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Compensation (defence mechanism)

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In psychoanalysis compensation has a more specific meaning and is the name of a defence mechanism. In psychology, compensation is a strategy whereby one covers up, consciously or unconsciously, weaknesses, frustrations, desires, feelings of inadequacy or incompetence in one life area through the gratification or (drive towards) excellence in another area. Compensation can cover up either real or imagined deficiencies and personal or physical inferiority. The compensation strategy, however does not truly address the source of this inferiority. Positive compensations may help one to overcome one’s difficulties. On the other hand, negative compensations do not, which results in a reinforced feeling of inferiority. There are two kinds of negative compensation:

Overcompensation, characterized by a superiority goal, leads to striving for power, dominance, self-esteem and self-devaluation.

Undercompensation, which includes a demand for help, leads to a lack of courage and a fear for life.

A well-known example of failing overcompensation, is observed in people going through a the midlife-crisis. Approaching midlife many people (especially men) lack the energy to maintain their psychological defenses, including their compensatory acts.

Origin:

Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, introduced the term compensation in relation to inferiority feelings. In his book Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation (1907) he describes this relationship: Each individual has feelings of inferiority. Additionally, Adler states that there is a strong, natural tendency to conceal these feelings, since they are regarded as a sign of weakness. Therefore they find their expression in a striving for superiority. This mechanism may explain why some disabled people come to excel in a certain sphere of activity, see for example: Stevie Wonder, Glenn Cunningham, and Demosthenes. (Interestingly, Adler's interest in the phenomenon developed from his knowledge that he was shy and yet that he pushed himself to give academic lectures to auditoriums of students.) This striving can manifest itself in many different ways, therefore each individual has his or her own way of attempting to achieve perfection.

Thus, Alfred Adler transferred this idea of compensation to the area of psychic training. Contemporary psychoanalysts like Alexander Müller, Kurt Adler, Sophia de Vries, Alexander Neuer and Henry Stein elaborated on the theory of Adler in many different areas.

Cultural implications:

Christopher Lasch, a well-known American historian and social critic described in his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979) the North American society in the 1980’s as one with a narcissistic color. Narcissism in psychoanalytic theory can be seen in the light of compensation: people who are narcissistic suppress feelings of low self-esteem by talking highly about themselves and making contact with persons they admire. Lasch also describes the idea (of Melanie Klein) that narcissistic children try to compensate for their jealousy and anger by fantasizing about power, beauty and richness. The narcissistic society Lasch describes is characterized by worship of consumption, an excessive fear of aging and death, a fascination with fame, and a fear of dependency.

The worship of consuming as Lasch terms it, is described in an article by Allison J. Pugh: From compensation to ‘childhood wonder’. Today’s market economy acquisition of commodities is an important factor in the creation of experience and identity in people’s lives. Consumption therefore has been put forward as a means of compensation. The strong symbolism of using goods to convey human relationships, can for example urge parents into various act of consumption in order to compensate for their guilt. On the one hand parents may feel responsible to make up for a perceived absence in their own youth (e.g. being part of a poverty-stricken family in childhood), and are therefore keen to ensure that their offspring never need to endure a similar loss. When guilt is directed towards something amiss in the life of their offspring (e.g. a family going through a divorce situation) offering of consumer goods can be interpreted as a compensatory reparative statement on behalf of the parent, a symbolic substitute for care.

See also

Compensation neurosis

References

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  • Christopher Lasch (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton.

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