Compensatory Structures

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Compensatory structures are complex psychological configurations that are an integral part of the overall self or the personality of an individual. As their name indicates, they compensate for certain primary structural deficits in the self, and they do this by activating another structure. Thus, when the mirroring pole, the idealizing pole, or the pole of twinship/alter ego of the self are deficient or underdeveloped, one of the other three becomes the dominant force in the functioning of the self of the person in question.

The deficiencies come from the developmental failures of early childhood concerning self-object experiences, and thus the self's development. Compensatory structures derive from more optimal self-object relations. They are different from defensive structures, which serve merely to protect the self from any further wound. Compensatory structures go beyond this to become more or less independent of any protective purpose and thus intervene in a gratifying, vitalizing way: they become the self's main way of orientating itself. Thus, they transcend the fragility of the original structural deficiency, which then becomes resistant to any analytical intervention. Compensatory structures make up for the deficit, whereas defensive structures cover it over.

Though defensive structures can and must be analyzed to reach into and make up for the structural deficit that they protects, compensatory structures cannot and must not be analyzed in an attempt to bring to light the underlying deficiency. In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut says that a successful analysis is one that enables a compensatory structure to be fully developed and consolidated. One neither can nor should try to determine or direct the course of such an analysis, insofar as the development of the self remains a multi-potential process that draws on and chooses from the stock of available self-objects. Instead of deciding that all defenses should be analyzed, it might well be that analytical activity is not indicated for the compensatory structure.

Arnold Goldberg

See also: Self; Self-object.


Kohut, Heinz. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.