Compensation is a defense mechanism that we all use, often without realizing it. In fact, positive compensation can help us overcome our difficulties and deficiencies reaching an optimal level of functioning, but negative compensation can reinforce a feeling of inferiority that ends up being very harmful and prevents us from growing as people. How we use compensation will determine whether it is a harmful defense mechanism or a smart optimization strategy.
What is compensation in Psychology?
In Psychology, compensation is a mechanism that we use to balance our performance and the image we have of ourselves, or that we want to project. We develop certain qualities, competencies and strengths to compensate for our deficiencies or weaknesses, whether real or imagined.
Sigmund Freud went one step further. According to his psychoanalytic theory, compensation would be a defense mechanism that prevents us from realizing our shortcomings and weaknesses. Instead, Alfred Adler had another concept of compensation since he saw it as a natural effort in all people aimed at overcoming their inferiority complex.
The truth is that everyday compensation examples aren’t lacking. Many people overly dedicated to their job may be making up for a deeply unsatisfying family or social life. People obsessed with their physique may be compensating their poor career achievements. A smoker can compensate his or her bad habit by trying to eat healthy and exercising. A person who feels he or she has no control over hiso r her life can compensate it by trying to control the others.
Focusing on that “strength” makes them particularly proud and helps them forget or hide the “shadows” of which they are ashamed. This way they can maintain a positive image of themselves. However, that image is very fragile and vulnerable.
From compensation to overcompensation
Compensation itself is not a problem. In fact, our brains are naturally programmed to compensate for the loss of function that may occur due to injury or illness. The concept of cognitive reserve refers precisely to the functional plasticity of our brain, which would allow neurons to restructure to supply the functions performed by damaged or destroyed tissues.
The phenomenon of selective optimization with compensation is another very interesting example of positive compensation. It consists of the natural tendency to resort more and more to experience, optimizing, selecting and applying the most effective strategies to compensate for the deficits typical of age. In fact, people who are able to use selective optimization age better and remain productive and efficient.
That means that compensation, in itself, is not a negative process. On the contrary, it has enormous functional importance since it helps us to face the demands of the environment in a more adaptive way, making more efficient use of our cognitive resources.
The problem begins when we do not consciously recognize our weaknesses or deficiencies, and try to hide them by developing other competencies and strengths with which to artificially increase our self-esteem.
The problem occurs when we go from compensation to overcompensation. In practice, the surrogate behavior exceeds what would be necessary to compensate for the deficiency. In those cases we can end up obsessed with developing a certain capacity or talent and we give it an excessive importance in life.
Compensation becomes a harmful defense mechanism when we use it as a psychological strategy to hide deficiencies, frustrations, tensions or impulses that we do not want to recognize by redirecting that energy towards the achievements that we have achieved in other areas. In practice, it is as if we only see a part of our “self” closing our eyes to the part that we dislike and do not want to recognize.
In such cases, it is not unusual for overcompensation to lead to narcissistic or pushy behavior in certain areas where the person wants to “prevail” to compensate his or her shadow areas. In fact, this type of compensation leads to the search for superiority, in a way that often triggers struggles for power and dominance in interpersonal relationships.
Different studies have also linked the compensatory defense mechanism to depressive disorders. It is not strange, if we take into account that all the repressed psychological contents, actually continue to exert pressure from the unconscious that can end up destabilizing us. We must remember that ignoring our shadows will not make them disappear.
Awareness and acceptance, the keys to compensate well
Compensation can be a valuable psychological strategy, but it must start from a process of deep introspection that reveals our lights and shadows. Compensate what we lack is smart, but as long as we are aware of our shortcomings and accept them as an integral part of our identity.
Ultimately, we are not only our achievements but also our failures. We are formed by our strengths and weaknesses. This duality does not make us less, on the contrary, it makes us more balanced people. The imbalance occurs precisely when we try to overcompensate. So we tip the scales dangerously one way. Therefore, we need to learn to compensate from the acceptance of our vulnerabilities, failures and shadows.
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