Compensation: Defense Mechanism or Smart Optimization?

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Joe Dispenza

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Compensation is a defense mechanism that we all use, often without realizing it. Indeed, positive compensation can help us overcome our difficulties and shortcomings by reaching an optimal level of functioning, but negative compensation can reinforce a very harmful feeling of inferiority and prevent us from growing as people. How we use compensation will determine whether it is a malicious defense mechanism or a smart optimization strategy.

What is compensation in psychology?

In psychology, compensation is a mechanism we use to balance our performance and the image we have of ourselves, or that we want to project. We develop certain qualities, skills and strengths to compensate for our real or imagined shortcomings or weaknesses.

Sigmund Freud went further. According to his psychoanalytic theory, compensation is a defense mechanism that prevents us from becoming aware of our faults and weaknesses. Alfred Adler instead had another concept of compensation, he saw it as a natural effort in all people aimed at overcoming the inferiority complex.

The truth is that there is no lack of examples of compensation in everyday life. Many overworked people may compensate for an unsatisfactory family or social life. People obsessed with their physique may make up for their poor professional results. A smoker can compensate for his bad habit by trying to eat healthy and exercise. A person who feels they have no control over their life can make up for it by trying to control others.

Focusing on that "strength" makes them particularly proud and helps them forget or hide the "shadows" they are ashamed of. 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. Indeed, our brains are naturally programmed to compensate for the loss of function that can occur due to injury or disease. The concept of cognitive reserve refers precisely to the functional plasticity of our brain, which would allow neurons to restructure themselves 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 in the natural tendency to resort more and more to experience, optimizing, selecting and applying the most effective strategies to compensate for age-typical deficits. In fact, people who are able to use selective optimization age better and remain productive and efficient.

This means that compensation itself is not a bad process. On the contrary, it has enormous functional importance, it helps us to face the demands of the environment in a more adaptive way by making a more efficient use of our cognitive resources.

The problem begins when we do not consciously recognize our weaknesses or shortcomings and try to hide them, developing other skills and strengths with which to artificially increase our self-esteem.

The problem occurs when switching from compensation to overcompensation. In practice, the replacement behavior exceeds what would be necessary to compensate for the deficiency. In those cases we can end up obsessed with developing a certain skill or talent and give it too much importance.

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 the energy towards the results we have achieved in other areas. In practice, it is as if we only see a part of our "I" closing our eyes on what we do not like and that we do not want to recognize.

In these cases, it is not uncommon for overcompensation to lead to narcissistic or bullying behaviors in certain areas where the person wants to "prevail", to compensate for their gray areas. Indeed, this type of compensation leads to the pursuit of superiority, in a way that often triggers struggles for power and domination in interpersonal relationships.

Several studies have also linked the compensatory defense mechanism to depressive disorders. It is not strange, if we take into account that all repressed psychological contents actually continue to exert pressure from the unconscious that can destabilize us. We must remember that ignoring our shadows will not make them disappear.

Awareness and acceptance, the keys to compensating well

Compensation can be a very valuable psychological strategy, but it must start with a process of deep introspection that reveals our lights and shadows. Compensating for 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 inferior, on the contrary, it makes us more balanced and complete people. Imbalance occurs precisely when one tries to overcompensate. So we tilt the scales dangerously in one direction. Therefore, we must learn to compensate by accepting our vulnerabilities, failures and shadows.

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