How To Compartmentalize Your Emotions And Thoughts

Life is tough for so many people…

We’re locked in a 24/7 bad news cycle that never seems to stop, new beginnings end, tragedies befall us, stresses bombard us, and we have the delicate matter of wading through the messiness of the human condition.

That’s not even touching on circumstances like poverty, mental illness, and trauma.

How can we possibly manage all of that and still find some peace of mind and happiness in our lives?

Compartmentalization is one way to lighten the emotional baggage that we carry.

There are different ways to look at compartmentalization depending on the circumstances in which we are using it.

It can be a way for someone to do something they would normally find objectionable, or it can be a way to better manage and shoulder emotional loads.

Consider a soldier in combat. He may not want to do the things that he is being asked to do, but he puts aside his own feelings and does his job anyway because he doesn’t really have a choice.

People could get hurt or die if he isn’t able to shut down his feelings and do what he needs to do.

A soldier in combat is going to witness some terrible things, things he can’t stop, think, and feel about in the moment. No, he just needs to shut those thoughts and feelings off and keep going.

Even though he’s used compartmentalization as a defense mechanism for survival in that scenario, he will eventually need to go back to that internal container, open it up, sort through and process the contents inside.

His exposure to combat could result in mental health issues, which will likely be made worse if he never goes back through that box of thoughts of feelings and experiences.

That type of compartmentalization makes sense to most people, but it doesn’t seem like something that you’d really use in your everyday life.

It’s not.

Instead, we want to compartmentalize the various goings on of our own life experience to keep them from bleeding over and disrupting other parts of our life.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to go about that.

What is always unhealthy, and will have future mental health ramifications, is just locking emotions away in tightly sealed boxes in your mind.

Those boxes don’t stay closed forever. They start cracking open with an errant smell that sparks a memory, visiting a location where something bad happened, meeting someone that did something awful to you, or your subconscious just starts kicking that information into your dreams to deal with.

Processing that kind of heavy load can be difficult and may require the help of a certified mental health professional.

Healthy compartmentalization, on the other hand, is a tool that we can use in our everyday life to help lighten the heaviness of existence, preserve some of our personal peace, and pursuit of happiness.

What Is The Goal Of Compartmentalization?

The idea behind compartmentalizing your emotions and life is to not give any undue or excessive attention to matters that don’t require it.

You categorize these specific things and stick them into their own box, and you only open that box when you’re actively looking for information, a solution, or you’re dealing with a relevant situation.

In taking this approach, you are training your brain to not dwell on things unnecessarily.

Let’s say Alison doesn’t get along well with her mother. Mom calls her in the morning for general chitchat which devolves into criticizing Alison’s life choices.

Alison has tried reasoning with her mom about her harshness, which just seems to fall on deaf ears.

She doesn’t want to cut her mom out of her life, because she loves her mom, and her mom is generally a good person otherwise.

Alison could let this conversation bother her all day by thinking about it and her frustration with her mother’s actions…

…or she could acknowledge her thoughts and feelings about the situation after the phone call, and then force herself to not think about the situation any further once she was done.

Every time she finds herself trying to go back to thinking about her frustration with her mother, she forces her mind onto a different track by thinking about something relevant that she is moving on to.

Maybe she has work responsibilities or a hobby to focus on. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it is something else.

What she doesn’t do is continue dwelling on and stewing on the interaction she had with her mother.

This type of technique can be used in all facets of your life.

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How Do I Compartmentalize?

The process of compartmentalization is easy to understand, but difficult to master.

Imagine that you have boxes in your mind. Each box is going to contain the thoughts of a specific thing that needs to be handled.

Let’s say Alison is also an entrepreneur and she’s going through a bad breakup. She can follow this process to put these things in their respective compartments.

1. Identify the situations and circumstances that need to be compartmentalized.

It may be helpful to sit down with a notepad and make a list of the situations and circumstances that need to be compartmentalized.

2. Determine what thoughts, worries, and emotions go in each box.

Under each item, Alison would write down any associated thoughts or worries that go along with that particular thing.

She is filling her boxes up with these thoughts and emotions so she knows what belongs where.

3. Determine appropriate times to address the contents of these boxes, if applicable.

Life doesn’t fit neatly in a box, so there will likely be times where you can’t just choose to open up a box and deal with something.

Sometimes you end up needing to deal with those things as they come up.

Like Alison’s mom decides to call randomly, she gets an angry email from a customer about a faulty product, or the ex drops by unexpectedly to pick up the rest of his stuff.

Those kinds of intrusions aren’t always avoidable.

But predictability helps where it is able to be implemented.

Alison can schedule a weekly time to talk to her mother, delete any email apps from her phone and only check her email at a specific time, and work out a time for her ex to come get his stuff.

That predictability means she won’t be opening those boxes when it’s not necessary. She can instead focus on what is currently in front of her.

4. Actually take the time to open those boxes and process the contents.

Once you’ve portioned these things out into their respective boxes, be certain to actually stick with whatever schedule you’ve chosen to sort through them.

Avoidance and procrastination can be a problem when compartmentalizing. Don’t forget about the thing, and don’t avoid the thing. Open and close that box when it is the right time to do so.

5. Work to keep things in their respective boxes until it’s time to deal with them.

This is the hard part.

At first, Alison will find that it is hard to keep these things in their respective boxes or that they can’t fit completely in a box.

She will redirect her thoughts by focusing on something else, like another task she should be working on, something relaxing, or clearing her mind through meditation.

When she’s done handling a box’s contents, she needs to close it and put it away by turning her attention to a different thing. This process trains her brain to use the boxes.

Repeating the practice makes it easier over time and will eventually become as natural as any habit.

Alison needs practice and time – lots of practice and continued effort over time.

And if this type of mindfulness and compartmentalization is new to you, you will too.

Don’t be surprised if it takes months before you start seeing the habits form and feeling the stress-relieving benefits.

But don’t give up! Compartmentalization is a skill that anyone can learn and benefit from.