Everybody knows that Laura Wingfield, of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, suffers from an inferiority complex—or at least everybody given to quick psycholabeling knows that. Painfully shy and self-conscious with everyone except her mother and brother and glass animals, and even self-effacing and timid with her mother and brother, she blossoms tentatively and briefly in the warmth of the Gentleman Caller’s enthusiasm and probably is worse off than ever when he apologetically but definitely leaves.
Is there any student in America who, given such a description, would not rattle off “inferiority complex”? How many other words are attached to “complex” in the typical mind? Possibly “superiority,” but I certainly don’t hear that combination nearly as often. “Oedipus complex,” certainly, but no one would apply that to Laura.
For my student, “inferiority complex” either did not leap to mind or did not satisfy. But then what in the world was the intention?
Is an “insuperiority complex” a neurotic tendency to think one is average? That would be an interesting neologism, but actually Laura did not think she was average—Lord, she would have given anything to be average. Well, then, maybe an insuperiority complex is a neurotic desire to be not-superior? But she certainly doesn’t entertain any notion that she is superior, so she couldn’t have the desire not to be.
By that reasoning, what she might have could be dubbed an uninferiority complex: a belief that she is inferior, and a neurotic desire to be not-inferior.
Perhaps we have moved into the wonderful world of shades of gray, the world of the effective double negative, where statements like “I don’t dislike him” and “She was not unpleasant” enable the writer/speaker to add more nuance to the ordinary yes-no dichotomy.
Even if I can’t make “insuperiority complex” fit Laura, I think there might be room in the lexicon for “insuperiority” and “uninferiority,” states slightly above and slightly below “average” or “normal,” but not quite there in the bland middle.