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?