It has been well documented in the area of psychology that when someone has a weakness, or a perceived weakness, it can drive them to compensate in other areas, either consciously or unconsciously. They can go to great lengths to compensate in positive ways, potentially leading to tremendous success—but also potentially leading to negative consequences.
For instance, if we know that we are weak in the area of mathematics, we might try to “compensate” by developing superior verbal and written skills and becoming particularly adept in this area instead. This would be an example of conscious compensation. Conversely, if we feel insecure about our looks and physical attractiveness, we might “compensate” by flashing money around or driving an ostentatious car. This would be an example of unconscious compensation.
The term “compensation” first entered the vocabulary of psychology in the early twentieth century, when Alfred Adler introduced the term with respect to feelings of inferiority, drawing on his own experience as a weak and sickly child who felt the need to compensate for his physical inadequacies and setbacks. He described compensation as occurring in response to feeling weak in some areas—in other words, when one feels weak in a particular area, one “compensates” by trying to be strong in another. Thus, compensation is a form of defence mechanism.
The terms “compensation” and “overcompensation” have entered the lay vocabulary, too. People in everyday life often wonder aloud if particular behaviours (often perceived as exaggerated or boastful) have their origin in perceived weaknesses in someone’s character or circumstances.
To cite a topical example of conscious compensation with a positive outcome, the recently deceased Stephen Hawkins confirmed that it was only when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) that he started to work tremendously hard in the area of physics. These efforts ultimately led him to understand theories in ways that others had not yet grasped, and he became a world-renowned scientist.
Clearly, then, compensation has its positive aspects and can be a healthy response to factors in our life that we may have little or no control over.
However, compensation can have negative aspects, too. Over-compensation can lead people to strive to be “the best”, even if that means dominating and pushing for power, regardless of the cost to others around them, while under-compensation refers to people feeling weak and demanding support and help from others, while displaying qualities such as fear. Some researchers suggest that behaviours such as compulsive shopping and the acquisition of material goods can often be an attempt to “compensate” for perceived weaknesses in other areas of life. In this case, attempting to compensate by spending money could end up having serious repercussions for our finances and personal lives.
WHO CAN I SPEAK TO FURTHER ABOUT THE PSYCHOLOGY OF COMPENSATION?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.