Compensation and Defense Mechanisms

four young business people meeting at table
Alistair Berg / DigitalVision / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

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 to 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. 

Compensation as a Defense Mechanism

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. Here are some examples of overcompensating and undercompensating.

  • A young man feels that he is a poor athlete and never gets 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 the teacher and classmates for academic assistance.
  • A person feels bad about not being a good cook and overcompensates by having an extremely tidy, organized kitchen.
  • A person compensates for the bad health habit of smoking by being very committed to eating healthy and working out every day.

Pros and Cons

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 that when people experience feelings of inferiority, they may 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 make 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 by improving his speed and dribbling skills.

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 practice yoga at home to improve your flexibility, which in turn improves your dancing. 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 of 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. 


Was this page helpful?
3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Adler, A. Nervous and mental disease monograph series. Study of organ inferiority and its psychical compensationJelliffe SE, trans. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co.; 1917. doi:10.1037/10734-000

  2. Rosenthal SA, Hooley JM. Narcissism assessment in social personality research: Does the association between narcissism and psychological health result from a confound with self-esteem? Journal of Research in Personality. 2010;44(4):453-465. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.008

  3. Stein HT. Classical Adlerian quotes: Compensation, overcompensation, & undercompensation. Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington.