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Understanding "Emotional Compartmentalization" and How It Can Affect Our Lives and the Lives of Those You Love
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for "Emotional Compartmentalization" is an emotional coping technique or defense mechanism that most of us use in certain situations to one degree or another at some point in our lives.

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 during battle.

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
Emotional Compartmentalization

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 country."

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, or both.

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."

Recommended Reading:

Riding The Waves of Change

How To Beware of Emotional Vampires


The Washington Post

The New York Times

Across The Great Divide (A Blog)

Masters of The Art: A Fighting Marine's Memoir of Vietnam

The National Center for PTSD

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

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