Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism used by people to avoid dissonance and anxiety in everyday life, including at work, home, school, and in relationships. When overused or used unconsciously, it can be a maladaptive coping strategy that prevents people from processing their negative experiences. There are many ways to restructure your responses to dissonance and stress, including radical acceptance, journaling, and professional help.
What Is Compartmentalization?
Compartmentalization, a term coined by Sigmund Freud, is a defense mechanism, which is a strategy the psyche uses to avoid feeling anxiety, especially related to internal conflicts.1 With compartmentalization, the person separates feelings or thoughts that contradict each other into different “compartments” in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that arises when a thought or feeling we have starts to contradict a different thought or feeling that we are also aware of.2
Compartmentalization in Everyday Life
People compartmentalize frequently in their everyday life to avoid the stress and anxiety associated with conflicting thoughts or feelings, often in different areas, such as work, school, family, and other obligations.
To better explain compartmentalization let’s look at some examples in everyday life:
Compartmentalization in Relationships
We may use compartmentalization in relationships if we are trying to manage cognitive dissonance related to our partner. While this can help us avoid minor conflicts that may not be worth fighting about in a long-term, committed partnership, it can be a real problem in courtship or dating. The purpose of dating is to evaluate a potential partner to see if they are a good long-term fit for us. While we are getting to know someone, we may learn things about them that we don’t like. We can be motivated to eliminate the cognitive dissonance by taking the distressing thought or emotion and locking it away in a compartment, which helps us preserve a positive image of the other person. This is often what people mean when they later say “I ignored the red flags when I was getting to know them.” Typically, the person is not ignoring the flags, but rather compartmentalizing them. Keep in mind that this can happen in all relationships, including with friends and family.
Some examples of compartmentalization in relationships include:
- Disagreeing about politics: If you disagree with your partner’s politics, you may choose not to think about it and avoid talking to them about that subject to preserve a positive relationship
- Disagreeing about friendships: If you disagree with your partner, parents, or friends about whether you should be friends with another person, you may avoid the subject altogether to avoid conflict
- Attitudes towards pets: If the person I have been dating for 6 months, who I believe myself to be in love with, turns out to be mean to my new dog, I may compartmentalize this experience to stay in the relationship and avoid interactions between the two of them
Compartmentalization in Politics
You may have experienced compartmentalization in politics, as many people frequently do. If you typically support and vote for a particular political party but, during an election cycle, that party espouses a policy that is likely to severely reduce your financial stability, you may experience cognitive dissonance. While you may agree with the rest of the policies and overall messaging, at this time, you have become aware that one of their agendas may cause you significant economic harm.
This often leads you to experience cognitive dissonance, in which you will either have to change your mind on which party to endorse, or decide that the economic harm is not going to be bad enough to outweigh the reasons you support the party. A third option would be to put the financial aspect out of your mind completely–compartmentalize it–and continue to support your usual political party.
Compartmentalization at Work
The demands of work can also encourage compartmentalization when we need to focus on being productive and block out personal stressors or distractions. People often feel distracted by personal thoughts or feelings they need to set aside to get work done. Another way of compartmentalizing at work is by developing “ego states,” such as one’s “work self” and “home self.”3 For example, an athletic coach may have a “coach persona” that is very tough and stern; they may yell at athletes during games and push them to exhaustion in practices. However, they may drop this “coach persona” at home and opt for a softer and relational demeanor with their spouse and children.
While this is typically helpful, for some, it could become part of a pattern of engaging in questionable behaviors while in certain roles. For example, if part of the “coach persona” is going out with other coaches after a game and drinking excessively, they may justify that as “what coaches do,” even if it conflicts with their “home self.” In this way, compartmentalization helps us avoid acknowledging that what we do in one context may still matter in other contexts.
Compartmentalization in Psychology and Mental Health
Sigmund Freud identified compartmentalization as a way that the psyche avoids making connections between pieces of information when that connection would be distressing.4 Freud believed that this defense develops in children between the ages of 18 months to 5 years, and that people continue to use it into adulthood. While many mental health professionals nowadays do not identify as Freudian, they tend to define compartmentalization in the same way Freud did.
Non-mental health professionals may describe compartmentalization slightly differently, but essentially both groups conceptualize it as pieces of information sealed away in compartments to avoid distress. Unhealthy uses of compartmentalization can lead to avoidance of important issues or problems, as well as self-destructive behaviors, which is what therapists and clients seek to address and change in therapy.
Does Compartmentalization Happen After Trauma?
Compartmentalization can also be a defense mechanism used to manage traumatic experiences. Often after something traumatic has occurred a person has upsetting thoughts or feelings that are painful, which can be compartmentalized so that they don’t have to be experienced as frequently. Unfortunately, if these experiences and the associated thoughts and feelings are not processed therapeutically, they can be “triggered” into awareness accidentally. For example, if you compartmentalize the intense fear stemming from a life-threatening car accident, you may be able to continue driving to work every day; however, you may also be triggered by the sound of someone slamming on their breaks, which often leads to the compartmentalized emotion to resurface suddenly and cause severe distress.
Another way that trauma survivors compartmentalize is by sealing away conflicting information about their trauma. For example, if you are sexually assaulted, you may compartmentalize the helplessness experienced during the assault to preserve your self-esteem. If you normally think of yourself as a strong person, but you suffer an assault during which you could not defend yourself, you might compartmentalize those feelings of helplessness to avoid feeling “weak.” While this can help in the short-term, it tends to be detrimental in the long run, as the things stored in compartments are capable of coming out unintentionally.
Do People Compartmentalize as Part of Addiction?
When a person is suffering from an addiction, they are eventually going to do things that go against their beliefs, values, morals, relationships and commitments, which often leads to cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization. Someone struggling with addiction may jeopardize their career, ruin their finances, and cause their families agony as a result of their illness. These consequences, and the thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame that accompany them, must be sealed in a compartment in order for the person to continue to pursue their addiction. However, because the person is still the same at their core, they continue to value their job, love their spouse, want financial security, and see themselves as a moral person overall. This is the benefit of compartmentalization to the individual; it can allow both sides of them to exist.
Part of the successful treatment of addiction is reducing a person’s capacity to compartmentalize in unhealthy ways, so that when they start thinking, feeling, or acting in ways that contradict their values and beliefs, they can feel and act on the anxiety and dissonance. Reshaping these thought patterns is central to stopping the addictive behavior. Many addicts report a phase in recovery where they connect to the painful feelings associated with their previous behaviors and marvel at how they could have done so much damage to their lives, which is often explained by their defense mechanisms, including compartmentalization.
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Is Compartmentalization Ever Healthy?
While some may use compartmentalization as a negative coping mechanism, compartmentalization can be helpful. Essentially, when we have things we need to do, but our current emotional state interferes with the task, it can be helpful to compartmentalize that feeling temporarily in order to be productive. If done consciously and sporadically, compartmentalizing can be adaptive to facilitate productivity and better functioning. We all have bad days on the personal front and need to be able to set those issues aside to perform at work, but it is important that once the work day is over we can return to the thoughts and feelings that we put into the compartment. Otherwise they can be repressed, and then tend to come out in other ways subconsciously, often with unintended negative effects.
Some examples of healthy compartmentalization are:
- Medical personnel performing their job duties; for example suspending physical and emotional empathy during painful procedures (i.e., your surgeon could not make the incision to remove an appendix while staying closely connected to feeling your fear or physical pain), etc.
- Military personnel compartmentalizing their fear and trauma on the battlefield in order to be effective soldiers
- Compartmentalizing frustration from an argument with one’s spouse so that you do not take out your anger on your co-workers once you get to work
- Setting anxiety about a work project aside and opting to play video games instead, as a way to calm your mind.
When Is Compartmentalization Unhealthy?
Defense mechanisms like compartmentalization can become problematic when they are over-used and become reflexive. When we are unaware of what we are doing, and do it much of the time, it can turn from an adaptive strategy to a problematic one. In general, compartmentalization is best when you know you are doing it, you make a decision to use it for a short period of time, and you don’t use it all the time. It is important to come back to the thoughts and feelings later and process them in order to avoid the change from a positive coping mechanism to a negative one.
Some examples of unhealthy compartmentalization include:
- A husband compartmentalizing his love for his wife so he can flirt with a colleague, which could hurt his marriage and conflicts with his self-image
- A physician compartmentalizing all of their empathy and emotion towards patients, which could negatively impact their bedside manners
How Else Do People Cope With Cognitive Dissonance?
Compartmentalization is just one of many ways people cope with cognitive dissonance. People can lean on negative coping mechanisms, like displacement or rationalization, or find healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with cognitive dissonance, such as addressing the root of your dissonance as it occurs. For example, if I believe in environmentalism, but find out the company I work for has poor environmental policies, I could approach the management and make suggestions to change some of those policies to be more pro-environment, or quit my job in favor of one that aligns with my beliefs.
Other adaptive behaviors to cope with cognitive dissonance include:
- Adjusting behavior or expectations to reduce the dissonance
- Radical acceptance
- Cognitive reframing
Non-adaptive ways to cope with cognitive dissonance include:
Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance in a Positive Way
Compartmentalization was conceptualized as an unconscious defense mechanism, which means that oftentimes, we have compartmentalized our dissonance and may not be aware that it exists. The goal of therapy when dealing with compartmentalization and unconscious behavior is simply to help you understand the distressing thoughts or feelings you are trying to avoid and which defenses you are using at a given time, to then make a decision about whether or not that defense is working for you. Therapists and other mental health professionals can help you identify when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance and discuss ways in which you can work to reduce it in a way that won’t make you feel overwhelmed.
In this case, the therapist can help by gently confronting the compartmentalization in a safe space and bringing your awareness to the thoughts or feelings that you are keeping out of reach. Once you identify those thoughts and emotions, you and your therapist will be better able to work together to create more positive strategies. You can find a therapist a number of ways: via your trusted social circles, insurance, or an online directory. If you are compartmentalizing as a result of addiction, make sure to find a support group near you, or find an online support group to join.
The world is a stressful and complex place where we’re bound to feel overwhelmed, so it is only natural that people develop coping mechanisms to navigate their lives. While compartmentalization can be healthy when used in moderation and with intention, over-compartmentalizing, or doing so unconsciously, can be detrimental to one’s growth. If you find yourself in that situation, try to be compassionate and remember that your psyche is just trying to manage difficult and conflicted thoughts and feelings. There are many ways to cope with trauma, stress, and dissonance, such as journaling, addressing the causes of your dissonance and anxiety, and getting professional help.