When I was kid I learned the term “nouveau riche”. It describes someone who has recently acquired wealth, which makes then prone to be lacking in good taste. Such people usually enjoy spending conspicuously as a way to brag and show off about their money or belongings.
As I matured and began studying psychology, I realized that the pattern of behaviour seen with nouveaux riches is similar to the one resulting from other types of inferiority complexes. This led me to ‘overcompensation’.
Overcompensation is taking excessive measures in attempting to correct or make amends for an error, weakness, or problem. It is the process of concealing and counteracting a difficulty or inadequacy by developing in another direction — often through indulging in excess.
The subject becomes quite interesting when we look around us. People can truly be like open books.
Apart from nouveaux riches, overcompensation can be found in a multitude of other cases.
There are men who spend an excessive amount of time exercising their muscles to feel more manly — perhaps because they worry about having a small penis or have some erectile dysfunction. In actual fact, there is indeed an anxiety disorder called Small Penis Syndrome which does afflict some men.
There are those who ride huge “fully-loaded” cars or loud bikes for the same reason of hiding some inadequacies — a way to show to the world that they are big and strong and masculine.
There is a boy whose father is weak, so he compensates by having an admiration for the mother, ending up by growing up being effeminate.
Equally, there are girls whose fathers were not around, so they later seek to date older men; others ‘overdo’ in their sexuality, because they have been, and/or still are, repressed at home by their uptight, strict parents.
Or people who acquire super fancy kitchens because they don’t know how to cook.
Examples are everywhere, actually. Interestingly, if you “Google Image” the word ‘compensation’, the four options you’ll get — or at least I get — are ‘Gun’, ‘Sword’, ‘Hummer’, ‘Jeep’. And lots and lots of funny memes. I eventually used a photo of mine as the featured image of this article since it’s much easier when it comes to copyright issues.
Overcompensation is a kind of an outlet, which often manifests itself on the subconscious level — without the person realising the reasons or even noticing the “overness” itself. As an egoic defence mechanism, those who overcompensate strive to feel superior to others in order to shadow their initial feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. To deal with the anxiety caused by their shortcomings or misfortunes, they make up for it by overcompensating in another aspect of their life; by aggressively “trying too hard”.
Someone who comes from a poor family may find solace in overachieving at work. If you have ever joined any workplace, especially in big corporations, those who seem as though they “have a lot to prove” cannot be missed.
Narcissistic people also overcompensate. They condition themselves on how to mute their feelings of low self-esteem by showing off and talking highly of themselves; they try to be around “highly admired” personalities for the same reason. The validations and affirmations they seek make them feel ‘important’, which overshadows their feelings of inferiority — though the feelings do not vanish.
Now let us see what psychology has to say about the topic.
The first to introduce the term ‘overcompensation’ was Alfred Adler when publishing Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Physical Compensation in 1907. Later in 1923, Adler explained in Progress in Individual Psychology:
“The striving for significance, this sense of yearning, always points out to us that all psychological phenomena contain a movement that starts from a feeling of inferiority and reach upward. The theory of Individual Psychology of psychological compensation states that the stronger the feeling of inferiority, the higher the goal for personal power.”
In Classical Adlerian psychology, overcompensation is regarded as “A tendency to make up for underdevelopment of physical or mental functioning through interest and training, usually within a relatively normal range of development.” Simply, when people feel inferior, deprived, or weak in one area, they try to compensate for it somewhere else to counterbalance and to make up for the undesirable.
To begin with, compensation is “A strategy whereby one covers up, consciously or unconsciously, weaknesses, frustrations, desires, or 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 — psychological, emotional — or physical inferiority. It can be positive or negative.
Positive compensations may help in overcoming one’s difficulties. For instance, a student who can’t excel in sports compensates by indulging in the school newspaper or by playing a music instrument. They could even use the situation for their favour by specifying certain hours of the week to exercise and better themselves in a sport they like.
When working for hotels, an employee who is not fluent in languages is more likely to excel in bureaucratic jobs rather than guest-contact jobs.
Another example I have personally noticed is that oftentimes those who come from dysfunctional families are the ones who thrive the most in having functional families of their own. For they are driven by the need to have it right this time.
So the positive compensation here is useful because it works as a motivational force, which can eventually lead to exceptional achievements.
Negative compensations, on the other hand, do not help. Actually, they usually make things worse because they result in a reinforced feeling of inferiority. There are two kinds of negative compensation.
Overcompensation — the topic we are discussing here — is characterised by an ego-driven superiority goal; it leads to striving for power, dominance, self-esteem, and self-devaluation. Understandably, these traits can be harmful to one’s life and health, the mental and consequently also the physical.
While undercompensation is when people deal with their shortcomings and insecurities by becoming overly dependent on others. It leads to a constant demand for help, which in turn leads to a fearful life lacking in courage. Compared to overcompensation, undercompensation reflects a more passive attitude toward development — the reason why the excessive demands and expectations are projected onto others.
What essentially transpires is that a person cannot deal with the feelings of being inferior or inadequate, which could actually be unrealistic and exaggerated in some cases. So it causes them anxiety. Therefore they need to feel better about themselves in order to redeem themselves in their own eyes and that of the world. It’s their way to accept themselves and/or their circumstances or past. Driven by this need, they set about to find something they can excel at. And when they do, their inadequacies become overshadowed.
Even though compensation could be useful and effective, overcompensation cannot. Its negative aspect is that the person doesn’t do it to feel good about themselves. But as shown, it’s to feel superior and dominating over others. When we feel that we have so much to prove to be accepted, we are essentially disempowering ourselves. Not only that, but people around us will treat us as such. It’s a detrimental way to lead life. Self-acceptance remains the only key here.
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