Compartmentalization- When the Defense Turns Offense in a World of Ideological Struggles
I am a believer that every action has a purpose and at least one benefit. Now, before you question this statement, let it sink for a bit….and a bit more…Ok now, would you believe me if I told you that people want to live a healthy and happy life? And, that if they don’t live a healthy and happy life, it’s not because they don’t want to but that they can’t because something is getting in the way. Our toughest struggles happen when our defense mechanisms (i.e. skills such as cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation) cannot match the intensity or severity of the problem we are facing. Because we are adaptable creatures, we use some of the dozens of defense mechanisms we have (aka coping skills) to adjust our internal world (including thoughts and feelings) and manage problems and the outside world.
Some of these defense techniques are more primitive than others, and may be good in the short term but less effective over the long-term. Emotional Compartmentalization is one of these primitive coping techniques. All of us have used compartmentalization at some point in our lives. It has its advantages as it can help you focus on tasks when there are other distractors and help you engage in tasks in different areas of your life. For instance, compartmentalization may enable a CEO to increase focus on the tasks at hand, a working mom to complete the tasks higher on priority list and keep composure in unpredictable situations, and may help a teen focus on homework when all he/she wants to do is go on Snapchat or Facebook. Moreover, if we were to allow ourselves to fully experience some emotions such as fear while actively engaged in a task that requires high level of concentration and skill, such as in exams, war, etc. we may become emotionally “stuck” and unable to perform. Obviously, this coping technique serves a clear purpose and has many benefits.
In fact, as you read this, you may recall ways in which you temporarily store away your fears and anxieties to fulfill responsibilities. We compartmentalize consciously when we put things in the “back burner” i.e. leaving work troubles at work and not bringing them home- this is an effort to suppress the emotions and thoughts which upset us to ‘take care of business’. Other times, we compartmentalize subconsciously.
We may subconsciously “compartmentalize” upsetting thoughts and emotions to justify engaging in certain behaviors that go against our value “compass”. That brings us to the disadvantages of “compartmentalizing”. Compartmentalizing can metaphorically build “mental compartments” for putting important thoughts and emotions, which are inaccessible during compartmentalization. And thus, you may engage in actions that are not informed by your value system. We often see a backlash when these (emotions, thoughts, values, etc.) leak from the “compartment”, and we begin to realize that we may have acted against our convictions. These emotions, thoughts, and values may have been put in the back burner (but remained simmering) and thus at these junctures, we can experience feelings of remorse, guilt, and shame. We’ve all witnessed these consequences in ourselves, friends, family members, politicians, war veterans, with some people who have lied or cheated in business or in relationships, (and more, name it!). At one point or another we’ve all been there.
Compartmentalizing is also used to separate thoughts that conflict with another existing thought, thus preventing inner conflict (or “dissonance”). When people over-compartmentalize, the “defense” mechanism can become a problem, an offense rather than a defense technique.
An example of Compartmentalization:
1st Thought: “I dislike the Orange apple because it is prejudiced and makes bad decisions for other apples”.
2nd Thought: “I’ve always liked this Blue apple because it is a star, it entertains me, and I like its skills”.
3rd Thought: “This Blue apple is friends with the Orange apple”.
4th Thought: “This Blue apple showcased Orange apple’s hat which promotes Orange apple’s decisions”.
Dilemma: How can one hold all these beliefs at the same time?
Compartmentalized answer: “I don’t like the Orange apple” or “I don’t like Orange apple’s decisions”. “I like the Blue apple” …“My values are intact”. And, to keep coherence (aka “internal peace”) without making drastic changes to our value system, we may also come up with reasons about why the “Blue apple is not responsible for Orange apple’s decisions”, and may ignore or rationalize facts that demonstrates that Blue shares Orange’s ideologies.
So, compartmentalization is good for some things and not for others, it can help establish a boundary (a “break”) from one activity to the other. In fact, being healthy requires some level of compartmentalization, as this allow us to behave appropriately in a variety of situations. Yet, some of the disadvantages of compartmentalizing is that it can also jeopardize our rational and value driven Self, as well as lead to numbness (being “out of touch with feelings”), and ultimately affect our internal world and our relationships. Remember that compartmentalization is when parts of oneself (thoughts and emotions) are separated from awareness of other parts, in a way keeping value systems un-integrated. And, this may friend, can get ugly. Can you learn new coping techniques so that you don’t rely heavily on compartmentalization? Can you adjust current coping skills, change the way you manage stressors, and adapt to new circumstances? Yes, yes, yes and yes! And that is the good news.
Can you think of other examples of compartmentalization?