How many times have you found yourself in the midst of struggling with a personal issue but had to force yourself to shut down those thoughts and feelings to take a test or give a presentation? Or went to a dinner with friends or family and failed to spend quality time with them because you were stressed about a conversation you just had with your boss at work? Every day, our schedules tend to conflict with our own inner monologues and subconscious agendas. This conundrum has resulted in the falsely desirable concept of compartmentalization.
To compartmentalize is defined as, “to separate into isolated compartments or categories.” It’s what society, and more importantly we, tell ourselves we should be able to do with our lives. Keep personal and work life separate, make sure your head is in the game, don’t let your problems interfere with the task at hand…sounds simple enough right? Wrong. In reality, unless you are a sociopath, it’s nearly impossible to compartmentalize our lives in a healthy way that is conducive to long-term success. Sure, you might be smart and tough enough to manage, but isn’t that exhausting after a while? What if you didn’t have to? Read on to break the compartmentalization myth.
Let’s Break It Down
The emotional and mental stressors we encounter in our lives are kind of like little thought monsters. They represent each of the areas demanding your attention: they’ll pester, nag, yell, and create quite the ruckus in our minds. It’s an ongoing inner dialogue, “I hope that report was good enough to impress my boss…I wonder what Anna thinks about me, she seems like she doesn’t like me…oh no, did I remember to cancel dinner with Michael? He’ll be so disappointed.” The combination of several monsters competing against one another makes your headspace even more chaotic.
When we attempt to compartmentalize our life, it’s the equivalent of taking those little monsters and locking them away in their cages. However, just because our conscious selves decided we wanted to shut the door on the monster, doesn’t mean the monster is willing to cooperate. While we’re trying to focus on the next task or conversation, the little monster is brewing and boiling in its cage, rattling the bars until we give it attention again. In the worst cases, the little monster will break free and retake center stage, ruining our ability to focus on what we actually want to in that moment.
While we may not be able to adjust our schedules to accommodate the thought monsters, we can adjust our approach to navigating life with them. Instead of fighting our mental monsters, we should be training them. Sure, there will be days when things get out of hand, but a few days here and there are preferable to constant, daily stress.
Many thoughts can coexist in a healthy manner if we train ourselves to react and process them in a less isolated way. Instead of viewing our thoughts as able to be switched on or off, we should view each one as being equipped with a dial so we can adjust its volume. At times certain streams of thought deserve a higher volume than others. We must truthfully acknowledge the level of rationality of our thoughts and empower ourselves to let them ebb and flow in our headspace. The thoughts will come and go as they please. But we have the power to adjust our internal volumes and determine the power we choose to give them.