The Law of Psychological Compensation:

Carl Jung thought dreams were often compensations for the attitudes of consciousness. In my experience, there is truth in this view. And the truth seems so widespread that I have come to think of it as a psychological law. I will try to put the difficult idea in my own words.

We go through a day, and the events of the day have an effect on our understanding of ourselves and of life. It is possible to rate this understanding. We can come away from the day feeling good and positive about things, or we can come away from the day feeling bad and negative about things.

At the end of the day we might feel pretty bad about everything — about the possibility of our reaching our goals, about what kind of person we are, and so on. If pressed, we could possibly give a number, say a minus 10 (-10) or a minus 1000 (-1000). The numbers can range from a fraction under zero all the way down to minus infinity (-∞).

This is not a precise rating system. Each person will probably rate things differently. But it is not entirely subjective either. We may be off in our ratings. We may think things look pretty much O.K. to us, but a spouse may see that we are rating things way in the minus range. It is also possible for we ourselves to notice that our objective behavior indicates we are not aware of how we are, deep down, seeing things. We may think we are feeling pretty good about things, but then we hear ourselves talking angrily with someone, and we realize that, deep down inside, we may not feel as good as we think.

Another point is that the overall rating at the end of the day is not based on what happens in reality but on how we understand what happens to us and what we do. We may do pretty good in the eyes of others but evaluate our own behavior, right or wrong, with a negative rating, even with a strong negative rating.

Also, how we see things at the end of the day, how we rate them, is related to how we rate individual events of the day, but not necessarily and not completely. It may be a day where nothing quite goes right, everything is a little off, however, even though nothing really bad has happened, at the end of the day we feel quite discouraged and gloomy and overburdened.

As mentioned, negative evaluations can range from just a fraction under 0 to -∞. Similarly, if we are seeing things positively, we can rate things from a fraction over 0 all the way up to +∞. So, at the end of each day, every person will see things either positively or negatively, and it is possible to give a number to this rating, and this number will be somewhere between -∞ and +∞. +∞ would be when everything looks great, you feel like a god, things couldn't be going better, and you can't even imagine that things will ever be different, for all eternity. A -∞ rating would be a day from Hell that brings with it the belief that things will not and can not ever get better, for all eternity.

There is another idea to bring in before trying to state Jung's point. We have a waking life, but we also have a dream life. However we evaluate dreams, we have to admit that there are dreams and that, at night, we have them. In dreams, things can go well or badly. We can have the worst nightmares, and we can have the most ecstatic dreams. Our dreams can range from Heaven to Hell, and some people have thought that our ideas of Heaven and Hell come from dreams and dream-like states. When we wake from our dreams we often rate them, informally. We say, "I had a great dream!" or "I just had the worst dream!" I think it isn't a big step to make this rating system numerical. In fact, I think it is possible to use the same rating system I am proposing for the waking life. In short, we can rate our dreams by giving a number somewhere between -∞ and +∞.

At the end of the night, when we wake from sleep, we can give a rating of how things stand in our eyes based on our experiences of the night, positive or negative. Similarly, at the end of the day, when we relax out of our day's activities, we can give a rating of how things stand in our eyes based on our experiences of the day, positive or negative. And we can give a number for the night and a number for the day. So there are two numbers, one for the day and one for the night, and both will be somewhere between +∞ and -∞.

Now I can try to state Jung's idea. The idea, put in mathematical terms, is that the Dream Rating + Waking Rating = 0. If the waking day leads to a rating of +100, the dreams that night will wind up with a rating of -100. In other words, if at the end of a day, you feel pretty good about yourself and about how things are going, you will tend to have dreams that make you feel pretty bad about yourself and about how things are going so that if you take the two numbers together, their sum will be 0 +100 plus -100 = 0. 

This is true with the most extreme ratings also. To put it bluntly, if during the day things go so well for you that you come to feel god-like (+∞), that night you will have a nightmare with a rating of -∞ so that if you add the two ratings together, you wind up with 0: +∞ plus -∞ = 0. Perhaps this zero summation won't happen every night, but the tendency over a few nights is towards 0.

What is the "0" state in this model? It is a realistic understanding and balanced experience of the way things are. The waking and sleeping selves, together, as a whole, tend towards realism and balance, a return to a stable central position. Each part compensates or balances the other for the sake of the whole.

It is clear that this balancing mechanism, overall, has survival value. It is also clear that it doesn't always work, and for a variety of reason.

We can view dreams as compensating for waking consciousness, but we can think, equally well, of waking consciousness compensating for dreams (or compensating for sleeping consciousness). The two are in a relationship, waking and sleeping being part of the same organism.

To be complete, I must correct an impression the reader may receive from the above statement: It is not always our experience of our whole selves that is compensated for. More often than not it is some specific value or impression. For example, a man is fascinated by and in love with a diamond he has come to possess. In a dream he watches in horror as the diamond is taken from him by a boy, who not knowing what it is, hammers it into a powder and then burns the powder into a black ash. The man awakens from the dream, breathes a sigh of relief that it was "just a dream," and goes and takes out the diamond to reassure himself. Now he feels better but is still a bit shaken, and this can be seen as the function of the dream, to shake him loose from his over-attachment to the stone.

Practical consequences of the Law of Compensation

There is a practical consequence of this law for a person who is "working" on him or herself, that is for people who are seeking to know themselves better. This work can be painful at times: It is painful, for a sensitive and thoughtful person who is trying to be a decent human being, to see what really lies behind the screen of appearance (the reality in others and in oneself). But it is comforting — when you have worked hard to be brutally honest with yourself, and you have just uncovered a morally ugly chunk of behavior in oneself or in a loved one — to reflect on the fact that not everything you see, no matter how clear it may be, is necessarily true. Much of what feels real is exaggeration that compensates for inaccurate revelations on the other side of the ledger.

To give a simple example: You have a dream about a close friend that makes him look like a fool, a liar, a fraud, and you are upset that you might have to re-value him as a person.  But it may be that you have been over-valuing him, seeing him in an heroic mode, and the dream is trying to bust up that value and perception and compensate for them. It's function isn't to express the real truth about your friend (he isn't, in reality, a fool and a liar and a fraud), and it doesn't even reveal what you really and truly, deep down, think of him. It is a necessary reaction, equal and opposite (almost physiological), to the over-evaluation you have. It brings you back into the middle, into a more accurate emotional state with a more objective view-point. Your dream does not show you the true, deeper reality; it is the way reality balances out an unrealistic appraisal; it does not use logic but seems to utilize a dialectic of extremes, a system of checks and balances.

The same is true about your own ever-changing feelings of self-worth. It can be comforting to realize that a current negative appraisal of yourself may not be true in itself but might be a compensating experience that balances out an equal and opposite untrue over-evaluation of yourself and whose effect, overall, over time, is to bring you closer to reality. It is not real; it is a tool of reality.

This helps us understand the extremes we find in ourselves that we tend to "fall into" and take as factually true. It can help us become a little more conscious of an objective, overall process going on inside us. Otherwise we tend to go back and forth, endlessly, between the poles of our personality. At each extreme we think we are in a state of truth only to fall into another and opposite state of truth an hour later. It can be interesting to get a little distance from the process and observe it within ourselves. This consciousness of the process can begin to have a life of its own running parallel to the process itself, a kind of third force, a middle, between or behind, the extremes.