In psychology, compartmentalization is defined as a defense mechanism where someone suppresses their thoughts and emotions. It is not always done consciously but this can often justify or defend a person’s level of engagement in certain behaviors. Compartmentalization, unbeknownst to me at the time, was in large how I was able to function as a mother, wife and student after the unexpected death of my sister. When I reflect on that time period, I was not purposefully using any tools to manage the grief; I only knew there were responsibilities that needed to be handled and I completed many of them without realizing the risks that could have been looming.
Are there benefits to compartmentalization? Absolutely! Certain necessary professions would cease to exist without this tool. For example, a firefighter may have a family that depends on them at home, but they must rush into life-threatening situations without hesitation to do their job. Being able to compartmentalize those two realities allows them to perform under intense pressure. Most of us, gratefully, are not asked to run into burning buildings in our daily lives.
How does compartmentalization help us in more commonplace situations?
Compartmentalizing can help at a time when a couple has decided to divorce yet for the protection of others (and maintaining some privacy) will continue to take pictures with smiles and attend family gatherings as though all is well. Being able to separate the wide range of emotions felt momentarily allows them to continue functioning “normally”.
We also flex this muscle when the source of increased stress at work could be that group project with a co-worker you just don’t care for. Whether it’s their politics, or religious beliefs, or favorite sports team, something rubs you the wrong way. Putting that away in its own separate place in your brain can allow you to hunker down and complete the task at hand.
Giving yourself permission to manage your own mental health regardless to the time of day is another healthy advantage to compartmentalization. Immersing yourself in the movie you’re watching, reading a book, journaling, taking a long relaxing bath, or going for a hike in nature can help you “disconnect” from your acute or chronic issues and help you tackle whatever’s wearing you down.
But there are serious disadvantages that come with compartmentalization, too.
You run the risk of being emotionally unavailable. If you are grieving a lost loved one, you might find it more comforting to go about your daily routine as if nothing has changed than confront the emotions you’re naturally feeling. Although you might be sitting at the table, your family can sense the disconnect and drifting or feel you are pushing them away.
Unfortunately, compartmentalizing is a common tool for people engaging in aberrant sexual or social behavior. The boss who is sexually harassing his female employees may be a loving father to his daughters. The daughter who is abusing drugs and alcohol may appear to be the picture of stability around her parents. The dissociation is required to function in both facets of their world.
If you have engaged in any behavior society considers outside the norm and have successfully compartmentalized that experience from your otherwise “normal” life, you might be tempted to do it repeatedly, or escalate further, creating a loss of impulse control. It is important for your emotional and mental wellness to meet with a mental health professional to identify your benefits and risks that come from your compartmentalization.
As you reflect on moments in your past and/or current experiences, you might be able to identify how you compartmentalize. Maybe you want to get better at it to help separate your personal life from your work life. Perhaps you want to alleviate or reduce this habit because you can see the potential damage to your marriage, your employees or your own psychological health. Compartmentalization is not all negative; however, if you feel vacillating between the two worlds is opening you up to disassociate in ways that are harmful to yourself or the people around you, I encourage you to seek professional help with a mental health professional.