Compartmentilization: When to Build the Walls and When to Tear Them Down
I ran over a turtle the other day.
God, even typing those words makes me feel ill. It was an accident, the turtle mixed in among the leaves on my driveway. As soon as I heard the terrible crunch, I knew what had to have happened. I said a blessing for the animal and expressed my sorrow as I dealt with the aftermath.
And it’s still haunting me. Even now, writing this, I’m crying.
This is a time where I wish that I was better at compartmentalizing. At building a closed-off drawer in my mind and safely tucking this incident in it.
There are times when it is necessary to wall off emotions or even entire situations. When you’re in a crisis that demands action, whether it be soldiers on a mission or a bystander administering the Heimlich, feelings and extraneous facts are a luxury that cannot be afforded. And even for longer-term mental health, there is often some “putting away” of thoughts and memories that needs to occur to avoid rumination and fixation.
And there are times when compartmentalizing is dangerous, when it is used as a denial tactic, allowing complacency in the face of wrong-doing. Addicts, sociopaths, narcissists and politicians (okay, so maybe that’s redundant:) )are all experts at creating uncrossable lines in their minds that permit them to behave egregiously without having to face much of the internal consequences. When building a mental barricade is effectively walling off the human side of a person.
So how can we tell when it’s healthy to compartmentalize and when it’s healthier to open the gates and face the facts or feelings?
It’s Time to Face It If…
- You’re in denial because you’re afraid to face the reality. This would have characterized me during the end of my marriage; there were some things that felt wrong, but I pushed them away because I was afraid to face them. Here’s the thing with fear – the more you try to silence it, the louder it gets. If you confront it, you take away its power.
- Your walling off of certain things is causing harm to self or others. An example of this would be addict who doesn’t want to hear about their actions while drunk or high because then they can pretend they didn’t happen. Even as their loved ones deal with the consequences.
- The situation is ongoing and needs attention. If you pretend that it’s not occurring, you’re either shifting all of the responsibility to somebody else or allowing it to grow untethered. I see this sometimes with the parents of my students. The child is struggling in school and the parent is in denial of the issue and so isn’t on board with interventions to help.
- You are avoiding thinking about it only because it makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it reveals an aspect of yourself that you would rather deny or highlights a mistake you made. But discomfort (different from pain) is often a sign that there’s something there that needs to be explored.
It’s Time to Compartmentalize If…
- It’s a situation that demands immediate action and clarity of thought. This is the compartmentalization of first responders everywhere. When there is a crisis, tunnel vision is an asset and everything else can be pushed aside to deal with later. Do you want the person performing CPR on you to be busy processing the circumstances that caused your respiratory failure or do you want them focused only on giving you breath?
- The circumstances are not your circus. This doesn’t mean that you cannot have empathy for others, but that you do not take on their burden as your own. I first learned this one while working in a pediatric oncology ward. And that was only one of the lessons those precious children taught me.
- The difficult reality has been faced and the necessary lessons have been extracted. In that case, the leftovers are just a rotting shell that can cause unneeded infection. Divorce often falls into this category. After you’ve dissected what went wrong, assumed responsibility for your role and found acceptance if not forgiveness, there is little benefit to be found in reliving the most painful parts. Put them away.
- It’s old news that you cannot change. If it’s major enough to be of concern, it was probably major enough to change you somehow. And that’s okay. We are influenced by what happens to us, yet we don’t always need to hold onto what happens to us. This is child that faced abuse that now is an experienced marital artist. The abuse is over and done with. The coping strategies realized. There’s no reason to allow the abuse to occupy prime mental territory.
Unhealthy compartmentalizing is avoiding. Denial. It’s being weak and letting yourself be controlled.
Healthy compartmentalizing is prioritizing. Letting go. It’s being strong and deciding who and what you will allow to occupy your thoughts.
As for me, I’ve already laid that poor little turtle’s body to rest. I’m now trying to do the same with my thoughts. And I’ve made a vow to be extra careful surveying the driveway before driving in.