Have you ever gone through a difficult day, and the only way you’ve kept going forward is by pushing feelings or emotions into a corner of your brain and saying to yourself, “I’ll address that later”? If so, you have experienced one of the defense mechanisms the human body possesses: compartmentalization. While suppressing feelings or avoiding emotions is not healthy, there are certain situations where you can let compartmentalization be a helpful tool in strengthening your mental fitness.
What is Compartmentalization?
Compartmentalization can occur from past or present trauma. A very common kind of compartmentalization comes from childhood trauma, where a person is too young to process what is happening to them, so their body and mind block out painful or traumatic memories.
Parents who are getting a divorce may implement compartmentalization since they are feeling strong emotions towards each other but need to be emotionally available to their children, so they put those negative emotions aside.
Though this could be seen as ignoring your responsibilities or issues, sometimes you simply don’t have the energy or mental or emotional capacity to process the situation.
Prolonged avoidance of situations to decrease distress
Compartmentalization becomes unhealthy when you never address the issues you have put away. Avoidance is very easy to do in these situations, since many of us would rather not deal with the problems since it feels easier to just ignore. Leaving this conflict unresolved instead of addressing it doesn’t allow for processing and healing.
What does unhealthy compartmentalization look like?
• Avoiding dealing with conflict • Not communicating with others • Distancing self from friends and family
• Becoming emotionally unavailable
Think of the visualization of a hallway full of doors that lead to many different rooms. When compartmentalizing we may mentally put this pain or situation in one of these rooms and shut the door, not capable of dealing with it in the moment. Some experiences may be so difficult or painful that you put a lock on the door and walk away. Letting that fear control how you deal with emotions and thoughts may lead to prolonging opening those doors and delaying healing.
When one just ignores the painful things in life, your perspective on life becomes increasing narrow and it can feel like having blinders, where you mentally block certain things, and it starts affecting how you live your life. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming comfortable in moving forward without addressing things that are in fact affecting you mentally, emotionally, or physically.
Get through a rough time by taking your mind off the situation
Not all compartmentalization is bad, and sometimes your body can be acting sub-consciously for your benefit. We all know the expression “don’t take work home.” Going from a high stress, high pressure environment at work to, likely, a lower pressure and stress environment can be difficult to manage. It’s not as easy as snapping your fingers and relaxing – this is where compartmentalizing comes into play. This mechanism allows the individual to separate out work and personal life and helps you disconnect from stressors by focusing on your current environment.
Using compartmentalization to separate work and personal life helps: • Keep home less stressful by not muddling work with home life. • Increases mental health through disconnecting with the stress and immersing in a new environment setting. • Increases quality in home relationships.
How do we combat this unhealthy compartmentalization?
The first step to compartmentalizing in a healthy way is to recognize that there is unresolved conflict in your life and find those stressors.
Next, take time to actively prioritize your mental health. When processing through grief or trauma, allow yourself to acknowledge the pain, and find a support team, such as licensed therapists, who can assist you in your journey of healing. Utilizing compartmentalization in the right situation makes it easier to function in daily life or concentrate on a new challenge.
To end, here are some positive activities to compartmentalize in a healthy way: • Take a walk or read a book. • Take a day trip and get out of your normal routine.
• Do something that makes you feel most like yourself.
• Start a self-care routine.