Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Seeing the Blackness of the Whiteness, the Evil of the Good, the Depth of the Heights: Jung and the Principle of Compensation
… I regard the attitude of the unconscious as compensatory to consciousness…
Compensation… as the term implies, means balancing and comparing different data or points of view so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification.
The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls for compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche. In this sense we can take the theory of compensation as a basic law of psychic behavior….
In a recent conversation with a student, I was surprised to discover she was quite unaware of the Jungian concept of “compensation.” This arose in the context of a discussion of her beau and his very close relationship with his mother. I noted how, given the warmth and strong attachment of mother and son, there could be an equally strong, but negative mother image in his unconscious. The time was short, the hour late, so I could not provide an explanation on the spot. Hence this essay.
I’ll begin with Jung’s own definitions of the concept, including some of the principles related to the concept. Then some of the features of compensation will be considered, along with a discussion of the various forms or types of compensation that Jung observed in his work with patients. His many years of experience provide a wealth of examples of compensation, which illustrate how compensation shows up in daily life and the analytical endeavor. Finally I will consider some of the benefits of compensation—why it is valuable and important and the array of blessings it offers us, if we have a proper attitude toward it.
Definitions and Principles
Jung provided several definitions of “compensation.” In one of his early works, he referred to compensation as “a counter-impulse in the unconscious” that “…means balancing, adjusting, supplementing….” and “…comparing different data or points of view so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification.”
In volume 6 of his Collected Works Jung credits Alfred Adler with introducing the concept into psychology. But while Adler “restricts his concept of compensation to the balancing of inferiority feelings,” Jung defined it more broadly:
I conceive it as functional adjustment in general, an inherent self-regulation of the psychic apparatus. In this sense, I regard the activity of the unconscious as a balancing of the one-sidedness of the general attitude produced by the function of consciousness. …
and then he went on to offer an explanation of the process:
The activity of consciousness is selective. Selection demands direction. But direction requires the exclusion of everything irrelevant. This is bound to make the conscious orientation one-sided. The contents that are excluded and inhibited by the chosen direction sink into the unconscious, where they form a counterweight to the conscious orientation. The strengthening of this counterposition keeps pace with the increase of conscious one-sidedness until finally a noticeable tension is produced. … in the end the tension becomes so acute that the repressed unconscious contents break through in the form of dreams and spontaneous images.
These dreams and images are meant to get our attention, so we can become aware of being out-of-balance and then respond consciously to restore balance. This awareness and restoration might happen if we work regularly with our dreams, with an ego that is subservient to the Self. But Jung notes that far more frequently “… consciousness obstinately clings to its one-sidedness and insists on its arbitrary standpoint,…”, leading to repression and ultimately an enantiodromia—a turning into the opposite, as the psyche strives to maintain equilibrium.
The maintenance of equilibrium was a basic principle in Jung’s psychology. Just as the physical body must operate within certain physiological limits (e.g. temperature, blood composition, electrolytes), so must the psyche:
“The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche. In this sense we can take the theory of compensation as a basic law of psychic behavior. Too little on one side results in too much on the other. Similarly, the relation between conscious and unconscious is compensatory.
Jung regarded the unconscious as a “living psychic entity which… is relatively autonomous, behaving as if it were a personality with intentions of its own…” and employing “… an intelligent choice of means aiming not only at the restoration of the psychic equilibrium but at an advance toward wholeness….”
Living, autonomous, intelligent—these features of the unconscious color how compensation shows up in our lives.
Features of Compensation
Ever the empiricist, Jung took a cautious approach when speaking about the unconscious:
What the unconscious is in itself is an idle speculation. By its very nature it is beyond all cognition. We merely postulate its existence from its products, such as dreams and fantasies. But it is a well-established fact of scientific experience that dreams, for example, practically always have a content that could correct the conscious attitude, and this justifies us in speaking of a compensatory function of the unconscious.”
In its intent to “correct the conscious attitude,” the compensation is both positive and purposeful. It wants to restore a healthy balance, but it often is overlooked, especially if we are not attentive to our dreams.
The ego usually tries to run the show in our daily living and so it often ignores dreams and refuses to acknowledge messages from the unconscious. Then the “compensatory effect… changes into its opposite, as it then tries to realize itself literally and concretely.” By this Jung means that some outer-life event occurs that grabs our attention, usually in some untoward, undesirable form that, in some cases, can be catastrophic.
Just how this might show up cannot be predicted because everyone is a unique, creative individual, and the “compensatory acts of the unconscious are [also] individual and creative.” While he could not describe particulars, Jung could delineate certain qualities to compensations: They were functional: they had an important job to do, a role to play in our “psychic economy.”
They could vary by degree and intensity: “This process of compensation takes place within the personal sphere so long as the vital interests of the personality have not been harmed. But if more profound disturbances should occur,… then archetypal figures appear on the scene….”. The initial messages in dreams offer compensations drawing on the personal unconscious, but if ignored over time, the unconscious goes deeper, into the collective unconscious, to offer up more powerful, often numinous images, so as to get our attention.
Jung also referred to compensations with adjectives like “different,” “peculiar” and “compulsive.” Compensations are “different” in that they counter or oppose the ego attitude, even to the point of being shocking or repulsive, especially if the ego has been resistant to getting their message. They are “peculiar” in often leaving us wondering where they came from, since the unconscious can draw on the resources of our shadow side. The compulsiveness of compensations usually shows up as a result of repression,
when inner energies have no conscious outlet, and so they “exert a compulsive influence on the conscious mind.”
Most of all, Jung stressed, compensations are autonomous: “We cannot compel unconscious compensation through the impetuousness of uncontrolled desire. We have to wait patiently to see whether it will come of its own accord, and put up with whatever form it takes….” The ego mind can no more conjure up compensations than it can control the activities of the unconscious that is the source of the compensations.
Types of Compensation
Jung mentions over a dozen types of compensation in the essays in his Collected Works, from biological to childish, downward to schizophrenic, fated to fantasy. Some of the most common types, in his experience, related to gender: situations dealing with the anima or animus. In the case of the anima, the individual in outer life plays a strong man, trying to live up to the culture’s ideal of how a man should be, while this persona is “inwardly compensated by feminine weakness,…”. The same holds true with the animus: “a woman develops too masculine an attitude–…[which] the unconscious compensates … by a symptomatic accentuation of certain feminine traits.”
Less common is the transferential type of compensation—less common because it shows up only in individuals in analysis, when an analysand develops a “faulty attitude toward reality,” leading to an “intensified tie to the doctor.” Jung regarded this tie as the compensation for the patient’s poor attitude.
While most instances of compensation are personal (i.e. addressing an individual and his/her imbalance), Jung recognized a collective type, often manifested by gifted artists and others with a “widened consciousness” that has
“…absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large. The complications arising at this stage are no longer egotistic wish-conflicts, but difficulties that concern others as much as oneself. At this stage it is fundamentally a question of collective problems, which have activated the collective unconscious because they require collective rather than personal compensation. We can now see that the unconscious produces contents which are valid not only for the person concerned, but for others as well, in fact for a great many people and possibly for all.”
Another type of compensation results from the fact that human beings have free will: We can choose to accept the messages in compensation or to reject them. “Accepted” compensations have no repression or regression and the person can “meet” the unconscious halfway through introversion. This is what the unconscious wants, as it leads to insight and the possibility of restoring psychic equilibrium. But Jung also noted situations,
“… by no means uncommon, where the compensation appears in a form that cannot be accepted and could only be overcome by something that is equally impossible for the patient. Cases of this kind occur when the unconscious has been resisted for too long on principle, and a wedge violently driven between instinct and the conscious mind.”
Jung cited the situation of Friedrich Nietzsche as an example of a person whose resistance grew to the point where the compensation could not bridge the abyss between consciousness and unconscious.
Examples of Compensation
Nietzsche’s case was one of many examples Jung provides of both the personal and collective types of compensation. On the personal level, we’ve noted above the common anima/animus compensations (hyper-rational man has dreams of wild, erotic women; sweet, compliant woman dreams of aggressive muscle men). Other examples of how compensation can appear in the dreams of individuals include :
•the Eros-will to power situation: “the man who adopts the standpoint of Eros finds his compensatory opposite in the will to power, and that of the man who puts the accent on power is Eros….”
•the Introvert-Extravert situation: the reclusive wallflower Introvert has a compensatory Extravert party-animal within, and the inner life of that sociable Extravert contains a solitude-loving Introvert
•the mood corrective situation: a depressed person has dreams of flying high, feeling he or she could take on the world
•the mental corrective situation: a person with a “bee in his bonnet” has a dream presenting a very different image or reality, as if to say “This also is true!”
•the optimist-pessimist situation: the self-confident optimist conceals a “profound sense of impotence, for which their conscious optimism acts as an unsuccessful compensation, while the pessimistic resignation of the other masks a defiant will to power,…”
•the office/title situation: here an individual becomes identified with his/her office or title, as unconscious compensation for a sense of personal deficiencies
•the positive/negative mother: a man or woman with a warm, loving connection to mother has dreams of mother as witch, dragon or demon, the compensation meant to show the dreamer the reality of the negative archetype that lives within
•the positive/negative father: a man with a good relation to his father in conscious life has dreams of the father as a criminal or abuser, with the intention of compensating the positive imbalance and “take the father down a peg.”
•the arrogant man: here the person is too full of himself, and the unconscious sends him dreams of Napoleon, Caesar and other famous figures illustrating both the negative impact such arrogance has on others as well as his potential fate if he continues in his egotism
•the spendthrift/miser: the person who is a spendthrift in conscious life compensates with a miser in his inner world
•the philanthropist/misanthrope: the philanthropist noted for his generosity and love of others carries an inner egoist misanthrope as compensation
•the hysteric’s personality: in this case the conscious personality that is lost in chaos and feelings of overwhelment is “…confronted by a compensating, systematically organized personality,…”
•the classic puer/mother relationship: here the man who was swallowed up by an overweaning mother becomes a Don Juan, consciously rejecting women while remaining the unconscious lover of Mother
•the inflated, ungrounded situation: the person in this case is, in Jung’s words, “mooning after the infinite,” and the psyche responds with “absurdly banal dreams which endeavor to damp down their ebullience…”
•the “artificial” normality/psychosis situation: Jung also occasionally came upon people who prided themselves on their normality, the normality in such cases serving as “an artificial compensation for a latent psychosis.” That is, the compensation is staving off the eruption of a psychosis.
Some examples of compensation on the collective level were noted above: Goethe and Dante were two of many great artists whose creative endeavors compensated attitudes in the societies of their time. Other collective forms of compensation include :
•moral, philosophical or religious issues, compensation for which often shows up in dreams full of mythological images that draw on the archetypes deep in the Collective Unconscious of humanity, due to the impersonal nature of these issues
•Mercurius as compensatory to Christ; Mercurius was originally the god in Greek mythology associated with healing and communication, but acquired the function in alchemical texts of catalyst for many reactions, hence playing a role akin to the Devil’s advocate or agent
•our society’s stance of “scientific” skepticism & criticism: Jung felt our current culture’s penchant for skeptical, critical attitudes toward things like parapsychology, ESP, and other psychic activities was compensated in the unconscious by “…powerful and deep-rooted superstitious impulses of the collective psyche…”. In other words, we aren’t quite so rational and objective as we would like to think we are.
•the rise of Gnosticism/materialism in the 1st century: in the early years of the Roman Empire materialism had become almost as pervasive as it is in our own day. Jung saw the “rise of the Gnostic movement …[as demonstrating] the breakthrough of unconscious contents at the moment of compensation….”, Gnosticism being an early heresy in Judaism and Christianity that denied the value of the flesh and material world. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Gnosticism is once again growing in popularity, as seen in the wealth of books about it, the discovery and dissemination of the texts from Nag Hammadi, and, in our own Jungian Center, the continued popularity of our course on Gnosticism.
•the yin/yang principle in Chinese thought: Jung noted that “In classical Chinese philosophy there are two contrary principles, the bright yang and the dark yin. Of these it is said that always when one principle reaches the height of its power, the counter-principle is stirring within it like a germ. This is another, particularly graphic formulation of the psychological law of compensation by an inner opposite….”
•our “mania for progress”/hatred of novelty: Jung was aware that “… the animal in us fights with all his instinctive conservatism and misoneism—hatred of novelty—which are the two outstanding features of the primitive and feebly conscious individual. Our mania for progress represents the inevitable morbid compensation.”
•evil/good: This was the problem that Jung felt produces collective compensation more than any other. It shows up in the lives of people as dreams of the Devil, or evil settings like Holocaust concentration camps, as if to remind us of our collective shadow.
Why such reminders? Why such dreams? What could the psyche want, that it works so hard to compensate our conscious intentions and actions? The many benefits of compensation are the subject of the final section of this essay.
Benefits of Compensation
There are physical, psychological, spiritual and collective benefits to the phenomenon Jung called compensation. In terms of physical reality, compensation plays as vital a role in keeping us mentally and physically healthy as the instincts that maintain homeostatic balances in the body. Compensatory dreams can help promote our health by working to restore psychic imbalances.
Compensation has benefits in psychological ways. For those who work regularly with their dreams, compensation can help to develop consciousness, widening self-awareness and transforming the personality by overcoming the inadequacies of our conscious attitude. Compensatory dreams can also stave off inflation, helping to thwart the ego’s tendency to over-reach. They can also offer us a “compensatory mirror-image of the outer world,” according to the Law of Correspondence: “as within, so without; as without, so within.” Working with compensatory dreams can help in treating neuroses, and will prevent neuroses from forming if we pay attention to disturbing dreams and “correct the one-sidedness of the conscious mind” before it falls into dangerous opposition to the unconscious. Jung went so far as to say that compensation can help stave off eruptions of psychoses, in situations where analysts are aware of what is going on in their patients.
Jung also stressed the spiritual impact of compensation. Just as the vix mediatrix Naturae—the healing force of Nature—works on our physical system, so the psyche works with healing intent on our soul and spirit, seeking to create wholeness (the root of which—hal—is the same root as our word “holy”). If we achieve “… the conscious realizations of unconscious compensations,…” Jung felt it was possible for us “… to transform one’s mental condition and thus arrive at a solution of painful conflicts,…” This led Jung to suggest that this meant we could speak of “self-liberation,” but with a caveat:
there is a hitch in this proud claim to self-liberation, for a man cannot produce these unconscious compensations at will. He has to rely upon the possibility that they may be produced. Nor can he alter the peculiar character of the compensation….
We can neither control nor direct the unconscious any more than we can call up compensations when we want or decide their content. In this the ego must submit to the Self. This need for submission is itself a potential spiritual benefit if we have the proper attitude. Another spiritual benefit to compensatory dreams is their ability to provide numinous experiences. Especially in situations where the unconscious reaches deep into the archetypal level, the compensation will offer up dreams that bridge the divide between the earthly and higher realms.
There are benefits on the collective level as well. Compensatory experiences—dreams or synchronicities—can bring “… the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large….” In such situations “… the unconscious produces contents which are valid not only for the person concerned, but for others as well, in fact for a great many people and possibly for all.” Jung had few illusions about the state of our contemporary world, and the very fact that psychology had arisen as a discipline, that the study of the psyche and the unconscious was growing in popularity was, to Jung, indicative of a compensation forming in the Collective Unconscious. He went so far as to say “…the sickness of dissociation in our world is at the same time a process of recovery, or rather, the climax of a period of pregnancy which heralds the throes of birth….that which brings division ultimately creates union….”
Healing, protecting, liberating, unifying—these are some of the many benefits of being aware of and working with the phenomenon of compensation, aside from the one that was the impetus for this essay: Knowing about compensation can alert you to possible problems with potential partners!
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Churton, Tobias (2005), Gnostic Philosophy from Ancient Persia to Modern Times. Rochester VT: Inner Traditions.
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________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
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________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Krosney, Herbert (2006), The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Press.
Layton, Bentley (1987), The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City: Doubleday Books.
Pagels, Elaine (1979), The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books.
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Three Initiates (1912), The Kybalion. Chicago: Yogi Publication Society.
 Collected Works 6, ¶568. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 8, ¶545.
 CW 16, ¶330.
 CW 3, ¶449.
 CW 6, ¶693.
 CW 8, ¶545.
 CW 6, ¶694.
 CW 18, ¶1418.
 CW 13, ¶294.
 CW 16, ¶330.
 CW 18, ¶1418.
 CW 6, ¶904.
 CW 14, ¶192.
 Ibid., ¶470.
 CW 18, ¶1491.
 CW 6, ¶694.
 CW 18, ¶1484.
 Ibid., ¶1232.
 CW 12, ¶48.
 CW 11, ¶784.
 CW 16, ¶372.
 CW 11, ¶797.
 CW 13, ¶90.
 CW 17, ¶24.
 CW 12, ¶230, i.e. compensating an inflation.
 CW 3, ¶567.
 CW 17, ¶90, i.e. outer-life situations in which children compensate their parents: the successful businessman has a lazy son; noble families produce children with “proletarian inclinations; virtuous parents have children who become criminals, etc.
 CW 5, ¶33.
 CW 7, ¶309.
 CW 18, ¶1232.
 CW 16, ¶282.
 CW 7, ¶275.
 CW 15, ¶153.
 CW 5, ¶587.
 CW 7, ¶78.
 Ibid., ¶80.
 Ibid., ¶170.
 Ibid., ¶222.
 Ibid., ¶230.
 Ibid., ¶280.
 CW 16, ¶336.
CW 7, ¶283.
 CW 3, ¶448.
 Ibid., ¶567.
 CW 17, ¶153.
 CW 7, ¶288.
 Ibid., ¶192.
 Ibid., ¶284.
 CW 13, ¶295.
 CW 7, ¶495.
 CW 6, ¶30.
 Cf. Barnstone & Meyer (2009, Churton (2005) & (1987), Doresse (1986), Gaffney (2004), Jonas (1958), Krosney (2006), Layton (1987), Pagels (1979), Robinson (1978), and Rudolph (1984).
 CW 10, ¶295.
 CW 5, ¶653.
 CW 7, ¶285.
 CW 16, ¶330.
 CW 14, ¶312.
 CW 13, ¶90.
 CW 7, ¶275.
 CW 11, ¶802.
 CW 7, ¶288.
 CW 10, ¶23.
 This is the Law of Correspondence; for a full description of it, see Three Initiates (1912), 113-135.
 CW 17, ¶282.
 CW 7, ¶192.
 CW 5, ¶614.
 CW 11, ¶784.
 CW 14, ¶514.
 CW 7, ¶275.
 CW 10, ¶s292-293.