Compensation and Defense Mechanisms

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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. While it can be beneficial at times, it can also cause problems when it is overused or misapplied.

This article discusses how compensation is used as a defense mechanism, including how it can have both positive and negative effects.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious responses that help protect people from feelings of anxiety or threats to their sense of self. These defenses were first described by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as part of his personality theory and were later elaborated by his daughter, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud. 

Psychologist Alfred Adler first described compensation. He suggested that this defense mechanism could be used to cope with feelings of inferiority, which could have either positive or negative effects.

For example, a person might compensate for a shortcoming by becoming highly skilled in a different area. A negative effect might be overachieving to the detriment of one's health and well-being.

Recap

Defense mechanisms such as compensation help protect the ego from feeling of anxiety. While they can often have negative effects, they can also be used in mature and healthy ways.

What Is Compensation?

Compensation is defined as excelling in one area to make up for real or perceived deficits in another area. It is often used synonymously with the term overcompensation, although overcompensation often suggests that a person is going far beyond what is necessary to make up for their deficiency.

The term 'compensation is used surprisingly often in everyday language. For example, people often suggest that someone is 'just overcompensating for something' to suggest that a person is indulging in excesses in one area of their lives 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 compensating in other areas.

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. 

Examples of Compensation

To understand how compensation affects a person's behavior, it can be helpful to look at a few different examples:

  • A teen feels that they are a poor athlete and never gets picked for teams during physical education class. They overcompensate 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.
  • A high school student experiences feelings of inferiority because they cannot make as many baskets as their peers do when playing basketball. They sign up for basketball practice and start practicing on their own every day after school. Eventually, they become an even better basketball player than many of their friends.

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.

Pros
  • Focuses on strengths

  • Encourages growth

  • Can foster stronger self-esteem

  • Can help boost self-image

Cons
  • May cause discouragement

  • Can result in overcompensation

  • Might reduce motivation

  • People may compensate in unhealthy ways

Pros

Adler suggested that when 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. This can lead to several positive effects, such as:

  • Increased motivation: People may feel motivated to succeed in other areas because they feel insecure about other areas.
  • Better self-image: People who focus their attention and effort on their strengths may have a better sense of self.
  • Self-development: When people feel insecure or inferior, compensation drives them to develop new skills, either in the areas where they feel insecure or in areas where they are already strong.

Imagine that you just began taking a dance-based exercise 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 improves your dancing. Because of your initial urge to overcome your feelings of inferiority, you can develop new skills and stick to a workout routine that you end up really enjoying. 

Compensation is considered a mature defense mechanism. These tend to be the most helpful, but they need to be utilized effectively in order to be beneficial.

Cons

However, compensation can also prevent people from trying new things or attempting to address shortcomings. For example, imagine that a young college student experiences feelings of inferiority because she has few close friends. She sees her peers engaging in animated conversations with their friends everywhere she goes.

She compensates for this feeling by saying, "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.

Another example is that people who are narcissistic may overcompensate when they experience low self-esteem and jealousy by seeking out power and attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What did Alfred Adler say about compensation as a defense mechanism?

    Adler suggested that compensation was a healthy defense mechanism that people utilize to cope with feelings of inferiority. He also introduced the idea of overcompensation, which involves compensating in ways that are excessive or out of proportion to the person's shortcomings.

  • How can you tell if someone is overcompensating?

    There is no definitive way to tell if someone is compensating, but there may be signs that they feel insecure about something. Examples include trying to hide shortcomings, putting excessive focus on minor accomplishments, talking negatively about other people's abilities, and always making negative assumptions about others are a few possible signs.

  • Is someone who shares too much on social media overcompensating?

    People often believe that positive posts on social media are a way to compensate for real-life insecurities. For example, couples might try to make their relationship look perfect and happy when in reality, it is anything but. Interestingly, while such sunny posts are often viewed negatively by others, research suggests that couples who post about their relationship and interact on social media tend to have happier relationships.

5 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.
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  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.

  4. Bailey R, Pico J. Defense mechanisms. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

  5. Saslow LR, Muise A, Impett EA, Dubin M. Can you see how happy we are? Facebook images and relationship satisfaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2013;4(4):411-418. doi:10.1177/1948550612460059

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.