Understanding Compensation Theory

Understanding Compensation Theory


Until high school, we had to study many subjects ranging from English to computer science. Many remember dreading Maths class, while some remember sleeping during history classes. We all had subjects we were good or weak at. Even the class toppers have their shortcomings. Humans strive for balance, they try to compensate for their weaknesses by strengthening their strengths. Despite knowing that not everybody can excel in every area of life, weaknesses or mistakes make us feel inferior. We have heard many inspirational stories about people with disabilities who excelled in their fields. 

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The student who barely passes her maths exam maintains her percentage by scoring full in English or the athlete with low stamina who compensates through speed. We often see such examples around us all the time. Compensation is defined as the substitution or development of strength or capability in one area to offset a real or imagined deficiency in another (American Psychological Association, 2018). It is called the “sublime law of life” or the “balance of give and take” (Emerson, 1990). It is the law of life. When you gain something, you lose something and, for everything you have missed, you have gained other experiences. 

Types Of Compensations: 

Compensation is a defence mechanism that is usually a conscious process but can be unconscious as well (Backman et al., 2013) 

  • Overcompensation: This is when a person compensates for their shortcoming by overachieving. This can lead to a person becoming too competitive or dominant. In the long run, it causes more harm than good. 
  • Undercompensation: When a person becomes overly dependent on others to address their weaknesses, it is called undercompensation. Such people tend to avoid anxiety or stress. This often stems from a deep-seated fear of failure or embarrassment. 

Adler’s Concept Of Compensation: 

According to Adler, feelings of inferiority are universal. Since birth, people learn to compensate to hide their weaknesses by doing something else well. When infants are born, they feel powerless and are forced to depend on their parents for survival. To overcome this feeling of inadequacy, they set a fictional goal that is big, complete, and strong. They compensate for their dependency by directing their focus towards success or superiority. Thus, the main aim of compensation is to reduce the discomfort of inferiority. However, like every defence mechanism, it does not eliminate the root of the problem and only serves as an escape (Adler, 1935).

Why Compensation? 

Dwelling on your shortcomings can never be productive. Compensation pushes people to overcome their shortcomings and strive for superiority. 

  • Improves Self-Image: Always thinking about your mistakes or weaknesses can hurt your self-esteem. Most of the time, we really cannot do anything about them either. Here, compensation becomes the voice of change and pulls you towards developing your strengths. By focusing on things that we can change and see growth, we can enhance our self-esteem. 
  • Increases Motivation: When we look back and see our progress, we gain the motivation to continue our chosen path. But what if all the effort is going into something that one cannot change? The person is bound to get burnout. Giving up is not always bad, especially if it is affecting your will to work hard. By focusing on your strengths and seeing progress, you can feel motivated to continue running ahead. 

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  • Improves Resilience: Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back after setbacks. It is the key to well-being and life satisfaction. Compensation can foster resilience by helping individuals develop a positive outlook and adaptive strategies to handle challenges and setbacks. 
  • Career Guidance: Fishes can never climb a tree, pigeons cannot swim and humans cannot achieve success in a career that they do not have an aptitude for. A person cannot succeed in a career that revolves around their weaknesses. Compensation can help select the right career path by pushing you towards your strengths. 

Dangers Of Compensation: 

No coping mechanism is perfect. Compensation can do more harm than good if it is an individual’s sole coping mechanism. Dwelling on your shortcomings is not healthy, but neither is running away from it. Overcompensation can be extremely dangerous, as it discourages people from trying new things or working on their shortcomings. Let’s take the example of a person who cannot cook. When living alone, cooking is a necessary skill to survive and to have balanced meals. The person compensates for this by saying, “It is okay if I cannot cook, I will focus on my grades instead”. Instead of learning an essential life skill, the student focuses on studying, eventually leading to health problems. 

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Compensation is a universal law of life. Our society works on the principle of give and take, and so do our minds. By accepting that we cannot excel in every area of life, we can work on honing our strengths. The theory of compensation has provided great insight into how we cope with our inadequacies while continuously striving for success and growth. Humans thrive in balance, and compensation is an important method to achieve it. Yet, it is important to remember that moderation is the key to successfully using any coping mechanism.

References +
  • Adler, A. A. (1927). Practice and theory of individual psychology (P. Radin, Trans.). New \brk: Harcourt, Brace. (Original work published 1920). Adler, A. A. (1930). Individual psychology. In C. Murchison (Ed.), Psychologies of 1930s (pp. 395-405). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press. 
  • Adler, A. A. (1935). The fundamental views of individual psychology. International Journal of Individual Psychology, 1, 5-8. 
  • Adler, A. A. (1958). The feeling of inferiority and the striving for recognition. In C. L. Stacey & M. F. DeMartino (Eds.) and W. B. Wolfe (Trans.), Understanding human motivation (pp. 466-473). Cleveland: Howard Allen. 
  • Adler, A. A. (1964). Individual psychology: Its assumptions and its results. In H. M. Reitenbeck (Ed.), Varieties of personality theory (pp. 65-79). New York: Dutton. 5. Bäckman, L., & Dixon, R. A. (1992). Psychological compensation: A theoretical framework. Psychological Bulletin, 112(2), 259–283. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.112.2.259
  • Cherry, K. (2023, December, 01). Compensation and Defense Mechanisms. Verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-compensation-2794972
  • Dixon, R.A., B„ckman, L., & Backman, L. (Eds.). (1995). Compensating for Psychological Deficits and Declines: Managing Losses and Promoting Gains (1st ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203773802 
  • Emerson, R. W (1900). Compensation. New York: Caldwell. English, H. B., & English, A. C. (1958). A comprehensive dictionary of psychological and psychoanalytical terms. New \brk: Longmans, Green.

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