What Is Compartmentalization & Why Do People Do It?
The mind is a complicated thing, and when we're dealing with conflicting thoughts and emotions, it can go so far as to compartmentalize. While not always a bad thing, compartmentalization can become an unhealthy coping mechanism in everything from our relationships to our careers.
Here, we're unpacking what compartmentalization is, why people do it, and how to know when it's becoming unhealthy, according to experts.
What does it mean to compartmentalize?
Compartmentalization by definition is "the division of something into sections or categories," and in psychology, it refers to the "division" of certain thoughts and emotions in order to avoid conflicting beliefs and/or mental discomfort.
A common example is the way we all compartmentalize certain parts of ourselves—whether thoughts or emotions—at work versus at home, setting aside family concerns out of mind while at the office so we can focus on our professional tasks, and vice versa.
As neuroscientist and bestselling author Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., tells mbg, compartmentalization occurs when someone sets aside certain emotions that they feel unable to deal with, with the opposite of compartmentalization being "integration and alignment in your purpose with brain (logic), heart (emotion), and gut (intuition)."
Or at the very least, notes licensed therapist Lair Torrent, LMFT, the opposite of unconscious compartmentalization can look like cultivating your awareness of this mental "split" when it's happening. It is, he notes, often an unconscious strategy of the psyche to avoid anxiety around internal conflicts.
Compartmentalization is common in relationships when we try to put certain thoughts aside in order to make the relationship work. For example, you may have once said you would never date someone who didn't share the same political beliefs as you but then conveniently make an exception when your partner says something you don't agree with.
As clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, compartmentalization is often used in relationships in the hope that the problem will go away, though this usually only leads to a buildup of resentment.
And while sometimes compartmentalization is necessary to a degree (which we'll touch on later), by and large, it can create a toxic relationship when leaned on in excess, because you're inadvertently—or sometimes even consciously—avoiding the truth about what you think or how you feel.
Additionally, Swart tells mbg, "People with personality disorders such as borderline or narcissism tend to have less empathy for others, so they can compartmentalize the impact of their actions on others even if they have caused them harm."
In the workplace:
Most of us have likely experienced compartmentalization through work. As Torrent explains, think about the "you" that shows up to work: You probably lean on certain traits more than others to better serve you while you're working, or maybe you put aside your more argumentative streak, act friendlier than usual, etc.
"There is a specific part of your personality that comes out when you perform the tasks related to your job. Your work self probably has a distinctive feel, maybe even a specific way of thinking," Torrent says, adding, "This part of you moves in the world in a particular way that might feel different from other sides of you that show up in your personal life."
In daily life:
Cognitive dissonance, or "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change," is bound to come up in our daily lives from time to time. And when we can't handle cognitive dissonance, sometimes we compartmentalize as a defense mechanism.
As research in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass notes, there is evidence that "Compartmentalization is associated with several indicators of a defensive, fragile self, such as contingent self-esteem and unstable self-evaluations." The study authors add that individuals who are like this are also likely to "engage in defensive processes that enhance or protect the self."
So, in daily life, think of any time recently you've tried to preserve your sense of self following an instance of conflicting thoughts or beliefs. One ubiquitous example of compartmentalization is the way humans compartmentalize animals for food, versus animals as pets. As research in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policies explains, people have a number of "justifying beliefs" used in order to avoid any "negative emotional outcomes felt when eating meat."
Signs that someone is compartmentalizing:
According to Torrent, people who are compartmentalizing often get trapped in denial about obvious problems. As Swart adds, they may avoid talking about an issue with their friends and family, preferring to completely ignore it.
Rationalizing certain things
Another common compartmentalization tactic is rationalizing problematic behavior or conflicting thoughts. This is often seen in addiction, Torrent notes, explaining that people with substance abuse problems may continue to rationalize their usage as "not that bad" to justify the behavior.
Different behavior in different settings and/or with different people
Sometimes compartmentalization is necessary to get a job done or deal with a particular person. Again, this is often seen in workplaces, Torrent notes, such as a tough boss who is then sensitive at home.
Causes of compartmentalization.
It's important to note that everyone has the capacity to compartmentalize to a degree, and particularly when you're dealing with extenuating circumstances, according to both Swart and Torrent.
"The reality is, everyone compartmentalizes to some degree, every day, all of the time," Torrent explains. However, he adds, "Within addiction, narcissism, and trauma, these individuals tend to engage in behaviors that go against their values, beliefs, relationships and morals, which often leads to cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization."
Addiction is especially pertinent here, because it is often accompanied by guilt and shame. Both of those feelings (even outside the context of addiction) must be "locked in a compartment of their minds," in order to avoid them and any subsequent change, Torrent tells mbg.
In the case of trauma or PTSD, however, compartmentalization is an effective defense in managing the thoughts and feelings associated with traumatic experiences. "After a trauma, either systemic or acute, upsetting memories are often compartmentalized as the nervous system attempts to reach equilibrium," Torrent explains, adding, "If, however, these experiences are not de-compartmetalized, brought out, and then processed therapeutically, they can be activated or 'triggered' causing the sufferer to cascade into a post-traumatic stress response such as a panic attack or overwhelming anxiety."
We'll also note here that there is evidence that the male brain may be more inclined to compartmentalize. As clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D., previously wrote for mbg, there's an area in the frontal lobes of the brain called the ACG, which helps you shift attention and recognize errors. Higher activity in the ACG "increases the tendency to get stuck on negative thoughts or negative behaviors and to see what is wrong rather than what is right," he explains—and that increased activity is more commonly observed in the female brain.
When is compartmentalization healthy versus unhealthy?
Compartmentalization can be useful when you're dealing with a particularly difficult time. As Swart tells mbg, "Sometimes compartmentalizing is healthy if we need to carry on with the day job and demands of life, but there is something troubling in the background."
That doesn't mean, however, that it won't eventually need to be dealt with. "Through time and maybe with the help of a therapist, the issue needs to be integrated for full healing," Swart adds.
In addition to healing, there is something to be said about excessive worry. As Amen explains, if you're unable to compartmentalize, "busy brains and associative thinking powers kick in, which means one worrisome idea quickly connects with others to build momentum that can snowball out of control. The worry that is so useful in small doses can stress [you out] to the point where it hurts the brain and body and won't allow for rest."
To that end, Torrent says, compartmentalization, when done with awareness, can be healthy and adaptive. "When someone is attempting to learn something new, going out on a date, or giving a big presentation, many feel fear, lack of confidence, and a paralyzing sense of being a fraud. Without awareness, we can become trapped in that fraudulent state," he explains. But when you can recognize the tricks your mind is playing and "move out of that aspect of our minds and into 'parts of self' that might be better suited to the task at hand," you're compartmentalizing in a positive way.
Ultimately, the biggest key here is cultivating awareness to recognize when and how you're compartmentalizing. "Then we can take responsibility for our conflicting behaviors and work to healthily deal with the anxiety they provoke," Torrent says.
Is it healthy to compartmentalize?
Compartmentalization can be a healthy defensive strategy when dealing with trauma or PTSD, and even when we're in situations that require us to tap into different aspects of ourselves. However, these things will eventually need to be addressed so as to not create an excess of internal conflict and tension over time.
What causes someone to compartmentalize?
There are many reasons people may compartmentalize, from trauma to addiction to certain personality disorders. However, everyone has the capacity to compartmentalize, and research suggests it is ultimately a defense mechanism used for self-preservation and avoiding cognitive dissonance.
Do people with PTSD compartmentalize?
Yes, it is not uncommon for people dealing with PTSD to compartmentalize the trauma they've dealt with in order to function. Over time, though, their underlying issues will need to be addressed.
Compartmentalization can happen anytime, anywhere. While it may not be totally avoidable, the best thing you can do is notice when you're doing it. And though there are instances when compartmentalization is necessary, and even a skill, it is virtually always best to integrate your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a consistent, intentional way.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.