When we feel badly about ourselves, we may imagine that we can relieve our pain by “proving” that we are superior. This is called overcompensation.
The trouble is that it doesn’t work.
We all want to be better than we are. We want to be smarter, happier, thinner, richer, wittier, more popular, more lovable, and more successful than we are right now. We can’t see why we should settle for being less than all we can be. We want to fulfill ourselves, live up to our high potential. We get no points in our own eyes for coming in second. It’s absurd.
The requirement that we strive to be better is a problem because we don’t know how good is good enough. If we believe that, “I must be better than I am” its a problem since this belief cannot tell us when to stop bettering ourselves. This belief cannot tell us how much betterment is enough. In the absence of such input, we find ourselves running a race where the finish line keeps moving.
Many people overcompensate with an attitude of superiority. They cannot see why they should come down from their fictitious mountain top, to dwell in mediocrity with the rest of us. They have found a way to relieve the pain of their negative attitudes, such as, “I am worthless” with pseudo positive attitudes such as “I am the greatest!”
People who strive to be better end up feeling inferior, inadequate, worthless and guilty. To relieve these painful feelings, they resolve to do better next time, still not knowing how good is good enough.
Here again, it is too simple to say that the person is merely overcompensating for their feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. It is more serious than that. Most of us feel inadequate to a degree, but we do not go to these extremes.
For example, Mark’s overcompensation takes the extreme position that he has achieved the ultimate overcompensation, perfection. In his view, he doesn’t have any reason to ever apologize. His attitude is, “I am not worthless like you. I am superior. I am perfect!”
Mark protects this self-created veneer of perfection by denying any evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t make mistakes, he knows everything. He isn’t weak, he is strong. He is never wrong, he is always right. His denial is air tight.
Mark is not lying to us when he denies his human imperfections. This is not a moral issue, it is a defense against the pain that he doesn’t know he has. Pain that he would not be able to stand if it erupted into consciousness. He has his own reality, not ours. His strong attitudes give him the ability to, validate his private truth, skewed his reality and maintain his status quo.
Mark is drowning in self-contempt but he doesn’t know it. He does not want any such knowledge interfering with his plans and spoiling his feeling of superiority. He wants gratification and he wants it instantly. He is special. He doesn’t see why he should have to wait, delay gratification and make the effort like ordinary people
The truth is that we are good enough already. We just aren’t perfect. Perfection is not required, but no one ever tells us that. How do we judge who is a superior and inferior humans? What is the standard? What metric do we use? Who is the average person to compare against?
If we cannot tolerate our imperfections, we have to keep offering proof to others until they feel we are “good enough.” Our mistake is to take false accusations literally, personally, and seriously. When we do, we make the mistake of choosing to plead our case in an imaginary court of law with a judge and jury of one. We make the mistake of defending our innocence to avoid being convicted as guilty and deserving punishment.
People who feel guilty of the fictitious crimes of disappointment, inconvenience or imperfection cannot respect themselves. They have been taught that people who are wrong and guilty are unworthy of respect; they are inadequate and inferior. They are precluded by their own standards from respecting anyone who is as guilty as they are.
The solution to overcompensating is to accept that we are worthwhile human beings in spite of our faults and imperfections. We achieve this goal by:
• Bringing down the significance of our mistakes from unforgivable crimes to mere human imperfections,
• Bringing up the level of our self-worth from a contemptible failure to that of an imperfect human being,
• Living in the middle ground between the extremes of perfect and worthless by embracing our complexity. It’s not our liabilities nor our strengths that define us. We are both.