Most of us have heard some sort of metaphor about keeping our personal challenges and professional lives separate such as "keep it in your backpack" or "leave the baggage at home." What these phrases are really referencing is compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is a psychological defense mechanism that helps us manage overwhelming emotions by separating them from other aspects of our lives. There are benefits to being able to compartmentalize, however, compartmentalization is not a healing strategy.
What is Compartmentalization?
Compartmentalization is a coping mechanism that allows us to separate conflicting thoughts, feelings, and experiences into separate mental compartments. This can be a useful strategy in situations where we need to focus on other aspects of our lives despite being emotionally overwhelmed. For example, if you're experiencing a life-changing event such as divorce, you may compartmentalize and suppress those emotions at school in order to do your job and get through your day. Similarly, if we have a negative encounter with a parent before school we may compartmentalize those emotions as we move into working with our class.
However, when we consistently rely on compartmentalization to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, the repressed emotions can create long-term emotional and psychological consequences. We can become detached from our feelings, leaving them unaddressed and hindering our ability to heal.
Compartmentalization as Emotional Denial
Using compartmentalization to avoid confronting emotions can be seen as a form of emotional denial. Emotional denial occurs when we refuse to acknowledge our feelings or accept their validity, often as a way to protect ourselves from pain. This denial can manifest in various ways, such as ignoring or downplaying the intensity of our emotions, numbing our feelings through substance abuse, or engaging in constant distractions to avoid emotional processing.
When we compartmentalize our emotions, we essentially lock them away in a separate mental box, allowing us to continue functioning without addressing the underlying issues. While this may provide temporary relief, it can ultimately prevent us from healing and growing.
The Consequences of Unresolved Emotions
When we fail to process and integrate our emotions, they can linger beneath the surface, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships in subtle ways. Unresolved emotions can manifest themselves in negative ways, including:
Our emotions and physical health are closely intertwined. When we suppress our emotions, we can experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, or stomach issues, as well as decreasing our immune function which may lead to sickness. Difficulty dealing with anger specifically can increase the chance of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (Healthline).
Mental Health Problems
Chronic emotional suppression has been linked to an increased risk of developing mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Healthline).
When we avoid processing our emotions, we may have difficulty connecting with others on a deep level or understanding their feelings. This can lead to strained relationships. We may also hinder other people's healing if we refuse to acknowledge difficult conversations that need to happen for healing.
Suppressed emotions can eventually resurface in unexpected ways, often as intense emotional outbursts like rage or extreme sadness, or unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Emotional Healing: Facing Our Feelings
Instead of relying on compartmentalization to manage our emotions, it's crucial to develop healthier strategies for emotional healing. Here are some steps you can take to process your emotions more effectively:
Acknowledge Your Emotions
The first step in healing is to recognize and accept your emotions as they are, without judgment. Give yourself permission to feel your emotions, understanding that they are a natural part of the human experience. Mindfulness can be a helpful tool in this area as it focuses on recognizing areas without judgment.
Express Your Emotions
Find safe and constructive ways to express your feelings, such as talking to a trusted friend or therapist, writing in a journal, or engaging in creative activities. Also, learn to have difficult conversations (and be receptive to them) with people who have hurt you.
Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can help you cultivate an awareness of your emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. This can allow you to observe your feelings from a distance and develop a better understanding of the root of the emotions and why they are important.
Develop Emotional Resilience
Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt and recover from emotional challenges. You can build emotional resilience by practicing self-compassion, cultivating relationships that are healthy, and focusing on your growth.
Seek Professional Help
If you're struggling to process your emotions on your own, consider seeking the guidance of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can provide you with personalized strategies and support to help you navigate emotional challenges and promote healing.
The Importance of Emotional Integration
Rather than compartmentalizing our emotions and denying their existence, it's crucial to embrace emotional integration. Emotional integration involves acknowledging, understanding, and accepting our feelings as an essential part of who we are. By allowing ourselves to experience our emotions fully and process them in healthy ways, we are more likely to experience personal growth, emotional well-being, and more meaningful connections with others. Compartmentalization can provide temporary relief from overwhelming emotions, but it's not a sustainable solution for long-term healing. By consistently denying and suppressing our emotions, we hinder our ability to learn from our experiences, grow as individuals, and form deep, authentic connections with others.
Healing can feel difficult as we unpack the emotions we've been bagging up, acknowledge and work through them. It takes emotional strength and perseverance to even want to bring on the process of healing by acknowledging emotions that have been relieved by compartmentalization. However, examining our emotions (even the good ones) is a crucial step in our journey toward healing and self-discovery. By cultivating a healthy relationship with our emotions, we can ultimately lead more fulfilling and authentic lives.
Repressing Emotions: 10 Ways to Reduce Emotional Avoidance on Positive Psychology (Attard, 2020)
What Is Compartmentalization & Why Do People Do It? on MindBodyGreen (Regan, 2022)