Schema Coping 1: Overcompensation and Counterattack

Schema Therapy considers that unhelpful life patterns (schemas, life-traps) form due to inadequately met developmental needs. Someone who has not received secure attachments (due to parental death, divorce or other absence) may develop an Abandonment Schema. One who has missed out on validation and acceptance from significant others may develop a Defectiveness Schema.

This non-meeting of needs is how the story starts, but not how the story ends. The child with the unmet need becomes an adult. Adults cannot act like children. The emotional child remains inside us, but the adult must cope. There are three main ways that people cope with unmet childhood needs: Overcompensation (or counterattack), Avoidance (or Escape) and Surrender. This article focuses on the first of these three.

The overcompensation response is an attempt to do the opposite, or be the opposite, of the schema. The childhood need “deficit” is overcome or “over-repaid” in adulthood. The overcompensater either consciously, but usually unconsciously, tries to get on top, or get in control of the vulnerable feelings elicited by schema activation.

Temperamentally, this coping response is more commonly found in those predisposed to fight, rather than flight or freeze.

How the overcompensation response manifests is very much determined by the specific unmet need, the schema. Here are some of the ways overcompensating can look:

Self-Aggrandising

Self-aggrandising means acting in a superior, arrogant or condescending manner. This response is common for people with Defectiveness or Failure schemas (to overcome the need for feeling adequate or good enough). It also often occurs with people who are lonely due to disconnection and rejection-based schemas, such as Emotional Deprivation and Abandonment; if you can’t be liked, at least you can be feared.

This coping mechanism/mode is commonly found amongst people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and with Entitlement Schemas. Self-aggrandising often feels powerful but exacerbates loneliness as it leads to rejection due to others feeling devalued. This coping response provides a temporary reprieve for feelings of inadequacy, but leads to a fragile, defensive ego which expends an enormous amount of energy protecting its lofty self-view.

Over-Control

Sometimes the overcompensation response manifests as rigidity, guardedness, orderliness and goal orientation. People with Vulnerability or Mistrust Schemas may seek to overcome anxiety through controlling behaviours. An aspect of this response may be over-work. This might be directed into creative or other higher pursuits and might match Freud’s concept of sublimation.

Many high achievers overcompensate in this manner, and they are typically loath to change this response style as it could mean killing the goose that laid the golden egg. An Unrelenting Standards Schema often begins as a counterattack to an inner vulnerability. Burnout is common for people who overcompensate in this way, it is hard to sustain rigid high standards at all times. It also makes it difficult for loved ones or work colleagues to cope with exacting standards.

Aggression

Verbal and physical aggression is another way that overcompensation can occur. Anger can be used in preference to processing vulnerable emotions, or it could be a way to keep others at arm’s length. In more extreme cases, bullying and coercion could be used to dominate and intimidate others. Needless to say, this is one of the most destructive types of overcompensation responses.

 

Overcompensation/counterattack coping is easy to understand:

Feel defective? Act superior!

Feel anxious? Act in control!

Feel vulnerable? Act tough!

Overcompensation feels intuitively like it will work, that it will cure our insecurities. And it does, for a moment.  But it also leaves us exhausted, disengaged and alienated from others. When chasing the overcompensation high, there will always be a crash when we don’t quite make it. What comes up must come down. And when down, we are just back where we started.

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