Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism in which people mentally separate conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences to avoid the discomfort of contradiction.
That uncomfortable state is called cognitive dissonance, and it’s one that humans try to avoid, by modifying certain beliefs or behaviors or through strategies like compartmentalization.
Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings. Other prominent defense mechanisms include denial, repression, and projection, among others. The concept was developed by Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud. Although many Freudian theories have been disproven over time, psychologists still believe that defense mechanisms are a valid construct.
Compartmentalization is not inherently negative—sometimes you need to put one conflict or aside in order to tackle another challenge. But in some instances, compartmentalization can be indicative of a deeper problem.
For example, someone who experienced childhood abuse may not be willing to acknowledge or process the experience as it conflicts with their sense of self. On the other hand, someone might compartmentalize a wrongdoing of her own, such as loving her husband while having an affair with another man.
Working with a therapist can allow people to acknowledge inner conflict and perhaps change their behavior for the better.
In the aftermath of a trauma, people sometimes hold conflicting ideas in their mind. Trauma, as well as addiction, can lead to a psychic architecture built of walls, closets, and closed doors, so that thoughts or experiences can be kept in different “rooms.” A therapist can help the patient understand why their experiences or beliefs are separate and how to connect them to move forward.
For more, see Trauma.
Those with addiction sometimes separate their alcohol or substance use from the rest of their identity. For example, a patient might talk about their alcoholism and later argue that having a few drinks with friends the night before wasn’t bad. But compartmentalizing can create a limited perspective. Acknowledging and confronting addiction does not mean that a person will be defined by it; there are many pieces to an individual’s identity, and integrating them can be key to recovery.
For more, see Addiction.
Compartmentalization can take place in borderline personality disorder, as people tend to engage in black-and-white thinking—a partner is either perfect or terrible, for instance. Borderline is also characterized by an unstable and incongruent self-concept. Research shows that those with borderline tend to compartmentalize parts of their identity—viewing themselves completely negatively or completely positively at one time—more than people with depression and people without a mental health condition.
For more, see Borderline Personality Disorder.
Compartmentalization can be part of everyday experience, especially in situations when life can benefit from a little separation. Some may draw boundaries between work and play; others may make allowances for mistakes and setbacks.
When people are dealing with a number of serious problems at the same time, it can be difficult to maintain focus to accomplish necessary tasks; putting a problem on hold by compartmentalizing can help them take action. Although disengaging with emotions isn’t a long-term solution, it can be a valuable tool from time to time.
Our jobs, particularly high-stress or high-pressure positions, sometimes seem to take over our lives. Compartmentalizing can set boundaries so that you function well at work and enjoy time away from the office.
To do that, recognize that leaving tasks for later or intentionally working after hours lengthens the workday, so try to finish by the end of the day and avoid after-work communication (to the extent that that’s in your control). Deliberately think about work on the commute home, or at the end of the day. When you arrive home or stop working, then allow yourself to completely block out work and use mindfulness techniques to help stay in the moment.
Soldiers, first responders, humanitarian aid workers, nurses, surgeons, lawyers, and therapists for victims of domestic abuse, and journalists on the front lines of war and disaster are among the workers exposed to stress and images that can't be easily forgotten. They spend their days in constant close proximity to suffering.
When the workday involves engaging with other people's trauma, a job can produce acute and dramatic symptoms, called secondary or vicarious trauma. Compartmentalization can play a role in developing self-care strategies, such as mindfulness and meditation, yoga, spending more time with loved ones, walking in nature, reading spiritual texts, listening to music, or taking up a meaningful hobby.
Compartmentalization is one way to reduce cognitive dissonance, but people address conflicting values in other ways as well. Some people might convince themselves they did nothing wrong. For example, if they stole a cab from an elderly lady, they might think, “There was probably another one coming right away.” Others might try to revise their moral values: “I stole that cab, but no one is a saint. We all do bad things sometimes.” This mental effort to reduce cognitive dissonance can be one of the costs of unethical behavior.