The term "feeling of inferiority" is a construct used by Adler to describe one pole of his teleological view of the personality--the other pole represented by the fictional final goal. Adler's assumption was that inferiority could be experienced by the child as a sense of smallness, weakness, helplessness, dependency, and powerlessness. Once a final goal has been adopted, a sense inferiority can also be induced by the imagined distance to that goal. Adler claimed that an individual would do almost anything to cover up, relieve, or escape the experience of inferiority. This experience is probably a blending of thinking, feeling, imagination, and sensing.
The inferiority feeling represents a generic "felt minus" that Adler assumed was present, in varying degrees, in everyone. Adler initially envisioned all psychological movement as starting from a "felt minus" situation or position, and leading to an "imagined plus" situation or position. These movements may be cognitive, affective, or behavioral, and are generally a mixture of all three. Psychological problems develop when a very deep feeling of inferiority spark highly exaggerated, fictional goals of striving for superiority over other people. While initially Adler emphasized the "pushing" motivation of a feeling of inferiority, later on he emphasized the "pulling" motivation of a striving for completion. (This is similar to Abraham Maslow's concepts of deficiency and growth motivation.)
A client may have single or multiple inferiority feelings; they may be moderate, strong, or devastating. Inferiority feelings may be rooted in physical, intellectual, social, or economic felt deficiencies. The symptom can be felt or expressed as insecurity, frustration, or anxiety.
The specific type of inferiority is usually unconscious in the client and hidden from the observer. Identifying the specific inferiority feeling, does not come mainly from direct observation. A series of earliest recollections often provide the most fertile clues. If the clinician guesses correctly, and approaches the client gently and respectfully, there is generally a very clear emotional "recognition reflex. In therapy we gradually uncover, precisely describe, then gradually dissolve each individual's unique, core inferiority feeling. We also identify, reveal, and try to diminish the height and modify the direction of the compensatory fictional goal. Unless we change both ends of this system, symptoms and dysfunctional compensatory strivings may persist.
Regarding feelings in general, Adler stated: “The feelings of an individual bear the impress of the meaning he gives to life and of the goal he has set for his strivings. ..... The feelings are never in contradiction to the style of life. ..... In every individual we see that feelings have grown and developed in the direction and to the degree which were essential for the attainment of his goal. His anxiety or courage, cheerfulness or sadness, have always agreed with his style of life. ..... We also notice that feelings appear and disappear at need.” (The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, edited by Heinz & Rowena Ansbacher)
Adler saw feelings generally, as efficient means of staying in one main direction with having to think about that direction consciously. Feelings can warn us to keep us away from imagined defeats and entice us toward imagined victories. Emotions can be used to intensify movements in an intended direction (connection, attack, retreat, etc.). Initially, we respond empathically to our clients’ feelings and emotions. Eventually, we try to understand the purpose of our clients’ unique constellations of feelings and emotions, and then we help them recognize that purpose .