According to the Oxford dictionary of languages, compartmentalization ”the division of something into sections or categories.”
When we talk about compartmentalization in the field of Psykologi the term ”compartmentalization” usually involves the sectioning off of (conflicting) feelings, persona’s and identities.
Compartmentalization according to Crisp (2011) can be a way to deal with conflicting social identities (e.g mother, lover, co-worker) and deal with them only in a context-dependant matter (e.g the role of co-worker will only be used at work and the role of lover or parent will generally be used most at home).
Relationship to the self
A person can also use the technique of compartmentalizing in order to keep their self-image intact. Self-representation is the image that one has of oneself, in one or several roles. In order to keep disstress and anxiety at bay, compartmentalizing ones’ feelings and roles and temporarily tucking them away will help to quench ones desires.
Dark sides of compartmentalization
Compartmentalization as a form of coping or defense mechanism can be used to rationalize unwanted, even bad behaviour. Well-know situations in which compartmentalization plays an insidious role are affairs. For more information about compartmentalization and self-image, read our blog on playing hard-to-get, which features an example in which both concepts are united.
Role in flirting & affairs
In the beginning, compartmentalization allows a person to flirt and maybe even conduct an affair. Seperating roles of loving spouse and secret lover can be easily done.
After a while, it is not uncommon for cracks to appear in the walls of compartmentalization.
“The woman I was having an affair with said something that reminded me of my wife and in that moment everything came crashing down. I was drowning in guilt and self-hatred. I became light-headed and thought I was going to pass out. Now all I kept thinking was, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” ~Jonathan, 44 (Nicastro, 2019).
Compartmentalizing behaviour like this can be the result of trauma, but this is not necessarily the case. Healthy way of compartmentalizing can lead to a productive and happy life. Without it, it would be very hard for police officers and other first-responders for example, to do their job and do it well.
If you feel like you’re using unhealthy ways of coping and compartmentalizing, a professional therapist may be a good way to help you uncover these mechanisms and help you change them.
- R. J. Crisp, The Psychology of Social and Cultural Diversity (2011) p. 16 and p. 39
- R. (2022, June 29). The Dark Side of Mental Compartmentalization. Richard Nicastro, PhD. Retrieved 19 August 2022, from https://richardnicastro.com/2019/03/05/the-dark-side-of-mental-compartmentalization/