Overcompensating in Relationships

Overcompensating describes the way in which we find ourselves needing to work to conceal or neutralise the impact of another person’s personality or decisions on us.  Instead of our processes being simple they become complicated.  One complication is that we might not be aware that we are overcompensating.

When a love relationship starts to break down, one partner might work to conceal the fact that they don’t feel the same way about their partner anymore.  They may overcompensate. They might hope that if they carry on like this the problem will go away. 

The cost of overcompensating is hard to calculate; it can dominate lives.

Families can be caught in the shadow of a dominant parent or grandparent who doggedly overcompensates to cover up anxieties and emotions that they don’t know how to acknowledge. They may have been doing it for so long that they no longer remember they are doing it.

This is the nature of the conflict that we see in Shakespeare’s King Lear where a family, a kingdom, is thrown into conflict with itself as it battles to emerge from unhealthy and corrupt overcompensations.

Overcompensating in relationships to cover up feelings

If you are trying to overcompensate, to balance out or modify your genuine feelings about another person, you may be fighting a losing battle.  A battle that will lead to further problems for you and your partner.  Your act of overcompensating may create an impression of neutrality which in fact is covering up an underlying issue.

  • Overcompensating is when we do something or use something to excessively cover up the presence of the opposite feelings.

Overcompensating and Psyche

Psyche, our minds, our systems are continually trying to balance optimally so that we can adapt and develop as needs and circumstances arise.  We might not always like the fact that we change, that we don’t necessarily want what we used to want.  But when we are stuck in a pattern of overcompensating we are not in balance, and it follows from this that we can’t adapt and mature optimally.  We are trying to go against ourselves. 

In Jungian analytical psychology, an attempt is made to better understand what adaptations are being resisted, held up or interfered with by the act of overcompensating.  In psychoanalysis, overcompensation is considered as an unconscious defence that is being deployed.

Viewed from either side, when we are overcompensating we are using energy in ways that may not support our healthy development.  From this, it follows that other problems may follow.

In psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapy, compensation and overcompensation are types of unconscious defence mechanisms in which one person finds themselves trying to make up for failings in other parts of their lives.  

Trying to disguise overcompensation

Overcompensation is frequently an unseen and unacknowledged part of family conflicts.  It is often active within organisations and groups in which people work to find an optimal balance without being drawn into the more disturbing feelings and conflicts that might break out at any time.  It might only take a slip of the tongue or something that is put in an email by accident, and the whole façade of civility and good relations would collapse. 

So it is not uncommon that family members and work colleagues are left trying to balance and compensate their true feelings in an attempt to keep the peace.

Overcompensation to cover up Inadequacy

Although the term overcompensating emerges from psychology and psychoanalysis it has become part of ordinary speech.  We speak of someone compensating for some weakness or inadequacy.

A popular version of this idea is someone buying a fast sports car to overcompensate for some inadequacy in themselves.

  • When we are conscious that we are overcompensating we retain some control.  But it is often the case that we are unconscious of the fact that we are overcompensating for someone or something.

Though it is natural and sometimes helpful to be able to cover up a true feeling and so avoid an argument, or create an offence, if you have no option but to compensate and overcompensate for your feelings then it may lead to problems in other areas of your lives. 

We might often have the sense that we aren’t getting the chance to deliver our real potential, because we have become accustomed to overcompensating and working and relating to other people in more obscure ways.

Overcompensation and power

In families and in groups that revolve around disproportionate power issues a somewhat corrupt influence can dominate, and people can find themselves covering up their authentic responses in order to keep in with power. 

Often what drives the need for power is a need to cover up an issue of inferiority.  Over time this becomes an increasingly dysfunctional problem.  After a while everyone in the group finds themselves overcompensating and covering up their feelings.  The group is polite but lacks any spontaneity.  Underneath the compensations are other feelings like fear and anger.

Should we be able to choose not to overcompensate?

It is all very well saying that we don’t have to behave like this, that we should choose to live with more freedom and autonomy.  But that view is often unrealistic.  It doesn’t take into account the pressures that force us to overcompensate in the first place.  We may have internalised these things long ago.

Frequently we end up overcompensating for our true feelings because we are being bullied and we have grown up in families and relationships in which we have always been bullied.  It’s easy to say that you should choose freedom and stop overcompensating.  But when you are being bullied it’s not so simple. 

Anyone who says that it is should be listened to with caution.  This is one reason why talking to a psychotherapist or counsellor is helpful because it is (or should be) a space in which you might find you are free to feel whatever you feel without needing to overcompensate.  You are free to develop new solutions.

  • There are families in which it feels that to break the dominant chain of power would almost be fatal. 

If we stop overcompensating, if we tell someone the truth about how we find them, about how they make us feel, that the fallout would be impossible to live with, there would be no way back.  No route in your family or relationship to some more constructive way of relating. 

At least if you find yourself working for someone and having to continually overcompensate you can think about leaving and looking for another job.

How do we stop overcompensating in relationships and live more authentic lives?

If you feel that you are continually having to overcompensate, that you can never be yourself, then it might be helpful to arrange to speak in confidence to a psychotherapist.  It might at least help you to become clearer about the pressure you are having to live with.  It might give you a space to work out some alternative positions and adaptations.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is key to developing a genuine sense of personal freedom, to see what choices you are free to make.

Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems have developed, and of what you can do to change the way your life develops.

I have been working with people on issues such as this for twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live so that you can stop overcompensating. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
Email: toby@tobyingham.com