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Social Approval, the Inferiority Complex, and Power

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Laing and Adler

R.D. Laing, in his book ‘Self and Others’, discusses the concept of ‘confirmation’. Each person needs to be supported in his or her sense of self by the confirmation of other people. A person can also have his or her sense of self negated when subjected to social rejection. 

Laing explores the ways of confirming and disconfirming other people. We may confirm someone through a responsive smile, or a handshake, or an expression of sympathy. We may do this wholeheartedly or merely in a lukewarm fashion. We may confirm some aspects of the other person, whilst disconfirming other aspects that we do not like.

Sub - Headings
Separating the two needs
Channelling Power

I prefer the term ‘social approval’ instead of ‘confirmation’ because it indicates better what the underlying requirement is. This need to have one’s self confirmed and validated by other people, this need for social approval, means the psychological requirement of a person to become socially integrated in an harmonious way.

The way in which I understand confirmation is that the person seeks that which was missing in their childhood. The infant needs love from the parents. If this is not forthcoming, or if it is not sufficient in quantity, then the infant is not confirmed in its social persona and its ego will become fragile and unstable. The less the love that the child received, the greater is the need for the confirmation of one’s self by other people. It is usually through favourable, satisfying relationships that the person seeks to fulfil themself, psychologically rather than pleasurably ; the need for social approval is often more important than the pursuit of happiness.

This necessity for social approval is a need, not a desire. Hence it acts as a powerful incentive to become involved in social activities. This need arises within the self-pity mode of jealousy.  [ The motif of jealousy in self-pity mode is  ‘ I need a reward from other people’ ]. [¹]. A person may often only need one other person to give him/her the required social approval. This is usually the function of a spouse or a partner.

A distinction is necessary here.
The need for social approval inculcates conformity in the person – this is the drawback. For comparison, love produces uniformity, since everything has the same value ; uniformity is the limitation of love. In social relationships, uniformity needs to be separated from conformity.

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Now I turn to another idea.
Alfred Adler introduced the concept of  ‘the inferiority complex ’. This feeling of inferiority is derived from physical disability or from faulty relationships. My interpretation of the complex is that it arises when a person finds themself in a situation where their abilities and attitudes are denigrated or rejected by other people. He /she then strives to develop themself according to their own standards and values. He /she strives to develop themself so as to provide their own justification of themself, to provide their own sense of satisfaction in their own worth as a person. This is an existential process.

The inferiority complex is a need to validate one’s self by oneself ; it is the need for individual accomplishment. He /she does not seek social approval in order to do this. He /she does not judge themself by the criteria of other people. The inferiority complex is an attribute of the vanity mode of narcissism. [ The motif of narcissism in vanity mode is ‘I will do it my way’].

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Summary of these two needs

The need for social approval and the inferiority complex are two ideas that require to be separated. Some writers have thought that when a person strives to attain a social goal then he /she is acting from an inferiority complex. This is not so ; the person is acting from the need for social approval.

One of the difficulties of being a creative artist or thinker is that the sensitivity that the person acquires is derived from a deep sense of inferiority. The inferiority can drive creative skills, but produces a barrier to the attainment of social skills. The artist or thinker finds that their creativity sets them apart from normal people. Then he /she begins to yearn for social approval. [4]

Thomas Mann, in his short story  ‘ Tonio Kroger ’, describes the predicament of the artistic male who wants to reject his sensitivity because it produces an almost impassable barrier to normal relationships. He yearns for familiar human happiness, for the commonplace, the banal – in other words, the normal, respectable and admirable concerns of ordinary people. What the artist or thinker recognises belatedly is that the satisfaction of conquering the inferiority complex does not necessarily lead to the satisfaction of acquiring social skills in everyday relationships.

The failure of traditional social views is in the assumption that needs can cross-link. An individual may focus on achieving a difficult personal ambition ; for example he /she may become a self-made millionaire. Then they hope that their money will buy social approval ; but usually they attract only sycophants. Or a person may focus on cultivating social popularity ; but when fashion changes or the breath of scandal touches him /her, they are left in the cold and find that they have not achieved anything worthwhile within themself.

These two needs are separate and distinct, and have to be addressed separately if harmony is to be attained.

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Separating the Two Needs

In the early 20th century, ideas about the hidden aspects of the mind were in their infancy. So what Adler did was to mix the two needs together - he only recognised the existence of one need. In my understanding, the inferiority complex refers to the need to be an individual. The idea of a distinct social need came later, with R D Laing's concept of 'confirmation'.

What I have done is to improve on Adler's idea by separating the two needs. This is not as easy as it may first appear, especially when we consider social institutions such as schools. Schools often make a child feel inadequate and belittled. Which of the two needs is being activated?

The child may focus on his individuality. He may desire to attain something that he likes and is willing to put in the necessary effort long-term. If this desire is over-emphasised, he is likely to lose friends and become a loner. On the other hand, if he desires friends, he will put friendship and social attainments above personal attainments. He is likely to become a very sociable person. If this desire is over-emphasised, his individuality becomes eclipsed.

Now if circumstances frustrate his ability to attain his dreams, and he compares himself unfavourably to other people who have succeeded, then he will develop an inferiority complex. And if his attempts to be sociable are frustrated, he will develop the need for social approval.

At school these needs inter-twine. If he is bottom of the class in some subject that he likes, his inferiority complex will spur him to better himself. If he is bottom of the class in some subject that he does not like, he will not develop an inferiority complex (for that subject). Instead, he is likely to focus on his need for social approval by getting a name for himself, even if it is only as a trouble-maker.

If he does not have many friends, but has a close friendship with one or two others, he does not intensify his need for social approval. But if he does not have friends, then he does intensify his need for social approval. Since he does not have friends, he lacks social skills and feels awkward in the presence of his peers. It becomes difficult to make friends with the opposite sex. He becomes very lonely.

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There is a test for separating one need from the other.

To understand the basic difference between the two needs, it will help if you can understand the difference between two terms : loneliness and aloneness. A person who focuses on individuality will at sometime feel aloneness ; at this moment he is a loner (and may not desire company). Whilst a person who focuses on social approval will sometimes feel loneliness (and yearn for the company of other people).

Your views about yourself can belittle you, and the criticisms of other people can also belittle you. This can make you dislike someone. The decisive test for separating the two needs is what person is your dislike directed to. Who do you dislike ?

If you dislike yourself, then this implies the inferiority complex is dominant at that moment.

If you dislike the other person, then the need for social approval is uppermost at that moment (if it were not uppermost, then what that person said to us would not bother us).

These two needs can inter-twine. So sometimes you can dislike yourself, and at other times you can dislike other people.

Some children try to get round their problems with sociability by becoming brilliant at some particular subject in order to attract friends. But they fail in this. What they discover is that becoming brilliant in something (that is, being motivated by the inferiority complex) does not enable them to develop social skills. So overcoming the inferiority complex will not enable the child to get friends. The child gets friends by overcoming his need for social approval.

The inferiority complex is most problematic for youths, which is the prime time of narcissism. Most people don't know what narcissism means, but this does not stop them from experiencing it. Every time you go to a party, feel excited, dance and have a good time, you are in a mood of narcissism. So the teenage years and early 20s are the prime years of narcissistic experience for everyone, and the prime years of bearing the burden of inferiority (as well as needing social approval).

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Channelling Power

These ideas on aspects of identity enable me to clarify my concept of power. The primary polarisation for most people is usually to the issue of power (as a means of obtaining happiness). Power can be used in two ways. A person can either use it to attain social goals, or use it to focus on his individuality and creativity.

For a man, if he wants it in a social sense his motivation is jealousy and he orientates towards social control. This power is channelled through the social concepts that interest the person, the concepts that define his views of sociality. He focuses on desires that will enable him to grasp some degree of social power. Whether this power is used benevolently or otherwise depends on other factors.

If he wants to be an individual then his motivation is narcissism and he uses his power to orientate towards freedom and some degree of separation from society. Power is channelled into the development of forms of individuality and creativity. However, the person may find it very difficult to fit back into society and relationships once he has satisfied his needs.

These two ways are based on the loop of projection and introjection, with its two derivatives of desire for power and will to power (see article Power).


For the social person, power is channelled through jealousy.
This is the desire for power.



For the individual person, power is channelled through narcissism.
This is the will to power.

In a child these inclinations are likely to be mixed up due to transference and to social institutions like schools. This orientation, this choice between jealousy and narcissism, determines his response to power and to the way that he seeks either social attainments or self-achievements.

The whole concept of power revolves around jealousy and narcissism.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page[1]

[²]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page[2]

[³]. The binary nature of emotions is described in the first article on Emotion. [3]

[4]. See the article on Sensitivity and Effects of Fear. [4]


Laing, R.D.  Self and Others. Pelican Books, 1988.

Mann, Thomas. Tonio Kroger. This is a short story contained in : Death in Venice and Other Short Stories. Heinemann, Secker & Warburg, 1983.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of  Page

The articles in this section are :

Identification and Self  Absorption

Approval and Inferiority and Power

Two Modes of  Sexuality


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