Emotional compartmentalization: When does it stop helping you and start hurting you?

The first time I heard this term was when my friend (a personal confidante of mine who, wait for it…attends a military school!) used it on me. I believe it was during one of my many ranting/venting sessions when I expressed my concern for being so numb and completely out of touch with my feelings after an event that should’ve left me choking with grief and sadness. He called me out for “emotionally compartmentalizing.” He said it was how someone like me, who is vulnerable from putting so much at stake in life, copes with the volatility of it all. This intrigued me because I’ve always felt that my emotions are the only things in my life that I have total control over (which is why I’m so darn great at handling myself in testing situations if I must say so myself!). So, I started looking up articles about it.

Emotional compartmentalization, as Wikipedia elaborately defines it, is “an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves. Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states.” In short, you shift all of your focus onto the situation at hand and suppress any feelings that normally accompany it (a popular example being soldiers on the battleground who shove aside any guilt associated with killing people when in combat).

Basically, like everything else in life, there are pros and cons to emotional compartmentalization. In the articles I read, it was presented either in a positive light or a negative light – for example:

The Positive: “The Time Traveler’s Wife: Successful Coping” – Jeremy Clyman, Psychology Today — Clyman explains that Henry, the time traveler who demonstrates all the tell-tale signs of increased stress and mental illness, compartmentalizes to cope successfully. When he discovers his upcoming death, instead of grieving about the looming tragedy, he shifts all of his energy into finding ways to soften the blow for his wife instead. Clyman says this is a part of the positive proactive coping style – as opposed to the negative emotion-focused coping style when you push problems aside and don’t deal with them until later when they blow up in your face and you’re left with “emotions and impulsive decision-making” to serve as solutions. Because of emotional compartmentalization, Henry is able to “live life fully in the present.”

The Negative: The Moral Threat of Compartmentalization  Dr. Cécile Rozuel, Auckland University of Technology — Dr. Rozuel states that “the compartmentalized person may, consciously or not, cut off the moral values, aspirations, feelings and emotions that are deemed inappropriate and irrelevant to a certain context (e.g. the workplace), thereby creating a moral void by disengaging the moral responsibility of their self (i.e. who they really are).” Cough! Bill Clinton anybody? Of all the online articles I read regarding this topic, almost every one of them talked about how Clinton was able to brilliantly perform his job as President even amidst the negative press about the Monica Lewinsky affair (not to mention the infinite immoral acts of many other politicians…).

You see, I’m as empathetic as ever when it comes to other people’s emotions, but I’m often removed from my own. Am I hindering my growth by subconsciously suppressing my feelings? Riddle me this: when it comes to emotional compartmentalization, how far is too far?


9 thoughts on “Emotional compartmentalization: When does it stop helping you and start hurting you?

  1. Compartmentalizing normally works well for someone in narrow spaces between work and play. Overall however, compartmentalizing used as needed and in portion can offer more favorable outcomes. Too mind numbing or too artistic: Neither are good. Merging should be encouraged because once all is organized, you can then step back to look at everything. I think this notion is overrated but definitely should be encouraged to use so long as it’s applicable and proportioned for each kind of lifestyle and personality. Some have a strong sense of self and can be overwhelmed and others can be vulnerable to the allowance of letting their inner self slip into the distance for a greater stake at hand. When you learn to merge, it can provide an uplifting perspective for all incoming information in one’s life and even help to solve difficult decisions with emotion/passion henceforth providing one’s wants and needs. Without emotion, almost like influence or inhibition, you may make choices that don’t really reflect who you are. I love that you bring a focus and eye opening point of view to this kind of training tool in almost all work and personal settings. It’s much needed. :) Your article on this oversight is reaffirming for me, thank you!

  2. Pingback: De-Compartmentalize | Living Life in Between

  3. “Too far” is when you start killing people. Anything up to that is fine. As long as you’re not hurting anyone or committing a crime, compartmentalizing is a healthy and safe alternative to living under the guise of the name you were born with all the the baggage that presents.

  4. Hi,
    I think I am an emotional compartmentalizer. I was searching for ways to deal with this behavior. I’ve been doing it all my life and recently (3 years ago) I decided to try to feel my emotions in the moment instead of shoving them away. I think I made great strides in recognizing that I am feeling something and recognizing what the specific emotion is, but I have hit a plateau. Now I am on a search to find methods and techniques for dealing with my feelings in the moment.

    I feel it is imperative that I deal with this soon as I am in a budding relationship but I keep pushing this person away whenever I feel my emotions get triggered. I either can’t decipher what I am feeling or I turn off completely. It is very frustrating.

    Thanks for writing and posting. Maybe I’ll find more tidbits here. :-)

    • Hi – how did you do this? I am trying to help someone with this process and it is so sad to watch him struggle with it. THanks

      • Hi, I think I’m the queen of compartmentalization after having read Wayne Dyer’s book “Your Erroneous Zones”. Hope it helps you as much as it has helped me in my adult life.

  5. Hey, I am trying to understand why my boyfriend needs to compartmentalize me and everything else in his life. I know he loves me….. but I feel like i live in a box and he takes me out to play with me and then puts me back. spending time with his family, friends and so forth are few and far between. I am at the end of my rope after almost 4 years.

  6. Hi Crystal- I am Christa. I came across this blog when searching for similar answers to my own compartmentalizing. I am a military spouse so I tend to compartmentalize a lot, although not always realizing it until blows up in my face as you said. I think your blog is interesting and appreciate your candidness. I am looking forward to reading more posts from you, feel free to check my blog out as well. Have a beautiful day!

    • I have been dating a man who is a pilot and also in the National Guard. He is gone 14-17 days at a time with his job, which I have slowly been able to get accustomed to. We Skype most every day which helps a lot. He is going to be deployed in a few months and has already started deployment readiness. I asked him how does he do this, doesn’t he find it hard, doesn’t he feel sad? I certainly feel sad & tearful. He said he compartmentalizes. I really need to learn to think positively about his time away and prob need to compartmentalizes as well….not sure how without developing indifference. I really care about him and he cares for me as well. I do think he is worth it… Just needed to speak this….thanks

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