It involves consciously or subconsciously suppressing or
"compartmentalizing" or "sectioning off"
upsetting thoughts and emotions in order to justify engaging
in certain (sometimes questionable) behaviors.
One extreme example of emotional compartmentalization, which
can also be considered a sort of "emotional tunnel vision,"
involves OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). An OCD sufferer
who washes his hands in the bathroom sink from a dozen to
hundreds of times a day for weeks on end may never clean the
bathroom itself, and may barely even notice just how dirty
his bathroom is becoming over the course of time.
Such a scenario might not make much sense to an outside observer,
but within the emotionally compartmentalized mind of the obsessive
hand washer, it actually follows a certain kind of logic.
Why is this the case?
The OCD sufferer experiences such a powerful compulsion to
wash his hands repeatedly that this particular compulsion
consistently overrides any of his other competing drives,
impulses or desires (including his desire to have a clean
bathroom in which to wash his hands).
Soldiers are compelled to emotionally compartmentalize
A Marine's Story: The Need for Emotional
Compartmentalization in Times of War
Another example of emotional compartmentalization involves
a phenomenon discussed by numerous soldiers and marines in
their memoirs and oral accounts of what is required of them
(emotionally speaking) to engage in warfare.
Many of them speak of psychologically preparing for battle
by temporarily storing away all of their feelings, fears,
anxieties, anger, and sadness into little "mental boxes"
or "psychological compartments."
This coping technique enables soldiers to focus one hundred
percent of their intellectual and emotional energy on the
incredibly difficult (and often emotionally traumatizing)
task at hand: engaging in a battle in which they may be compelled
to take the lives of others, or they may be severely wounded,
or they may even be killed.
Obviously, this coping device serves a clear purpose during
battle, because if a soldier were to allow himself to fully
experience his fear while actively engaged in combat, he might
become emotionally paralyzed and unable to fight.
However, while emotional compartmentalization can sometimes
serve as a necessary coping device within a certain context,
it can often also have some very serious and far-reaching
consequences for an individual later on in life. For instance,
a marine or soldier who manages to use this technique to great
effect during battle may become quite literally overwhelmed
by his emotions later in life, a frightening experience that
can sometimes contribute to (and/or be a symptom of) combat-related
post traumatic stress disorder, (a complex psychological
condition that previous generations referred to as "shell
shock" or "combat fatigue").
What Bill Clinton Can Teach Us About
Perhaps the most well known "emotional compartmentalizer"
in recent history is President Clinton, who famously seemed
able to emotionally "stash away" his thoughts about
his inappropriate behavior with Monica Lewinsky somewhere
in his mind, while simply proceeding with governing the country
(and being married to his wife.) When everything started to
unravel, and all the secrets started to come flooding out,
Americans from all political parties had to take a step back
and wonder exactly how such a brilliant, capable man could
make such a grave error in judgment.
Well, a person who can engage in such dangerous, potentially
self-destructive (and, in Clinton's unique case, nearly impeachable)
behavior, while simultaneously going about his usual day-to-day
business as if nothing is wrong, is not only a classic emotional
compartmentalizer ... he could actually be described as
a "master" of the craft.
Many articles were written analyzing the president's thought
processes and behaviors during that time, including an insightful
1998 piece in The Washington Post by Clinton biographer
David Maraniss, in which the author examines some of the possible
root causes of the president's behavior, dating all the way
back to his troubled childhood.
As the anonymous writer of a blog called "Across
The Great Divide" succinctly puts it in his September
28, 2006 entry: "Bill Clinton famously compartmentalized
his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, convincing himself
his relations with her were neither sexual nor related to
his performance as president. He did not convince much of
The blogger then goes on to write, "Compartmentalization
is a useful coping mechanism for politicians. It allows an
individual to focus despite a welter of conflicting demands,
anxieties, behaviors and beliefs that might otherwise be distracting,
if not disabling."
President Clinton famously struggled with emotional
compartmentalization while in office.
But you may also recall that a few of the articles about
the Clinton scandal made reference to yet another "emotional
compartmentalizer" who also played a key role in that
sordid little moment in history ... and it wasn't Monica,
who, by way of contrast, tended to wear all of her emotions
right on her sleeve, rather than tucking them away.
Rather, it was Linda Tripp, the woman who first brought the
story to light, and who had pretended to be a mentor and confidante
to Monica by offering her false empathy on the phone ... while
simultaneously taping all of their conversations in order
to later betray her, as part of what some might consider to
be a morally ambiguous means to an end.
What makes Tripp another "emotional compartmentalizer"?
Well, if she did ever feel any genuine sympathy for this
21-year old, emotionally immature woman who had admittedly
gotten herself mixed up in what would eventually turn out
to be the biggest sex scandal of the era, then Tripp, who
clearly felt she was serving the greater good, was certainly
able to "store away" whatever feelings of compassion
and sympathy she may have ever felt for Monica in order to
"out" the president for his wrongdoing.
It's All a Matter of Degrees
Of course, there are times when all of us feel compelled
to compartmentalize or store away our emotions in order to
carry out difficult tasks.
For instance, you may have a longstanding fear of public
speaking, but you may also have a job that sometimes requires
you to give speeches. In order to carry out that particular
part of your job, you have probably discovered a variety of
ways to temporarily store away your fears and anxieties when
you are called upon to speak in public.
But, as with most coping mechanisms, it is when people start
to rely too heavily on "emotional compartmentalization"
that it can become a problem in their lives and in their relationships
with their loved ones.
After all, there is a very heavy price to be paid for extreme
emotional compartmentalization, as you can see from the example
of combat veterans, some of whom end up sacrificing their
post-combat emotional health for the emotional compartmentalization
that they must utilize during battle just to survive.
And of course, there is the very dramatic example of Bill
Clinton, whose powerful proclivity for emotional compartmentalization
could have ended up costing him his presidency, or his marriage,
So, bearing all of this in mind, if you are close to someone
who seems to engage in an excessive amount of emotional compartmentalization,
please stay vigilant, and always be prepared to protect yourself
and your feelings if necessary.
In closing, in his blog entry about emotional compartmentalization,
the author of the "Across The Great Divide" blog
includes a wonderful quote by Sharon Salzberg, a Buddist teacher
and the author of a book called Lovingkindness:
The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
At first glance, this quote may appear to be directed exclusively
to students of Buddhism, but it actually could also apply
to any of us who are seeking to live lives filled with compassion,
truth and integrity. Here it is:
"In order to live with integrity, we must stop fragmenting
and compartmentalizing our lives. Telling lies at work and
expecting great truths in meditation is nonsensical. Using
our sexual energy in a way that harms ourselves or others,
and then expecting to know transcendent love in another
arena, is mindless. Every aspect of our lives is connected
to every other aspect of our lives. This truth is the basis
for an awakened life."
The Waves of Change
To Beware of Emotional Vampires
New York Times
The Great Divide (A Blog)
of The Art: A Fighting Marine's Memoir of Vietnam
National Center for PTSD
The Revolutionary Art of Happiness