What Is Compensation?

Examples of Overcompensation and Undercompensation

Compensating for feelings of inferiority
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Definition: 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.

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.

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 a extremely tidy, organized kitchen.

The Pros and Cons of Compensation

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 start practicing on his own everyday after school. Eventually he becomes an even better basketball player than many of his friends.

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.

Compensation is just one of the many different mechanisms used to protect the ego from anxiety.

You can learn more in this article on defense mechanisms.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

Pronunciation: [kom-puhn-sey-shuhn]

Also Known As: Overcompensating

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