The Psychology of Compensation

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

Why do certain people seem overly inclined to seek power and dominance? When people discover they lack something in certain areas of life they try to achieve goals that make them feel superior in others. In this piece I will go through the mechanisms behind the psychology of compensation.

The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) found that if a person feels inferior, or weak, he is likely to try to compensate to hide the weakness, by doing something else really well. According to Adler, inferiority is a feeling that stems from the childhood. Since infants are small, incomplete, and weak, they feel inferior and powerless. To compensate for this deficiency, they set a fictional goal that is big, complete and strong. Thus, a person’s final goal reduces the pain of inferiority feelings and directs that person towards either superiority or success. People may in such cases not even be aware that they are compensating.

If you recognize extreme behavior in a person, inferiority could be the underlying drive. This explains why some people seem to be obsessed about achieving certain goals. However, it does not really solve the cause of the problem.


Positive and negative compensation

We may differentiate between positive and negative compensation. Negative compensation either manifests itself as overcompensation, or as undercompensation. Overcompensation happens when a person feels inferior and will go out of his way to feel superior. This leads to the person seeking power, dominance and increased self-esteem. This happens when a person has felt physically or socially inferior all of his life, and for example becomes overly eager to become a sport champion, or feel the urge to gain power over other people.

Overcompensation may also take place if a man doubts his masculinity, and goes out of his way to talk about subjects that are considered masculine, such as cars, sports, and fighting. He may act aggressively or verbally hostile towards homosexuals, in an attempt to appear more masculine. If this person also had negative experience with women, he may act overly chauvinistic towards women, for example stating phrases such as “all women are sluts or bitches.”

On the opposite side we have undercompensation, which takes place when a person acts helpless, displays a lack of courage and a fear for life. The person makes himself dependent on other people, not being able to properly handle personal problems on his own. Neither of the two forms of negative compensations help the person to remove the feelings of inferiority, and may actually reinforce such feelings.

Positive compensations takes place if the person is able to address the source of her inferiority. If the person becomes consciously aware of why she is compensating, she may start to work with her feelings of inadequacy or incompetence in one area. For example, a woman may feel inferior as a result of a poor social life with few close friends. If she starts to invest a lot of time and resources in seeking out new social connections, the compensation works to solve her particular problem. If she on the other hand continues to avoid situations where she could meet new friends – and rather becomes overly eager to focus on her career – compensation will actually prevent her from overcoming her feelings of inferiority.


Love and compensation

Why are some people love addicts and repeatedly tend to fall in love with the wrong person? The main reason is that people compensate for negative earlier experiences and unmet needs, thus fulfilling these through another person. So, instead of resolving personal and emotional issues it feels easier to escape from them through falling in love. For example, if a woman all her life has been shy and insecure, she will tend to fall in love with overly confident and outgoing men.

This happens at an unconscious level, as people often are not consciously aware of why they become attracted to certain types of people. When this woman falls in love with the confident man she may believe that this person is special, while he only serves to compensate for her own flaws. The concept of compensation may actually help explain why there are so many unsatisfying loving relationships. When people start to address personal problems, they will become able to sustain more healthy relationships, suffer less from break-ups, and in general be less dependent on other people.


The positive sides of compensation 

To sum up, the strong desire for achievement in one particular area could stem from feelings of inferiority in others. Compensation works as a coping strategy that can cover up real or imagined deficiencies. While negative compensation can make a person´s problems even worse, positive compensation may help a person overcome personal difficulties. If compensation is dealt with in a healthy manner it can be a positive and valuable force, thus leading to personal growth. In such cases compensation, and the coping strategies aimed at achieving personal goals, could be of great value both for the individual and for society.


Further reading:

Adler, Alfred 1992. Understanding Human Nature. Fawcett Publications Incorporate.


*Cover photo by U.S. Navy, wrestling photo by 807th Medical Command