Compartmentalizing Your Feelings To Get Through the Day Isn’t Always a Bad Thing—Here’s When It Can Get Unhealthy

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One recent morning on the subway to work, I was crying about everything from sore nipples from breastfeeding, to global war, and negative feelings about a relative. After a few minutes, I told myself that I needed to “pull myself together,” in order to be able to do my job and show up for my daily responsibilities as a therapist. This was a classic case of compartmentalizing—where a person sets aside emotions, thoughts, or needs temporarily until they can address them later.

Compartmentalization is an act of separation, where we mentally set aside one part of our experience in order to regulate our nervous systems, and be present for another part of our lives.

As a psychotherapist, I recognize that a degree of separation, although a privilege, is sometimes essential to tending to the tasks of life. With so many demands on our minds, hearts and bodies, there are moments when we cannot feel it all at once. Many of us don’t want to choose ignorance and put our heads in the sand, but we also don’t want to live in a constant state of overwhelm that makes ease and contentment seem nearly impossible either. In my practice, I support clients in finding the line between compartmentalizing and avoidance or repression, which denies the very existence of these emotions, thoughts, or needs.

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But how does one walk the line of compartmentalization in a healthy way—and how do you become brave enough to confront those feelings that need to be set aside?

What does it mean to compartmentalize?

Compartmentalization is an act of separation, where we mentally set aside one part of our experience in order to regulate our nervous systems, and be present for another part of our lives.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), compartmentalization is a type of “defense mechanism,” a way that people protect themselves from negative or painful emotional experiences. All defense mechanisms have a good intention—they are trying to help us survive a difficult situation. But oftentimes, defense mechanisms solve one problem but create another. (For example, you may have found that drinking alcohol allowed you to escape your worries for a while, but then began experiencing health problems, anxiety, and deteriorating relationships as a result.)

Compartmentalization can be an essential defense mechanism. Sometimes you just have to separate from one part of your experience—like getting into a fight with your partner—in order to prioritize another—such as prepping for a big presentation at work. When the stakes are even higher, compartmentalization can be self-preservation: for example, the emotional work of being a Black mom in America learning about a Black boy being shot in a nearby neighborhood. In order to not live in fear constantly, this mother may need to put this information on a proverbial shelf, to show up and connect with her son.

In the words of psychotherapist and trauma expert Janina Fisher, PhD, “compartmentalization allows us to live with otherwise irreconcilable conflicts or avoid cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that arises when our beliefs conflict with our actions—for example, saying you value family, but missing family dinner most nights to stay at work. To avoid this discomfort or pain, one might compartmentalize their beliefs in order to behave in line with their urges, and not feel as “bad” (guilty, shameful, sad) or hypocritical about it. In these instances, splitting off one part of ourselves in order to pursue another part can harm ourselves and our relationships.

When we compartmentalize a part of ourselves so much that we can no longer access it, it begins to cause harm. For example, one might develop a barrier (become defensive) about being called a liar, even if they are one. This chronic lying is harming this person’s relationship, but because this part is so buried and the risks of recognizing and owning this part feel too great, the person will continue to deny it.

What are examples of compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization isn’t always a bad thing. It can be effective in allowing us to show up for what we need to and mitigating overwhelm. This could look like crying in the bathroom at work and then breathing through it to get back to your desk. Or it could entail taking a walk around the block after a hard day before going home to take care of your kids. In these instances, one part of our experience is acknowledged, but not indulged in.

Where compartmentalization can be harmful “is when the walls between the compartments are impermeable,” says Ben Seaman, LCSW, one my favorite experts and an Internal Family Systems therapist. For example, one might compartmentalize a part of themselves they don’t like, such as compulsive stealing or cheating, in order to maintain self-esteem. However, if they never confront this part with curiosity and compassion, it will continue to cause harm to themself and their relationships.

What is the difference between repression and compartmentalization?

The goal of compartmentalization is eventually integrationwhere we can bring all the parts of our experience together to interact, be felt and lived with. If the compartments remain very separate, this turns into repression—outright denial of those parts of yourself.

Healthy compartmentalization in everyday life is an effort to regulate your emotions, not ignore them. It requires making a deal with yourself to find a time to face the hurt/anger/worry/hardship in a timely way. I like to think of it as putting a proverbial sticky note on my overwhelm, but that involves a two-step process: acknowledging the emotions and agreeing to revisit them.

Many of us have learned that to deny our reality is what allows us to live better with it. But confronting and integrating our negative emotions are what allows us to metabolize them and therefore experience emotional freedom.

Meanwhile, repression has you avoid the overwhelm with something that aims to eliminate it. Say you just had a big fight with your partner and you’re worried about the state of your relationship. Instead of engaging with those feelings at a later date, a person might continue to delay feeling with distractions: “Well I’ll just have a drink [or zone out on my phone, or play video games].”

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that encourages avoidance, and in fact rewards it. Our capitalist system does not want you to feel the sadness that comes up when you think about leaving your baby to go to work, for example, because coming into contact with this feeling might make you want to work less. Cultural examples of avoidance include “good vibes only,” “no problem” (when you actually feel hurt or angry), “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “fake it til you make it,” “ignore the haters,” “the customer is always right,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Many of us have learned that to deny our reality is what allows us to live better with it. But confronting and integrating our negative emotions are what allows us to metabolize them and therefore experience emotional freedom.

If you are avoiding an emotion or past memory, this shouldn’t give you a reason to judge yourself, but rather provide you with more evidence of how important your coping strategy of avoidance actually was. The bigger the defense, the bigger the wound it covers up.

Is compartmentalization a form of dissociation?

Healthy disconnection (compartmentalization) is different from maladaptive disconnection (dissociation). Healthy disconnection means telling the overwhelmed part of you that you see it, you want to learn from it, and you will get back to it. This is different from abandoning or neglecting the part of you that is overwhelmed by drinking through it, running away from it, or working constantly so as not to feel it.

Meanwhile, dissociation is a “disruption of consciousness,” or a state where you can go away. As with all experiences related to mental health, there is a spectrum of dissociative experiences. One might “zone out” on the subway from time to time, another might play 4 hours of video games and “not know” where the time went, and another might feel so disconnected from their reality that they lose a sense of who they are and the space and time they are operating in.

Compartmentalization, when done in a way that serves us, is about making a conscious choice to set aside what feels hard to tolerate. Making an active decision to separate is different from having a nervous system that is stuck in a “freeze”/dissociated state.

Is compartmentalizing a trauma response?

Compartmentalization can be a way that people cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex trauma. Part of trauma is not only what happened to us, but also how we (and others) respond to what happened. For example, if you experienced a sexual assault, reported this and no one reacted with horror or care, you might be forced to compartmentalize your experience to survive it.

Compartmentalization can also be necessary in order to maintain love and connection. For example, when I was a kid and my parents were going through a divorce, I had to compartmentalize my feelings about this experience in order to get along with my peers who were discussing Santa Claus.

That said, compartmentalization isn’t always a sign of trauma or a trauma response. Sometimes it is just a way to get through a moment that feels like too much, even one that is not capital-t Trauma.

Is mental compartmentalization healthy?

Compartmentalization can be a healthy way to live through a hard experience, whether that's compartmentalizing stress or trauma or grief. The goal of mental health is not to feel everything all at once, but rather to slowly make space to feel it all over time. Choosing to turn off the news when you know you need to be present for your child, for example, is a strategy that supports rather than harms you. It is essential to make space for joy, pleasure, and play in order to live a robust life.

However, choosing to never watch the news or learn what’s happening in the world in order to avoid the associated negative emotions will impact your ability to feel positive emotions and connect deeply with others. If we blunt the negative emotions, we blunt the positive ones too. The more we learn to be with, reflect on, and feel our negative emotions, the more space we create for the positive ones.

When does compartmentalizing become unhealthy?

Compartmentalization can work because it keeps us away from a hard part of our reality. It is effective when it functions as a boundary between our parts—the part that needs to feel, and the part that doesn’t have time/space to feel in that moment. Holding back tears on a work call so that you can cry later with your friend, for instance, might be helpful for you in giving your emotion the attention it deserves.

On the other hand, compartmentalization can become unhealthy if you’re holding back tears all the time on your work calls. This might be helping you avoid confronting the truth that your boss makes you feel unsafe and demeaned, which means you never will actually deal with it and change your circumstances.

The feelings that you are needing to compartmentalize are often messengers—signals from your body that need tending to. If we are always putting them away, we will never receive the message they have to tell us. If the walls of compartmentalization are impermeable, it will not only make it difficult for you to connect to yourself, but also for others to connect with you.

How to compartmentalize in a healthy way

Healing can be uncomfortable. Feeling difficult emotions can make you want to run away. Oftentimes, if you can stay with it in small doses, this means you’re moving in the right direction. The words of Glennon Doyle in Untamed have always reassured me of this: “We’re like snow globes: We spend all of our time, energy, words, and money creating a flurry, trying not to know, making sure that the snow doesn’t settle so we never have to face the fiery truth inside us—solid and unmoving.” It is important not to compartmentalize our truth, so much so, that we no longer have access to it.

Here are some invitations to both compartmentalize and to go toward the tough stuff–because they go hand in hand–in a way that will support you on your journey to living an integrated life:

1. Question the culture that makes compartmentalization necessary

While compartmentalization might be healthy once in a while, if it starts to become your modus operandi, it might be helpful to examine the sociocultural climate that is making you need to disconnect so frequently. Modern life places many demands on our time. If your life is filled to the brim, this may be an unconscious way that you’re avoiding feeling. Feeling is at odds with doing, and if we are in constant activity, we cannot feel the emotions that will let us know what we need.

2. Pay attention to when you want to disconnect

Building our capacity to feel the hard stuff will allow us to live better with it. The goal isn’t to feel good all the time, but to increase our sense of “I got this energy,” when hard stuff happens. Pay attention to the moments when you have the urge to disconnect, and use it as an opportunity to do something different. What would it be like if you looked at these moments as full of choice: to distract yourself immediately, to feel for 5 seconds, to reach out to a friend to talk it through?

3. Schedule time to check back in with yourself

Once you notice you need to set something aside, make an appointment with yourself to revisit it, whether that’s putting time on your calendar for later in the day, or setting a reminder on your phone. Ask for an accountability buddy if you don’t trust yourself to revisit those feelings. This ensures that you will get back to what was bothering you and it doesn’t end up getting in the way of other parts of your life.

4. Engage with your compartmentalized self with love

Speak to the part of you that needs to compartmentalize like a precious friend. Let it know you see him/her/them, you want to know what feels too much for them, you are curious about what they worry will happen if they don’t compartmentalize, and whenever they are ready, that you are there to listen.

5. Build up your tolerance for hard feelings

Titration—building up tolerance to distress and negative emotions through exposure—requires small but meaningful practices to ground yourself. This might mean scheduling “worry” time to see what comes up for 5 minutes a day, practicing somatic exercises like envisioning a container to place your hurts and pains, practicing grounding techniques to regulate your nervous system, or develop a daily journaling practice to unspool the tangled struggle inside you or fantasize about your hopes and dreams, in order to create distance between yourself and your struggles.

Whatever you do, start small to build your confidence in your ability to both go toward the hard stuff and being okay: for example, going from never journaling to trying two times per week for five minutes each.

6. Make an emotional nourishment “menu”

Consider positive experiences you’ve had that have made you feel good. What did they sound/smell/taste/feel/look like? Create a menu of these memories—the taste of your grandmother’s mac and cheese, the smell of rain, the way it feels when your friend wraps you in a bear hug—as a written list. Place it somewhere visible and remind yourself that even if the present moment isn’t inducing a sense of calm, that you can access the sensations of tranquility, joy, and excitement whenever you need to.

Compartmentalization might be an essential practice on the pathway to life, but it is not the solution to dealing with hard experiences. The more we are able to face what is, the more capacity we have to both tolerate the difficulty and have the necessary information we need to change it.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Thomas, J. et al. “Compartmentalization: A Window on the Defensive Self.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass vol 7:10. 04 October 2013, doi:10.1111/spc3.12061
  2. Lanius, Ruth A. “Trauma-related dissociation and altered states of consciousness: a call for clinical, treatment, and neuroscience research.” European journal of psychotraumatology vol. 6 27905. 19 May. 2015, doi:10.3402/ejpt.v6.27905

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