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Can Compartmentalizing Ever Be a Good Thing?

Actually, yes — it’s good to put your feelings aside sometimes. Just make sure you didn’t place them in a locked box that you threw out to sea

Superheroes are great compartmentalizers. At any given moment, Clark Kent would push his feelings aside, change clothes in a phone booth, save Lois Lane and go back to being a journalist without even a hint of emotional vulnerability. 

So why is it that when he does this, it’s considered heroic, but when I do it, I’m considered “repressed” and “emotionally unavailable”? 

I’d say that this hardly feels fair, but like the good compartmentalizer I am, I already put that feeling in a box and buried it.

And yet, contrary to everything we’re told, emotional compartmentalization “can be a positive skill to cultivate,” says psychotherapist Steven Rosenberg. In fact, Rosenberg has often used compartmentalization to help clients reduce their professional and personal resentments and achieve their goals. To that end, he’s found that compartmentalization helps to reduce stress, which, in turn, helps lower blood pressure. “This reduction in stress allows us to accomplish positive things in life,” he explains.

Compartmentalization also can give us a welcomed sense of control and raise our self-esteem, according to Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice. “Using all of our best efforts on one particular topic at a time will allow us to feel accomplished, give us the tools to measure our progress and will give us more positive reinforcement to continue the positive behavior in the future,” she tells me. 

Along those lines, athletes compartmentalize to make game-winning plays, ER doctors and nurses compartmentalize to make life-saving decisions and we all face stressful situations that are better handled by temporarily putting our emotions aside. The problem is, most of us fail to complete the process of unpacking those emotions in therapy, at the gym or with family and friends later on. And when we continue to power through, it can lead to disconnection, isolation, anxiety, depression and plenty of other mental-health issues. 

The key, then, is learning how to compartmentalize and cope in the right amounts.

When You’re Compartmentalizing Too Much

Emotional exhaustion is a clear sign here. So if you start to feel flat, withdrawn or devoid of emotions — especially in situations that are emotional for everyone else (e.g., loss or grief) — it’s a big indicator that you’re reaching maximum emotional capacity. All of which can cause sleep issues, irritability and emotional outbursts, as well as emotional eating, drinking and other numbing behaviors. ​​“When we push painful thoughts, feelings or memories away or over-compartmentalize, we can see them pop up somewhere else,” psychologist Rebecca Leslie explains.  

Likewise, too much compartmentalization can make you appear more mentally rigid and inflexible, because you’ve become so dependent on feeling in control. “This may be evidenced by difficulty shifting topics and hyperfocus in one area while neglecting others,” Rice tells me.

What to Do About It

Chronic compartmentalization is nothing to mess around with, and because of the link between repression and depression — to say nothing of post-traumatic stress disorder — Rosenberg recommends getting professional help. Particularly, he suggests Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR, which was developed to help soldiers decompress after returning from war to help with visualizing whatever emotional event they compartmentalized and desensitize them to it. Or as Rosenberg puts it, “By visualizing the trauma in your mind and seeing yourself close a curtain to obliterate it from your view, you’re closing down the deep emotion in the subconscious.”

If you’re not ready for military-grade decompartmentalization, free guided meditations that specifically focus on scanning the body for stored stress and emotions may be a better place to start. 

When You’re Not Compartmentalizing Enough

The tricky thing about compartmentalization is that people who don’t do enough of it have a lot of the same problems as people who compartmentalize too much. However, instead of building to a point of breakdown, those who aren’t good compartmentalizers are generally more erratic at a baseline level. “They can’t stop worrying or letting go of negative thoughts,” neuropsychologist Alexander Burgemeester says. Another hallmark of the under-compartmentalizer is a lack of productivity combined with a seemingly paradoxical sense of constantly being overwhelmed. 

What to Do About It

Since under-compartmentalizers struggle to endure being in the moment, Rosenberg recommends mindfulness exercises that are more easily executed in stressful situations than a full-out meditation session. For instance, when faced with a stressful situation that you can’t be emotional about as it plays out, simple visualization techniques, like literally putting a thought or emotion in a box, can help.

Rosenberg stresses, however, that when doing this visualization work, it’s important to be aware of your breathing and take slow, intentional breaths. From there, make sure to put only one emotion into a box at a time. Case in point: If you lose your temper at home because of work stress, your feelings about work and family go in different boxes. Once you do that, set aside a few minutes after everything has settled down to look at these items and write down what you compartmentalized. Finally, cross off things you can’t control. It seems small, but as Rosenberg notes, people too often fill up their emotional storage space with things they can’t do anything about. 

When It’s Just Right

There’s obviously no scientific test or scan for stored emotions in the body, and as a result, therapists like Burgemeester cannot be absolutely sure if every compartmentalized emotion needs to be unpacked, analyzed and felt. Still, they know enough to not recommend repression as a long-term solution, and significant emotional events almost always cause mental and physical problems when left unattended. 

All of it, though — whether it’s in the long-term or the short-term — involves remaining present. Sometimes that means compartmentalizing; sometimes it means taking a quiet moment to look at what’s been packed away. Who knows, maybe taking a minute to think about his feelings in that phone booth was Clark Kent’s superpower all along.