Some people are waffles, and some people are spaghetti. My friend Michelle says she’s spaghetti, and she means that her grief, her joy, her mundane, her sublime are all intertwined. On the other hand, I am a waffle. All of my emotions fit neatly into little squares like melted butter mingling with a spot of Waffle House sugar-free syrup. My grief, my joy, my mundane and sublime all go into their ascribed boxes to deal with later. Compartmentalization is both good and bad.
The good: compartmentalization helps us cope. When bad stuff happens, we can stick it in a box and deal with it later. It keeps our emotional fields from flooding and allows us to think clearly.
The bad: it can keep us from being truly in touch with our emotional lives. It blocks self- knowledge and stunts emotional growth.
Imagine if the mother carries around her baby and he never has the opportunity to scoot across the floor or do the army crawl, or cruise around the living room? What if he never has the chance to pull himself up on the coffee table or the sofa? The baby won’t learn how to walk. He won’t build any strength.
That’s what happens when we compartmentalize too much. When we overuse the technique to avoid the negative emotions, we inadvertently hamstring our emotional development. Pretty soon, we are not only numb to negative emotion but all feeling. Even the good ones that we want to have.
Denying our emotions doesn’t work. “No, it’s fine. I’m fine.” Really? Sure. F.I.N.E. F’ed up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. Denying the feelings prevents an authentic life. If we want to be happier and live more whole heartedly, we have to deal with our emotions.
Here’s what I do: I practice awareness of how I’m feeling both emotionally and physically. Where is the emotion showing up in my body? For me, sadness tightens my throat, fear makes my belly hurt, stress tightens my low back and empathy makes my heart ache. When these physical signs show up, I will breathe deeply, focusing my attention on the area affected.
Emotions are electrical impulses in the brain. We can’t control them. They trigger thoughts. We can control those. Get it? We may not be able to control the first thought but we can control the next thought. Sometimes we need help with that next thought, and that’s where humility comes in. Reaching out to a trusted friend or asking in prayer for help will work.
It has for me.
Just for today
I will use my compartmental powers for good, not for avoiding unpleasant emotions. I will practice mental and physical awareness. When I recognize that I’m under emotional stress, I will not go it alone. I will breathe and reach out for help.
God, help me to remember that you gave me the ablity to compartmentalize as a way to cope under stress and not as a way to avoid character building. Grant me the strength to work through fear, anger, frustration and grief. Remind me that I am never alone. Show me your presence through the love of the people in my life.