Compensation and Defense Mechanisms

Examples of overcompensation and undercompensation

Compensating for feelings of inferiority
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The term compensation refers to a type of defense mechanism in which people overachieve in one area to compensate for failures in another. For example, individuals with poor family lives may direct their energy into excelling above and beyond what is required at work. This psychological strategy allows people to disguise inadequacies, frustrations, stresses or urges by directing energy toward excelling or achieving in other areas.

Compensation in Everyday Life

The term is used surprisingly often in everyday language. "He's/She's probably just overcompensating for something," is a phrase often used by people to suggest that a person is indulging in excesses in one area of their lives in order to hide insecurities about other aspects of their lives.

In some cases, this compensation can occur consciously. If you know that you have poor public speaking skills, you might try to compensate by excelling in your written communications at work. By doing this, you draw attention toward an area where you are much stronger and minimize the area in which you are weak. In other instances, compensation might occur unconsciously. You might not even realize your own hidden feelings of inadequacy that lead to you compensate in other areas. 

Examples of Compensation

Compensation can manifest itself in a few different ways. Overcompensation occurs when people overachieve in one area to make up for shortcomings in another aspect of life.

Undercompensation, on the other hand, can happen when people deal with such shortcomings by becoming overly dependent on others.

For example:

  • A young man feels that is is a poor athlete and never get picked for teams during his physical education class. He overcompensates by becoming deeply engaged in other school activities including the drama club and the school newspaper.
  • A student feels inferior during math class and undercompensates by becoming overly dependent upon her teacher and classmates for academic assistance.
  • Feeling bad about not being a good cook and overcompensating by having an extremely tidy, organized kitchen.
  • Compensating for the bad health habit of smoking by being very committed to eating healthy and working out every day.

The Pros and Cons of Compensation

Compensation can have a powerful effect on behavior and health decisions. While compensation is often portrayed in a negative light, it can have positive effects in some cases. Psychologist Alfred Adler suggested whenever people experience feelings of inferiority, they automatically experience a compensatory need to strive for superiority. As a result, people push themselves to overcome their weaknesses and achieve their goals.

For example, imagine that a young boy experiences feelings of inferiority because he cannot makes as many baskets as his peers do when they are playing basketball. Because of these feelings of inadequacy, he pushes himself to overcome this weakness. He signs up for basketball practice and starts practicing on his own every day after school. Eventually, he becomes an even better basketball player than many of his friends.

Imagine that you just began taking a Zumba class. At first, you might feel out of your element and even a little timid since everyone else seems so skilled and experienced. Because of these initial feelings of inferiority, you might end up devoting extra time and attention to your new class and even start practicing at home with work out DVDs. Because of your initial urge to overcome your feelings of inferiority, you are able to develop new skills and stick to a workout routine that you end up really enjoying. 

However, compensation can also prevent people from trying new things or attempting to address shortcomings.

For example, let's imagine that a young college student experiences feelings or inferiority because she has few close friends. Everywhere she goes, she sees her peers engaging in animated conversations with their friends. She compensates for this feeling by saying to herself, "I may not have many close friends, but I have excellent grades!" Instead of seeking out social connections, she throws herself into her schoolwork and spends little time having fun or attending social events. In this instance, compensation has actually prevented her from overcoming her feelings of inferiority.

People who are narcissistic may overcompensate when they experience low self-esteem and jealousy by seeking out power and attention.  

Also Known As: Overcompensating

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