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Sometimes, it turns out a character who seems to think the world of themselves actually doesn't; their high-and-mighty attitude hides crippling insecurity. They're often eager, even desperate, to prove themselves, and they won't take it well if their attempt fails. Commonly they'll try to feel more secure by putting others down.
Compare Compensating for Something.
Anime and Manga
- Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion. She's a haughty Jerkass, but towards the end it becomes obvious she acts like that to cover up major self-esteem issues.
- Many other characters have mental problems, and some of them fit this trope, notably Gendo, who, it is implied, isolated himself because he believed that no one except for Yui would love him.
- Tetsuya Tsurugi from Mazinger Z and Great Mazinger, who was created twenty years before, was EXACTLY like Asuka, word for word. He was a Hot-Blooded Ace Pilot was so arrogant anyone questioned his skills had a trouble with him. Sometimes he seemed more concerned with showing off than with protecting humanity when he fought the enemy, and he could not stand someone showed him up. That same arrogance also made him bickering with Jun, and Tetsuya Would Hit a Girl even though Jun is both his Love Interest, his Battle Couple, and adoptive sister. However he had a massive complex of inferiority and lacked of a sense of self-worth. He was so arrogant because he was permanently afraid of someone replacing him and taking his reason to existing away, and his self-steem issues were so big he thought his adoptive sister would dump him for someone she barely knew.
- Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto. It's pretty clear that Sasuke's need to defeat Itachi was driven almost as much by his need to finally prove himself better than his brother as for revenge. Being born the Always Second Best to a genius older brother and the "Well Done, Son" Guy of a distant father were bad enough. Then, said brother killed his entire family and told him to hate and grow strong to be worthy to face him. It Got Worse when Itachi showed up again years later, looking for Sasuke's dead last teammate, and dismissed Sasuke's growth. It didn't help that Naruto was finally growing strong enough to challenge and maybe surpass Sasuke, the top student of their class. All this was a recipe for a tragic Face Heel Turn. Made more ironic when you realize how Itachi played that complex, why he did so, and how it all went wrong.
- He also shows some behavior of this type towards Naruto himself, though much of this ties in to his issues with Itachi. To Sasuke's mind, if Naruto can advance faster than him/become his equal, then he isn't advancing fast enough himself, and has no chance of catching up with Itachi.
- Naruto has this trope too. In the beginning, his bratty, braggart attitude and dreams to be Hokage were driven by a need for acceptance and to prove his worth to a village that shuns him. His rivalry with Sasuke was fueled by his need to prove himself equal to the haughty top student who he wanted to befriend. The clash between their complexes was a major driving force in their two fights near the end of Part I.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, this is pretty much the reason the homunculi sadistically torment humans. This is most explicitly brought up in the case of Envy.
- Tieria Erdes from Gundam 00 acts all high-and-mighty but as soon as his super-computer fails him it's revealed that he's too insecure to do anything on his own without it.
- In a way, Haruhi Suzumiya When she was a little girl, she thought of herself as special until her parents took her to a sporting event and she saw a stadium full of people. She realized then just how many people were alive in the world, and how utterly unremarkable she really was. It's downplayed (in fact, no one may even know it but Kyon), but her forceful and loud personality and attempts to have adventures are a conscious effort to make herself unique.
- Inuyasha's brother Sesshomaru always feared that he was his late father's less favored son. Fears which he hid from everyone, including himself, by insulting and mocking Inuyasha's half-breed status while touting his own pure demon status. It ends up coming out into the open in the worst possible way.
- Ayaka Machida from Stellvia of the Universe has a psychological need to be The Ace and will go to criminal lengths to ensure that. In the entire show, she is pretty much the only character who would willing hurt another, as she does to Yayoi and Shima (almost), who were both better than her in piloting. When she fails to eliminate Shima and the truth comes out, she is pretty much crushed. Ironically, she is redeemed by Yayoi herself, who loves her too much to not forgive her. This helps Ayaka to acknowledge that there are pilots better than her and simply enjoy flying with them (particularly Yayoi) instead of competing.
- To an extent, Miura of Bakuman｡. He often seems unshakably confident in his opinions about the direction Mashiro and Takagi should go, especially his belief that gag manga are more likely to maintain their rank than serious manga, but in his thoughts and around his fellow editors, he's less certain of himself, blaming himself for Detective Trap getting canceled and believing that he has to get a hit out to keep his job.
- Ken Ichijouji during his stint as the Digimon Kaiser/Emperor. While he claimed to be the "only perfect human being", and frequently called other people derogatory epithets like "maggots" and "insects", he was actually crippled by a sense of worthlessness and guilt. The "superiority" part falls away completely once he pulls his Heel Face Turn.
- In Daily Lives of High School Boys, Girls-only Sanada East's Student Council President Ringo-chan only started to have an extremely large ego as she noticed how the boys-only Sanada North has a far more better run student council. She's only to avenge it by fist.
- Light from Death Note seems to be living his life under the assumption that he has to be perfect. Perfect student, perfect son... and then he kills two people by accident just to satisfy his curiosity and his boredom. That ruins everything. It makes him a murderer, evil. The only way to become "perfect" again is to become Justice, to become God. In his own words "If Kira is caught, then Kira is evil. If he wins and rules the world Kira is justice." He gets caught. Also as per the trope at times he comes off as desperate to prove himself - especially in his interactions with L, where he seems to get overly-excited even when he gets simple answers right. And "feeling better about themselves by putting others down"... does the whole world count?
- Iris from Pokémon used to taunt Ash about his battle skills and always calling him a kid. But one episode reveals WHY she keeps doing it: she couldn't battle well when her Excadrill starts ignoring her. When this is solved, Iris becomes more friendlier to Ash...though that doesn't stop her from calling him a kid from time to time!
- Prussia, America and England of Axis Powers Hetalia all have shades of this.
- Titania, of She-Hulk's Rogues Gallery. The short and scrawny Mary MacPherran was the butt of the wealthy, popular crowd's cruel jokes and was nicknamed "Skeeter" (as in "mosquito") for her troubles. Resenting her lot in life, she dreamed of gaining superpowers to enact revenge upon her tormentors and be admired. After lying about being Spider-Woman backfired, Mary got her wish by hastily agreeing to be experimented on by Doctor Doom, becoming a tall, buff, mighty, and brutish Smug Super. Spider-Man was the first to beat Titania (in Secret Wars), but she's maniacally obsessed with her second loss (to Shulkie) because She-Hulk always seems to be one step ahead of her; this reminds Titania of being Skeeter, and she hates feeling weak (this also tends to lead to a lot of Foe Yay between the two, but that's a story for another time).
- Loki. Sometimes he's a haughty sorcerer who thinks Asgard and Mjolnir rightfully belong to him… and sometimes he's The Unfavorite brother of The Mighty Thor who can never be an adequate Jotunn or Æsir.
- In Men in Black, Edgar made a huge deal about humans being realated to monkeys, and how this makes them primitive, but he was just hiding his feeling of inferiority from being a space-cockroach.
- Megamind. A hammy villain who prides himself on presentation, but only became that way because he couldn't fit in at school. The mini sequel has him first trying to be a hero Metroman's way instead of his own.
- Loki edges in to this towards the end of Thor and has fully embraced it by The Avengers. The discovery that he's actually a Frost Giant drives him to prove he's a son worthy of Odin...by committing genocide against the other Frost Giants. He spends The Avengers demanding that everyone on Earth bow before him, even if it means he's really just doing the Chitauri's dirty work.
Tom Hiddleston: The villains of human history, you know, all the people in the history of time who’ve tried to subjugate people, to get everyone else to bow down and kneel at their feet; if you do any kind of amateur psychology on these guys, or not even amateur, you know, books and books and books that have been written on the fact that at rock bottom, they hate themselves. They don’t have any self-worth, they don’t have any self-approval, so the only way they can get power or status is to get everybody else to physically be beneath them.
- In Judy Blume's Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great, Sheila Tubman has an inferiority complex about her various fears and the fact that she cannot do certain things (such as swimming and working a yo-yo) that other kids her age can do. It causes her to act boastful, which makes even her friends feel uncomfortable around her — and she even acts mean to her neighbour and classmate, Peter Hatcher (the protagonist of Judy Blume's other Fudge books).
- Hermione's know-it-all attitude in the Harry Potter books. In J. K. Rowling's own words, "underneath Hermione's swottiness there is a lot of insecurity and a great fear of failure".
- The Twilight Zone episode "A Piano in the House". A cruel, arrogant bully buys a player piano that causes listeners to reveal their true personalities. When it works on him, he admits that he's actually frightened, immature, and jealous of the people around him.
- Jay from The Inbetweeners.
- Detective Charlie Crews thinks this about the universe.
Charlie: It was the universe that makes fun of us all.
- A variation: As noted in a DVD commentary, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a superiority complex in that she's the Slayer and believes herself better than those she protects (pretty much everyone), but this makes her feel bad so she has a inferiority complex about having the superiority complex. This was also pointed out in-universe by a vampire psychology student who opted to put Buffy on the couch while she was trying to kill him. It actually worked for a while.
- Rachel from Glee, despite always protesting that she is the best singer in the club. The biggest example comes to mind at the start of season 2, where an eager singer, who was just as talented, if not more than Rachel, wanted to join the Glee Club. Rachel responded by sending her to a crack house.
- Gregory House has said a few times that he doesn't deserve to live or be happy and that the only thing he has going for him is his mind.
- Jenna on Thirty Rock. She acts the Ted Baxter, but it's made clear that she's really afraid of becoming a White Dwarf Starlet. This is Played for Laughs as she acts insanely paranoid about anyone upstaging her.
Liz: Jack is hiring a new cast member.
- Tracey apparently has a similar problem, look at his reaction to the same news.
Tracey: IF IT'S A BLOND WOMAN, I WILL KILL MYSELF!
- The loud, proud Boisterous Bruiser Donna Noble of Doctor Who seems to have a touch of this: she's been described by the Doctor as "shouting at the world 'cause no one's listening."
- Shintaro Gotou of Kamen Rider OOO began as this in relation to the eponymous Rider, Eiji Hino, who he saw as an irresponsible fool. After getting thoroughly humbled and re-training himself as a sidekick to Kamen Rider Birth, he becomes a person more genuinely worthy of being called a hero and eventually takes over as Birth.
- The following series, Kamen Rider Fourze, has two such cases. Kengo Utahoshi refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Kamen Rider Club or accept the friendship of hero Gentaro, until Kengo is nearly killed while stranded on the moon, where he reveals how scared and unhappy he really is. Shun Daimonji mercilessly bullies students whom he views as lower-class than himself, until it's discovered that he is under crippling pressure from his father and Just Wants to Have Friends. Both characters become much nicer after this.
- Frasier Crane, despite being openly arrogant, vain, self-absorbed, and in possession of an absurdly inflated opinion of himself, is cripplingly insecure and needy, with much of his self-aggrandizing behavior rooted in his desperation to be liked and admired, and his extreme bossiness towards his little brother Niles and best friend Roz, whose opinions he constantly runs roughshod over and whose lives he is always trying to interfere with, is heavily hinted to be rooted in paranoia that they'll stop hanging around him if they stop needing him.
- Ken Jeong has stated that Chang abuses his authority and generally acts like a jerk because of insecurity.
- Prince Arthur from Merlin can often fall into this category. His Jerkass behaviour near the start of the series is quickly put down to his Freudian Excuse of having a very demanding and emotionally-distant father, and it's clear in his insecurity with Guinevere, Merlin, Morgana, and Lancelot that he doesn't consider himself worthy of their affection or friendship, even as he takes them all for granted.
- Smallville's Lionel Luthor is a grandiose Magnificent Bastard and Corrupt Corporate Executive who is still running away from his past as an abused child. Lex Luthor is his son, and bases his need to be a hero in his own feelings of worthlessness.
The song "Oh No!" by Marina and the Diamonds includes the line "I feel like I'm the worst, so I always act like I'm the best."
- Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire.
- Franziska von Karma of Ace Attorney has shades (if not more) of this trope. She constantly proclaims her perfection, as well as her confidence in defeating "fools" like Phoenix and Edgeworth (so far, she has been unsuccessful.) However, the epilogue of Justice For All hints that Franziska actually hides a lot of insecurity, and feels overshadowed by her father and adoptive brother. This has pushed her to become a full-fledged criminal prosecutor at the age of thirteen.
- Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. He grew up believing that he was genetically inferior to his "brother" Solid Snake, and this insecurity partly inspired Liquid's world domination plot. It turns out it was the other way around, and it was Liquid who was superior one, and Solid had the inferior genes, and it was all made up by the Patriots.
- George from Deadly Premonition is obsessed with gaining power, physical or otherwise, due to being raised by an Abusive Mom and his belief that the strong will naturally overcome the weak. His insecurities lead him to become the new Raincoat Killer.
- Laharl of the Disgaea series suffers from this. He acts all high and mighty for being the Overlord, but deep down is really somewhat lonely, especially once you learn of his backstory. However, the fact that he acts like a complete Jerkass to most people isn't exactly earning him any brownie points, either.
- This is the Fatal Flaw of Lotte Carmine. As a researcher, he harbored some ambition that he'd surpass his superior Kokonoe in scientific breakthrough, but for some reason, Kokonoe dismissed him that badly and even refused to support him in a particular research about seithr. Not knowing to give up and even dismissing the support of his partner Litchi, he went on through the research and ended up as Arakune. And even as Arakune, what remains of him was his hatred for Kokonoe's superiority and his desire to become supreme scientist.
- Miranda from Mass Effect 2 was genetically designed to be perfect, and she envies Shepard for having built his / her career with nothing more than skill, hard work and courage.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender has Princess Azula. She initially comes across as Arrogant Kung Fu Guy, Manipulative Bastard, and extremely brilliant. She constantly belittles her older brother and treats her friends like the help. Season three slowly reveals her extreme Mommy Issues, her tendency to put down those she secretly envies (she outright admits this to Ty Lee), and her utter dependence on her father's "love". By the season final, her friends have left her and her father has made it clear that he's only using her. It doesn't end well.
- Her father Ozai himself may be a near identical case. He was The Unfavourite to his Evil Overlord and emotionally distant father Azulon (who possibly was an abusive father with him) compared to his older brother, the talented and powerful "Dragon of the West" General Iroh. Its less clear than with Azula what Ozai felt about this relationship, but its not difficult to see the similarities in their cases, their personalities, and their tempermants. He is so bitter about not receiving as much respect as his brother that he demands perfection from his own children and punishes perceived weakness or insubordination in his eldest son with extraordinary brutality; when he promotes himself from Fire Lord to Pheonix King and plans to exterminate the Earth Kingdom he essentially acts like a Psychopathic Manchild revelling in childish fantasies of power and greatness, but he was so obsessed with the two mostly because of his insecurities.
- My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic has Rainbow Dash, a skilled, super-speedy pegasus who knows she's talented and isn't afraid to let everybody else know it. However, she's also a Lazy Bum who enjoys shirking work and hates dealing with strict rules, something which led to her either dropping out or outright failing Flight School. Perhaps because of this, she's extremely sensitive about losing, to the point where the thought of screwing up in something as big as the Best Young Flyer Competition leaves her practically paralyzed from fear. She also hates being alone, having thrived on others' attention for so long.
- The Great and Powerful Trixie may be one as well. It would explain her compusive boasting and how she STILL puts down Twilight after being outdone by her.
- Twilight Sparkle can be rather condescending and arrogant about her intelligence over the others at times, however it's revealed she has brought herself up with very high standards to upkeep and is absolutely terrified of disappointing peers or friends (especially Princess Celestia). She had a complete mental breakdown when she was out of schedule for even one single task.
- While not egotistical in general, Applejack can get very prideful and stubborn concerning her work overzeal, however, only because she hates being incapable of committing to a task. She is also famed for her reliability in Ponyville and hates letting anyone down in the slightest (even if they are far more understanding about it). She almost worked herself to death, blowing off requests for help, after she promised to harvest all her orchards apples by herself.
- Ickis of Aaahh Real Monsters plays with this. While his insecurity and other issues are very obvious, he swings into high-and-mighty mode whenever given the chance. "Rookie Monsters" revealed he acted this way upon first arriving at the Academy, only to go through a major tumble once his peers realized being the son of Slickis didn't automatically make him awesome incarnate. Thus, in the series proper, we basically see the neurotic mess most of the time, and only see the Superiority Complex whenever he's given the chance to exercise it.
- Eddy from Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy is revealed to have this at the end of The Movie. There were hints given throughout the series that he might not feel as awesome as he claims himself to be, however; and it turns out that his Jerkass tendencies and high opinion of himself were a mere facade to cover up a nasty Inferiority Complex. You can thank his brother for that.
- This was indicated to be the case for Zapp Brannigan in his first appearance, but in later appearances he really does seem to think that highly of himself. One possible explanation supported by the episode is that it was an act to get Leela into bed.
- Peggy Hill from King of the Hill suffers from this. She's smug, self-satisfied, and convinced she's the smartest woman in the world when she's really a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. But that's all to cover up the fact that as a little girl in Montana, she grew up with an overly-critical mother who threw out all of her opinions and told her she was outright useless at their ranch. When she moved away she convinced herself she was brilliant since it was the only way to forget her mother's abuse. She still has plenty of moments when it's revealed she's not as clever as she thinks she is (or is just reminded of her abnormally large feet), and falls into a depression because of it.
- Subverted in Ozy and Millie, when an arc centering on Jerk Jock Jeremy's ceaseless bullying of Ozzy, brings up the "bullies are really just insecure and have low self-esteem" stereotype. The arc closes with a look into Jeremy's head, where we see that he's actually an egomaniac with a vastly inflated sense of self-worth.
- Arguably the case of Galatea in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob. While she has a massive conceit about her intellect, she's also a raving paranoid who was starved for affection from birth, and has a very difficult time believing anyone can really love her.
- There are a lot of hints in Homestuck that this might be some of the reason Karkat's always an angry jerk.
- Even more so, Vriska. She's always bragging melodramatically, trying to hog the spotlight, and being a Smug Snake, but once she stops bragging it rapidly turns into railing against herself for not living up to what she thinks she should be.
- And Dave does his best to act like the most cool, Badass Deadpan Snarker possible because he feels inferior to his Bro.
- Vaarsuvius of Order of the Stick fame, so very much. It gets even when a string of (partially perceived) failures, combined with PTSD, drives him/her nearly mad for months.
- Tom from Echo Chamber treats Zack like crap because he was overshadowed by his little brother, and now he "needs to feel better than someone".
- The Nostalgia Critic admitted in the crossover with CR that he acts like a Bad Boss because he's really insecure and is scared of people going into his territory because they'd do it better than him.
- Solange of the Whateley Universe. She's rich, she's beautiful, she has superpowers... But she grew up a fat, ugly, picked-on kid, and so now she abuses the people around her to make her feel better about herself.
- Many people believe bullies have this trait, but usually, that big ego is not so fake and most bullies actually have high self-esteem, not low.
- Narcissistic personality disorder is believed to result from a subconscious lack of self-worth.
- More specifically, its now assumed that there are varieties of NPD and narcissistic personality styles that come from this, whereas others are just pure self-centredness or flat-out delusions of grandeur. That said, it's not always clear if the chronic insecurity is actually the cause of their gigantic ego, or merely a symptom, with the truth probably varying from one person to the next.
- In his essay, "Why Nerds Are Unpopular", technologist Paul Graham made the following observation:
Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below. I've read that this is why poor whites in the United States are the group most hostile to blacks."
- SELF-ESTEEM TEEEEEAAAAAMMMMMM!!!!