Everyone in life has to compensate in some manner or another, because no one excels at everything. If you are not mechanically inclined, you take your car to a shop to get the oil changed, and you call a plumber to fix leaks or replace worn faucets. If you’re not comfortable with arithmetic calculations, you have a tax specialist do your annual return, and you arrange for automatic payroll deposits and bill payments with your bank. These are ways that ordinary people deal with ordinary difficulties, and no one thinks any less of them. In fact, the economy depends upon people’s interdependency — earning your living doing things for others is important to the Gross National Product, is important to a town’s sense of community, and is important to a person’s self-worth from feeling useful.
It is curious that people who have others do everyday things for them because they are rich are envied, whereas people who have others do everyday things for them because they are unable to do them are looked down upon. People with ability sets that are different than the “average” person’s run into problems because they are being “inappropriately incompetent”. Some of those “should be able to” things are related to sex-rôle stereotypes: a man should be able to fix a leaky faucet, a woman should be able to sew her own shirts. Among more traditional or conservative populations, a person is not faulted if they are incompetent at a skill that is reserved for the other gender. However, when someone cannot do something that is expected of everyone, or cannot do it well, or cannot do it consistently, they are then open to derision.
The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler noted how people compensated and even over-compensated as ways of dealing with perceived incompetence and avoiding feelings of inferiority. Not all “incompetences” really are gross difficulties — they may merely be assigned as such by others around us.
I’ve mentioned before that my life is a mass of compensatory strategies. I compensate for auditory processing problems, and the tinnitus that increases the background noise problem. I compensate for prosopagnosia (difficulties recognising people from their faces). I compensate for all those organisational, time-sense, and executive-functioning issues related to ADHD and Asperger’s (planning, executing tasks including the getting-past-the-inertia stages, self-monitoring). I compensate for the hyperacusis, and my general clumsiness, tics and stuttering, and migraines. Generally speaking I compensate fairly well. So much so that most people don’t realise that I am working much harder to achieve nearly as well. I “pass for normal” most days, so people can’t understand why I’m having problems when I’m ill or stressed or simply trying to compensate for too many things simultaneously.
Adler would probably say that I over-compensate.
I had to go through Driver’s Education class twice to acquire the necessary motor skills. I did eventually learn to drive stick shift (manual transmission) and have even driven in both the UK and US. The day that I parallel-parked in front of my high school to request a transcript to be sent to a college was indeed a threshold moment in my life. (Even the transcript part was a highlight, as assaying higher education was uncertain due to my previous academic difficulties.) My husband once asked me, “What, can’t you drive and talk at the same time?” and I did not feel that it was unreasonable to answer, “No, I can’t.” I cannot drive a stick shift vehicle through city traffic, trying to find a business I had never been to, and talk on a cell phone. (I have Auditory Processing Disorder and he has a severe hearing loss — talking on the phone can be inherently confusing in its own right.)
There are classes when I struggle to keep my attention focused on the instructor, and also to understand what they are saying, especially if the classroom is mechanically noisy, or if the instructor mumbles or talks while facing the whiteboard or doesn’t present information in a clearly-defined format or use supplementary visuals. Because I am very good at being able to distinguish the important material in an educational presentation and record those details in sensible paragraphs, I have been a note-taker for dysgraphic or hearing-impaired students. But I have only been able to do that in those subjects where I was already familiar with most of the information — I could not be a note-taker for others if I was still learning all the vocabulary and concepts myself.
Mathematics presents special difficulties for me because of problems with sequencing, slow working speed, and occasional transpositions. It took me four years to memorise my multiplication tables, and I have flunked a number of tests over the years, and nearly had to take a class over. In university I dropped a course that I was getting D or F grades, to try it again later on to get C, B or A grades, and did that with more than one course. It was slow, difficult work slogging through college algebra, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, physics, and four semesters of chemistry. One of my current jobs is working as a special education paraprofessional. I help in the science classroom, but my main assignment is in the math classroom. The extremely ironic thing is that not only am I helping students with mathematics, but also that I am doing so in the very same school I attended years ago, in the same classrooms where I had once sat flunking math tests. (My first work week was not only difficult from the prosopagnosia-aggravated new-job disorientation, but also from “post-traumatic school disorder” as I had ongoing flashbacks.)
I actually did flunk a semester of secondary English and had to re-take that portion of the course. I have also written a book and hundreds of articles (on a variety of subjects) for magazines and newspapers. I tutor college students in composition classes.
Given these examples, it might sound as though my difficulties were all in the past, and have been made up for by my recent successes. That isn’t quite true. What I have done is learned how to work around some kinds of difficulties. With others I simply have to work harder to puzzle through consciously to figure out those things that most people do easily and without conscious effort. Some days I feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to stay in place.
The problem with over-compensation is that although I have at times felt that I had vanquished my personal demons of incompetence by having overcome various failures with landmark achievements, those successes do not mean that I cannot or will not have future problems! What helped more than those moments of personal glory (exhilarating though they were, despite lacking exciting soundtrack music), has been finding out why I have problems, how those problems manifest in my daily life, and how to work with them. Self-understanding improves self-image because it gives me tools for those ongoing and future difficulties. Self-understanding means that the next time I fail something (not “if” but “when”, because everyone does fail periodically), I will have the necessary cognitive and emotional tools to handle the disappointment. I will be able to handle defeat graciously, because it is a failure of task-specific achievement, not moral failure. Furthermore, I can extend that same grace to others, because we all have such problems, even though the details differ.
Out in our various communities, we need to be able to not only acknowledge that Yes, not everyone can do the same thing, but also destigmatise that fact. One of the tragedies with the current paradigms in the helping professions is the disdain and depersonalisation from “care-givers” to that people who need personal attendant services or other forms of assistance. We can’t all do the same things. Needing someone to change your diaper should be no more stigmatising than needing someone to change the oil in your car. There’s really something sick about people who feel superior those whom they serve — there’s an element of self-loathing transferred from one’s self to one’s job to the client. It is overcompensation of the soul-eating malicious sort. Service to others is about sharing strengths, not about bolstering one’s damaged self-worth at the expense of others’.
We should not have to overwork ourselves to over-compensate just to earn other’s acceptance.