Compensatory Skills

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We deal with challenges in a variety of ways. When I refer to challenges, I’m using the term broadly. Challenges occur externally as part of our struggles to survive. They occur in our relationships as interfering with security and needs for belonging. But, also, we face internal challenges. We struggle to maintain emotional equilibrium—an enjoyable inner state. When we encounter troubles that challenge primary goals, progress stalls and we are pressed to proceed differently. We can either address the problem directly or rely on a skill to mitigate the difficulty without solving the original problem. I refer to the latter as a compensatory skill.

Emotions emerge from an assembly of causes—both inner and outer events, working together, intertwining environments and minds. An events happens, we perceive, we interpret, we biologically react, and we consciously feel. Most of these processes occurring within a fraction of a second. We then, of course, respond in some manner, changing the dynamic process with our reaction.

Life challenges our abilities and strains our resources. We discover weaknesses that prevent continued progress towards goals. We compensate for weaknesses. Consequently, we frequently find ways to skate through the difficulties without addressing core underlying causes. We are quite skilled at compensating.

Our skill at compensating impacts our mental health. “Mental health is preserved by minimizing the disturbing influences which deficiencies exert upon the mind” (Vaughan, 1926). We minimize the disturbance by compensating for the deficiencies. Compensatory skills are a defense reaction.

Compensatory Skills are  Adaptive

Like many defensive mechanisms, compensating reactions are not unhealthy. Many compensations serve  vital functions of wellness, keeping emotions within a delicate window of tolerance. When avenues to important goals are blocked, frustrations mount. Our bodies sound an alarm. Emergency reactions initiate. We must surmount the challenge, overcome the interference, and achieve our goal. Or, perhaps, compensate by changing goals, finding something more in line with our abilities and resources. 

Daniel J. Seigel Ph.D., psychologist and founder of interpersonal neurobiology, explains “when people move beyond their windows of tolerance, they lose the capacity to think rationally” (2001). The emotions spiked by the impeding of a goal must be soothed in one way or another or we will begin panic, acting in irrationa; 

T. Franklin Murphy explains, “when our bodies are within a window of tolerance we can draw from the environment, learning from our interactions. We are more likely to create healthy narratives of the experience and store helpful memories. We integrate the experience into our developing self” (2022).​

Some compensating skills are necessary just to soothe the arousal, calming our system, bringing us back within a window of tolerance where we can effectively engage the environment with our wise mind instead of from an emotionally reactive frenzy. Here we can adapt, overcome challenges, are recreate our purpose in a way that maximizes strengths.

Insufficient Resources

A core conflict is life with its unlimited supply of troubles will repeatedly overwhelm our limited resources. These out of balance moments, challenges greater than resources, frighten.

T. Franklin Murphy wrote that, “ideally, in these critical moments, we act in wisdom, managing the stress and conquering the foe, growing confident in our resilience and skill. Yet, life doesn’t care about our skills, resources, or persistence. Some events (or a series of accumulating events) are too much. Our ability to process bogs down, we freeze, we dissociate or explode when emotions overwhelm” (2014). We must shiftily duck and dodge finding new creative ways to keep our wits and survive with grace.

When we fall flat, scratching the bottom of an empty vessel of resources, we must compensate. Our compensating reaction may not solve the original problem but new movement gives us hope, a momentary respite from the pressure, where we can devise a new plan catered to our strengths.

Ways to Compensate for Lacking Skills

​We can compensate for lacking skills in three ways:

Stick to Our Strengths

When we fail to make the football team, we can join the math and science club. Sometimes our important goal just isn’t in line with what we can reasonable achieve. We must redesign our dreams and subjective definition of success.

​This approach to insufficiency is most common. In psychology it is referred to as vicarious compensation. Wayland F. Vaughn wrote that in vicarious compensation the “individual who realizes that he is deficient in one field sets out to conceal that incapacity by training his ability in another direction” (1926).

Western culture stigmatizes changing course, labeling it as failing. In most cases, this is a healthy course of action. Susan David, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, agrees. she wrote that “there’s no shame—in fact there’s actually a lot of virtue—in making a logical, heartfelt choice. Instead of looking at these transitions as giving up, look at them as moving on. You’re letting yourself evolve and grow along with your circumstances, choosing a new path that is full of possibility. That decision is filled with grace and dignity” (2016).


Some goals are still obtainable. We often over estimate our skills. However, we can compensate for lack of skill by doubling effort. What we thought would would be easy may be difficult. We can continue forward but must do so with a little more gusto to compensate for our lack in skill. Basically, effort may serve as a compensatory skill.

​This is considered a direct compensation. The person devotes themself to strengthening their weakness. The poor man becomes wealthy. The ignorant becomes learned. The uncoordinated becomes an athlete (1926). Sometimes, we might discover in the face of a challenge that a specific goal really isn’t as important to life satisfaction as we previously thought.

Change Expectations

Some goals have no bearing on our life satisfaction. it is only when we encounter our inability to achieve them do we take time to step back and evaluate their importance. Perhaps, we may reconsider the tremendous waste of time and effort we are giving to an activity that serves little purpose to the overall context of our lives.

Compensating for Lacking Ability

We are blessed in different realms. We are cursed in other realms. Whether from biological inheritance or childhood exposures, we emerge into adulthood with a set of strengths and weaknesses. Compensatory skills allow us to navigate a life path that best suits this imbalance. When weakness in one area prevents successful completion of a task, we can shift, draw from a strength, and continue in a slightly different, or a radical departure from the originally intended path. Our strengths compensate for our weaknesses.

​Compensating behavior is actions that make amends for lack in personal characteristics or skills, allowing for a sense of satisfaction even when obstacle block successful obtainment of initial goals.

​Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “for everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you gain, you lose something” (2012). The natural law of balance implies sometimes we must compensate for where we lack with areas where we are strong.

Lars Bäckman and Roger Dixon explain that “compensation does not apply to all situations in which adaptive learning takes place.” Compensation, when applied to psychology, refers to instances where there is a presumed deficit. They wrote, “compensation may be viewed as a special case of adaptive learning in that it applies only to those situations in which attempts at adaptive adjustment originate from an objective or perceived deficit” (1992).

When Compensatory Skills Harm

While compensations may be adaptive, some times they harm. We may relieve psychic pressure through compensating defenses. We may initially acknowledge a weakness but relieve the cognitive dissonance through harmful means. Instead of addressing the weakness, or finding new ways of personal fulfillment, we distract, we distort, or we ignore.

For example, we discover after marriage that we lack in interpersonal skills, preventing intimacy. A healthy compensation would be to develop skills or finding ways to connect utilizing other strengths. However, many compensate for the weakness by achieving satisfaction in other ways. In this case, the husband or wife may choose to find satisfaction through a series of clandestine, superficial affairs. This mode of compensation, in this instance, may significantly cause hurt.

Other compensations may create more problems than they solve. Compensating for the discomfort of debt from inability to curb spending by getting another credit card may relieve immediate fears of insufficient money but enhances the original problem by increasing the debt.

A Few Closing Comments by Psychology Fanatic

We must find healthy ways to compensate without further deteriorating satisfaction with our lives. Sometimes this requires finding new areas to stimulate passions, other times requires redoubling efforts, other times just dropping goals that don’t fit into the structure of our lives. As we become masters of compensation, we can discover pleasure in our limited and imperfect humanness.

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