem as though they’re too important to be able to deal with individual emails put an away message on their email stating something like “due to the high volume of email I receive, I may not get to your message for some time.” They can add further to the pomposity of this auto-reply by recommending that the sender instead “contact my assistant.”
5. They make you wait for them to arrive.
People who want to seem important want to seem like they have so much to do, so if they do arrange a time to meet, they’ll never be the first one there, and on top of that, they may arrange to arrive on the late side. By being forced to wait, you’re now put in a position of lower power, which suits their need to be important.
6. They exaggerate their accomplishments on social media.
People striving for superiority aren’t shy about broadcasting their renown. On sites such as LinkedIn, they’ll give themselves a slight job promotion without actually lying, and they’ll list every single skill that they believe they possess, or ever have possessed. Their Facebook posts will similarly put them in a continually favourable light, and they’ll make sure their Instagram posts feature them in a position of prominence, such as sitting on a “conference call” or taking a series of back-to-back flights to go to “meetings” or give “talks.”
7. They behave as if they’re the smartest person in the room.
When insecure people feel threatened by the possibility that other people are smarter than they are, they’ll feel irrationally challenged. Even if they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, they’ll put on a show with the hope that their razzle-dazzle will fool the crowd. Needless to say, they'll dismiss your contributions as irrelevant or as conveying information that they of course already knew.
Some people have earned every major kudo they've received, but if they’re comfortable with themselves and not particularly concerned about letting everyone else know who they are, you’ll get along with them as well as with anyone. Although people who feel a need to assert their importance aren’t quite as pleasant to be with, gaining insight into what drives them can help you sympathise with what may be a very lonely existence.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. First appeared on Psychology Today.