I was in a moment praying a while ago, asking for wisdom and guidance, and a weirdly specific and innocuous image came to mind:
Insulation. Styrofoam peanuts. Bubble wrap.
Random, right? Perhaps not.
For what does insulation do?
Insulation keeps things safe. It stops breakage. It temperates climate. It is a protective mechanism – and for an incredibly good reason: things can be fragile and require protection.
Likewise, people can be fragile and require protection.
As much as I am loathe to admit, at times I can be fragile and require protection.
I am grateful for the people, rituals and things that have provided protection and safety to me over the years. The styrofoam image reminded me to give thanks again for when I have been given shelter and respite amidst past storms and hard seasons.
But the thought also came to mind:
What also does insulation do?
It quietens. Deadens.
Insulation dilutes and muffles sound, keeping the subject from stuff, as well as away from danger.
When we build walls up for protection, the walls often keep other aspects of life out too.
Compartmentalisation & Why it isn’t Always Cosy
If you were to get me to detail my strengths, compartmentalisation would be near the top of my list. It is a weird thing to be proud of, I know. But I am quite adapt – or at least practiced – in the art of compartmentalisation, where things that are unresolved or painful exist, but you put them in one space of occupancy, and you continue on in other areas.
Maybe it’s a forced skill developed out of circumstance, but it is well practiced, habitual and often automatic now. “Where does this part of life belong?” – Over there. And it does not, shall not, need to invade other areas, as I need to continue working/adulting/parenting/friending. The compartmentalisation acts as an insulation, a styrofoam packing around areas which are painful, stressful or just exhausting, so we can continue ‘lifing’, as it were.
It can look like resilience. It can look like maturity in the way that we are prepared to be ok with the ‘grey of life’ without resolution. It can look a lot like survival and ‘coping’ in the face of the challenges of life’s strains and stress. It can look like tolerance when people disagree with us or come from a different place of value or belief, conviction or worldview.
The compartmentalisation can look like ‘being ok with the tension’ – but in actual, honest, reality – this process may also be protective mechanisms masquerading as acceptance, manifesting in procrastination and distraction.
Instead of facing – and perhaps risking being made immobilized or emotionally disabled by aspects of reality that are tender, overwhelming or just heavy in their impact, you spend shameful amounts of time in mindless pursuits, so you do not have to engage with real tension, anxiety, or pain – hello scrolling social media, hour-sucking-embarrassing-phone games, online shopping, self-soothing with food, alcohol, exercise, netflix, intimacy, or insert-other-vice-here. This is what compartmentalisation can – and does – look like on a bad day.
Nor should we berate ourselves for needing protection, self-soothing or comfort however: the world is full of stimuli and triggers, both good and bad, that can remind us of current or historical pain and trauma. We need to switch off and zone out at times. Soothing is ok. Self soothing is ok.
But I think it’s ok to name the process for what it actually is. Keeping-on keeping-on is costly.
Furthermore, compartmentalisation can also look a heck of a lot like pride. There is a not-insignificant pride in me in the fact that I have been able to put things aside and ‘keep moving forward’ in my life. “I am strong”, I tell myself. Others have said it too. And as much as I would infinitely prefer having not to be strong ‘all the time,’ the by-product of having to do it is that at least you can take pride in the fact that you have been strong.
But this pride kinda smells of a shadow side to ‘keep on keeping on’, where we participate in putting things in their own boxes, not allowing different elements in our live to meet or touch each other. Here are reasons why compartmentalisation can stink:
Its impact on other people.
There have been numerous times when my friends and family have been hurt by my compartmentalisation. It manifests in forgetfulness, or pragmatism that feels dismissive – or judgemental, when people do not, or cannot, behave like I do, and soldier on amidst their sickness/stress/pain/grief/insert-life-trouble-here. The pride I mentioned earlier that I feel in my own success of keeping on is projected as judgement to others who can’t, or are ‘choosing not’, to ‘do better’.
I am further ashamed to admit that my dearly loved ones have often been the unfortunate victims of my anger towards them in this respect. At signs of their (perceived by me) ‘weakness’, I lash out in judgement and frustration, when they are perhaps living more authentically than I am in that moment, whether it is a burden of illness, emotional frailty, or just life-fatigue – much (read: most, all) of which is not their fault.
This isn’t helpful. For anybody.
Its impact on me.
Resilience and and compartmentalisation is always good when it is that, resilience in the face of trial, or the ability to bounce back following impact.
But it is not good when it is brittleness, rigidity masquerading as resilience. When your protective mechanisms have become so naturally occurring and habit-induced (even if it is out of necessity) that we automatically protect ourselves against something that may even be good for us – something to learn, adjust, grow, benefit from, be graced by – because we’re afraid of it hurting us, because we’re practiced at disappointment, because we don’t have the energy to think of what it will require from us to engage with – that is a bad thing.
In the fear, exhaustion, anger, judgement, we deflect, we disengage, we self-soothe, we distract, we give lip service to, we support efforts of engagement with/for other people, all the while just grateful that we can shift attention away from our own choice not to emotionally engage – that is all bad.
Like a child hiding a broken figurine from his mother for fear of judgement, we hid broken parts of ourselves from others (and more importantly, from ourselves) in an attempt to deliver us from judgement. But our refusal to embrace and integrate our past is a recipe for greater personal, relational and social pain. Hoping for peace and wholeness in the world while ignoring our own divided and contradictory parts insures that we don’t have peace in the world, in our families, and in our churches (and I would add, our workplaces, our schools, our communities, our societies).Villodas, 2020 p.104, parenthesis mine.
I love this quote from Rich Villados. He speaks of the need to embrace all the parts of us. To stubbornly refuse to integrate the reality of who we are as people leads to discord in ourselves and in the world.
I had a sense the other day that parts of my life that I longed to be ‘well’ in, aspects of my life that feel stagnated, stale, spiky, stilted (insert any other alliteration here) in – they weren’t going to be well until I acknowledged just how far my compartmentalisation practice has actually shaped me, and perhaps ill-shaped so. I’m grateful for the times that insulation has protected me. But maybe it’s time to practice the art of integration and not necessarily being fine with self soothing, deadening, quietening those parts of me that I am ashamed and even angry about.
For here is the shadow side of compartmentalisation (as a mechanism of resilience). The protective mechanisms that have been so good at keeping bad things out,
keep good things out as well.
I don’t want to be so well protected that I dismiss aspects of my life that would be healthier if given space to breathe – even if it feels a little ugly at the time. I don’t want to be so well practiced at compartmentalisation that I dismiss and judge others whose ‘flailing’ inconveniences – or disgusts – me. I’m suspicious that those aspects of my own life so currently well protected will bring fruit – eventually – if I work through them with the support of friends, therapy, and in my own story, God.
Here’s to unpacking that which has become stagnant. Here’s to kindness and grace for others – and ourselves – when we can’t always have a clean compartmentalisation.
Villodas, R. (2020) The Deeply Formed Life. Waterbrook, Random House.