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Superiority complex is an informal term related to the DSM-IV-TR diagnosis grandiose delusions. Superiority complex is either developed from a defensive need to overcome inferiority or constant overwhelming feelings in which an individual feels truly superior to others. The term itself was coined by Alfred Adler as part of his school of individual psychology in the early 1900s, but has had other interpretations since then.
Alfred Adler was the first to use the term superiority complex and claimed that superiority complex came from the need to overcome an inferiority complex. Throughout his works Adler intertwines the occurrence of an inferiority complex and a superiority complex to be cause and effect. He published one book that touched on these topics while alive, and another was published after his death. Only one of them was solely dedicated to his view on superiority complexes. The first was Understanding Human Nature (1927), which was originally information for lectures at The People's Institute of Vienna. The main point of the book was to explain how progress in the three great problems of life would determine the judgement of a person. In explaining this Adler addresses his views on complexes. The second, Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings, was actually a collection of twenty one papers written by Adler. It was published in 1964 after Adler's death.
Adler maintains the idea throughout his writing that superiority complexes show up as a result of inferiority complexes. He states that those with an inferiority complex develop a superiority complex to overcome the difficulties presented by the former. In Adler's opinion, an individual will want to overcome or master a task when faced with it. He refers to this in his writing as striving for superiority and claims that sound-minded individuals do not strive for personal superiority over others, rather for personal ambition and success through work. Adler's work states that those without mental health issues do not experience superiority complexes, but do strive for superiority by human nature.
According to Adler's work an individual who feels as if their situation is not as good as it could be when faced with the task, might be feeling inferiority. The feeling of inferiority might be heightened by lack of training or the sense that there is too much to overcome. The feeling is similar to stress. The individual may, after several unsuccessful attempts to accomplish the task, give up on mastering the task and experience an inferiority complex. Adler would then assume the individual would experience a superiority complex to make up for the previous shortcomings. At that stage an individual feels as if they cannot be better than another on their own merit, so they will attempt to tear down another person or group to maintain their superior position.
In contrast, an edition of the DSM-IV-TR that was published about twenty years after Alfred Adler's works disagreed that superiority complex (under the formal name of grandiose delusion in the DSM IV) came solely from the effects of an inferiority complex. The DSM IV states that a second cause to this delusional disorder could stem from an exaggerated emotional state.
Other authors have argued that the superiority and inferiority complex cannot both be found in the same individual since an individual with a superiority complex truly believes that they are superior to others. Ada Kahn claims that an inferiority complex may manifest with the behaviors that are intended to show others that one is superior; such as expensive material possessions, or an obsession with vanity and appearances. They express themselves as superior because they lack feelings of adequacy. Superiority complex sufferers do not always care about image or vanity, since they have innate feelings of superiority and thus do not usually concern themselves with proving their superiority to others.
Vera Hoorens say that those exhibiting the superiority complex have a self-image of supremacy. According to Hoorens, those with superiority complexes may be viewed in a negative light from those around them since they are not concerned with the opinions of others about themselves. Individuals with an inferiority complex are the ones who present themselves in the best light possible; while those with a superiority complex may not attempt to make themselves look good. The complex is not defined by the behavior of the individual but by the self-image of the individual. This does not mean that a person with a superiority complex will not express their superiority to others, but merely that they do not feel the need to. They may speak as if they are all-knowing and better than others, but ultimately do not care if others think so or not, and will not care if others tell them so; they simply refuse to listen to, and do not care about those who disagree. In this regard, it is much like the cognitive bias known as illusory superiority. Others may fail to recognize that this is a trait of those with low self-opinion who care deeply about the opinion of others, not of those who feel superior and have high self-esteem and do not care at all about the opinion of others.
The term "superiority complex", in everyday usage is used to refer to an overly high opinion of oneself.
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