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The Truth About People Who "Compartmentalize"

The ability to compartmentalize is not something to be envious of, and certainly not a skill to be gained. Compartmentalizing is basically an internal process of putting your feelings toward someone, or some experience, in a metaphorical box, and putting them on a shelf in the back of your mind to be forgotten, or stirred up when something reminds you they’re there. It’s a defense mechanism for some of us who are better at just “moving on” from things, rather than dealing with them head on, or coming to terms with and accepting them.

For me, I personally compartmentalize people. As a person with high expectations for myself and others, I find it difficult to accept when I’ve been hurt by people. So, when this happens, I store these feelings away, and move on with my life. It’s definitely not easy to do, especially when it’s time to compartmentalize someone who we’re very attached to, but many of us are capable of doing it. For those who aren’t compartmentalizers, take my word for it when I say, it hurts, and it’s somewhat self-destructive.

I first learned I was capable of compartmentalizing my feelings when I’d realized how someone used to make me feel, and my best friend reminded me of how relevant that person used to be in my life. We then had this joke where occasionally, she’d remind me he existed, and “push the box off the shelf.” I’d be flooded with feelings for a few days, and then push them to the back of my mind, or “store them back in the box, on the shelf.”

The next time I encountered this was when I was severing a relationship with my former best friend. I carried on seeing her every day, as if we’d never been friends. At the time it was easy, but sometimes thoughts creep into my mind now that it could have turned out differently for us, had I not immediately pushed her out entirely.

I’ve since compartmentalized a handful of people who have caused me pain, and it’s gotten easier to write people off as I’ve gotten older. But like I said, it’s a defense mechanism. When it’s hard to accept being hurt by others, people look for ways to cope, and this is how some people, like myself, go about it. It’s self-destructive in a way; when you are reminded of these people and experiences, there is a brief wave of emotion as you remember the good and bad about them. It’s followed by pain in the memory you’ve put aside, and then fear because you haven’t let yourself come to terms with the experience. Finally, when you’ve gathered yourself, you put those feelings and experiences back where they were, and move on with your day. 

We aren’t cold, and we aren’t emotionless. We’re afraid of being broken by another person. It’s not easy, but we do it.