If you have no idea what the term: ‘Compartmentalizing Emotions’ means, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of mental illness (and it can be on some levels.)
However, every one of us compartmentalizes emotions to a certain degree.
In a nutshell, compartmentalizing emotions means holding back one set of emotions to achieve a goal, where the first emotions would get in the way if they weren’t held back. Psychologists would argue (and rightly so,) that my definition is far too simplistic. I have deliberately made my interpretation simple because the aim of this article is not to delve too deeply into this but to make it quick and easy to understand for readers who only want to know what it is.
5 Real Examples of Compartmentalizing Emotions
You decide to arrive home in an excellent mood to please your family, even though your working day was terrible and you’d rather go home and show your real feelings.
This example of compartmentalizing emotions is a very typical and real-life kind of scenario. There are countless times when our work day has been utterly horrific, but we arrive at home, and when we are asked how our day went, we just say: “fine.” We then proceed to have a regular evening meal together and take part in the usual home activities.
A couple is at home together. Suddenly, a huge spider makes its presence known by coming into view on the wall at the side of them. Both of them see the spider, and both of them are equally horrified because they both hate spiders. One of them is about to use compartmentalized emotions to overcome their fear and get rid of the spider.
For this example, let’s give the couple names: Dianne and Shaun.
There is the usual discussion over who’ll be the warrior and deal with the spider, and eventually, Shaun decides that it’s going to have to be him.
Shaun feels on edge as he approaches the spider with a glass and a piece of paper that he’ll be using to get the spider outside humanely. He has anxious thoughts about the spider dodging the glass and running over his hand instead. He also has fears about loosening his grip on the paper once the spider is inside the glass.
Shaun decides that the best course of action is to concentrate very hard on the task in-hand to make sure that his mission will be successful.
The moment that Shaun decides to concentrate all his efforts on the task is when Shaun is compartmentalizing his emotions. Shaun has shifted his fears to the back of his mind in favor of successfully removing the spider.
Sarah has three large jobs to do at work today. She has a spreadsheet task involving creating lots of formulas, a lengthy report to write before 5 pm and 25 emails to reply to.
Sarah prides herself on her abilities to multi-task, so she replies to four of the twenty five emails and then moves onto the spreadsheet. After thirty minutes she decides that making a start on the first paragraph of the report would be a good idea so that all three tasks are in a state of progress.
After writing the first paragraph of the report she returns to the spreadsheet and notices that she made an error on her first attempt. Sarah corrects the mistake and then replies to a further four emails.
Sarah’s day continues in this fashion and by 5 pm the report is complete but there are still three emails remaining, and the spreadsheet formulas are less than perfect.
This example is an illustration of not compartmentalizing emotions!
If Sarah had used compartmentalization, then she would have tackled each task separately until each job was completed. Then she would have moved onto the next task and finished that one. Then she would have completed the final task in one single flow also.
Sarah would have worked better by completing the report first as that was the only task with a time limit, being 5 pm. The remaining two tasks could then have been completed with the time-pressure removed from herself. With no deadline looming over her, Sarah would have then been in a more relaxed frame of mind to finish the other two tasks.
Jeff’s working day started great until just after 9:45 am. At 9:48 am Jeff’s wife called him to give him the bad news that a reversing truck had bumped into their car at home. Jeff has lots of work piling up on his desk, and he now has this!
Jeff has every reason to be angry and also stressed. His workload is heavy and he now also has to think about the car damage.
Jeff decides to allow himself some: “anxiety time.”
This anxiety time will be permitted until 10:15 am. After 10:15 am, Jeff will make the decision to face the car issue when he arrives home later, and he’ll concentrate on his work until that time comes.
We can’t all be like Jeff, but some people can be. By compartmentalizing the car damage after his pre-agreed time limit, Jeff manages to get through his working day and even forgets about the car damage entirely until home time approaches.
Cathy has taken the day off work as she’s having a rough time at the moment. A colleague at work is annoying her, her boyfriend fought with her the previous night and her sister has just lost her job. Cathy feels pretty low considering that she is off work, and she figures that she should be enjoying herself instead of thinking about problems all day.
Cathy starts to examine her thoughts and asks herself if staying at home all day thinking about her problems will help her in any way. Can she think her way to improving her work colleague today? Nope! Can she think her way to erasing the fight she had with her boyfriend? No! Can she think her way of getting her sister her job back today? Not likely.
Cathy decides to leave the house and goes clothes shopping, then later she drops by her friend’s house, and they watch old movies together.
Cathy decided to compartmentalize her negative emotions to make her day better. She can deal with work tomorrow and also deal with her boyfriend then too. Cathy can also ask around at her workplace tomorrow to see if there are any job vacancies open for her sister.