What’s the difference between compartmentalizing in relationships and in business, and is it a helpful trait for both areas of life?

Back in my twenties, I had a friend who had mastered the art of compartmentalizing his life. He was laser-focused in whatever scenario was presented. At first, I admired his ability, but then realized he was quite guarded. I thought compartmentalizing was a great way to be organized and present in every situation, but the guarded quality as a means to the compartmentalizing felt too detached.

Psychology says compartmentalizing is a defense mechanism or coping strategy that allows our mind to deal with internal conflicts simultaneously.

We group our emotions into pockets of our life depending on what situation we are in or whom we are spending time with. While this may be helpful for those dealing with trauma or grief, compartmentalizing can be used adversely to numb out experiences and avoid sensations.

On the positive side, compartmentalizing when grounded can work well to promote focus so long as the person using this technique communicates their intentions well. However, compartmentalizing relationships can be harmful to the person being put into a “box.” The person being compartmentalized, especially when they are looking for friendship from the other person, may interpret the compartmentalization as acts of narcissism and insensitivity.

Some Signs to Watch Out For In Relationships:

  • Your partner isn’t ready for a committed relationship.
  • They have plans with you when it is convenient for them and are not flexible with your schedule or needs.
  • They are emotionally unavailable and create barriers around themselves to avoid any kind of intimacy.

Compartmentalizing in business can be quite helpful. For instance, a doctor who sees patients all day decides to not think about their patients at home. Work is left at work; therefore, the person can be completely present in their home life. In extreme cases, soldiers may have to file away their trauma from horrifying events so they can continue on with their jobs. However, in this case, compartmentalizing is simply pushing down memories that will eventually come up again.

There are times in a work-office setting where compartmentalization techniques can be helpful in preparing for important meetings or presentations while balancing stressful issues at home.

For instance, I completed some of my best work when I was in crisis at home with a sick child. It may seem like a contradiction, but when I was at work and knew I could only focus on work, I was able to be laser-focused. Work gave my mind a break from the intensity of home, and I welcomed the distraction.

A Few Ways to Achieve Positive Compartmentalizing in Business:

  • Isolate and focus only on what is right in front of you for short periods of time.
  • Move forward in specific incremental steps. When progress is being made, “close the door” and move on to another task.
  • Say “no” to requests or items that don’t apply to the specific areas of focus you are working to achieve.

There will always be times in our lives when we need to compartmentalize in order to achieve goals or perhaps to protect ourselves or to get through a tough time. In business, this can work well when there’s no emotional attachment. However, when it comes to personal relationships, I’d err toward honesty and be aware of when you are being unattached or guarded because these reactions come off as selfish narcissism. And, as for my friend who was so good at compartmentalizing, that friendship ended a long time ago. Compartmentalizing to the point of guardedness simply doesn’t work for me. If relationships don’t help you glow, it’s time to let them go.

By Shelley Karpaty