The ability to let things roll off your back is usually a good thing. To be unphased by inconsiderate drivers, rude staff, or gum on the bottom of your shoe can make you less prone to stress and healthier overall. There’s a point, however, when this goes too far. 

What are the dangers of compartmentalizing emotions?

Compartmentalization is a mental defense mechanism where a person effectively avoids unpleasant feelings or memories by suppressing them. They don’t get processed, much less addressed. Repeatedly doing this over the years can lead to emotional numbness or detachment, which isn’t conducive to healthy emotional well-being. 

Eventually, these suppressed thoughts will burst, and the flood of unpleasant memories can be overwhelming, especially if a person isn’t used to processing negative feelings. As a result, they may turn to substance abuse or other unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to numb themselves. They may also have a mental breakdown, displaying erratic behavior, suicidal thoughts, or drastic mood swings.

That’s the grand scheme. Compartmentalizing emotions can also have disastrous consequences on interpersonal relationships and mental health as a whole. 

1. Increased stress

Compartmentalizing negative experiences can be a heavy burden for the subconscious mind to bear. The cognitive load can be stressful to maintain, and stress has a plethora of real-world health consequences like heart issues, anxiety, or depression.

2. Lack of emotional resilience

Someone whose primary means of dealing with unpleasantness is to avoid it will lack the necessary skills to regulate their emotions. Highly emotional events like losing their job, breaking up with a romantic partner, or experiencing the death of a loved one put them at heightened risk of the emotional wall they’ve put up comes crashing down.

3. Poor problem problem-solving & conflict resolution skills

Like the lack of practice in regulating emotions, people who habitually compartmentalize bad experiences tend to be unequipped for confrontation. Once they mentally tuck away an unpleasant interaction or occurrence, it’s easy to numb themselves and pretend it never happened. And there’s no need to address a problem that never happened, right? While few people enjoy it, sometimes confrontation is a necessary part of life. This can especially be a problem for interpersonal relationships or dealing with conflict in a professional setting because rather than finding solutions, problems are avoided and left unaddressed.

4. Difficulty maintaining relationships

On that note, compartmentalizing one’s emotions can be a death sentence to a relationship, whether romantic, platonic, or professional. These people tend not to express their feelings or share their concerns. It’s not something most people want in a friend or a romantic partner. This tendency can create distance and misunderstanding in relationships. They may also appear to be emotionally distant, disinterested, or closed off, which makes it challenging to forge meaningful connections with real depth.

5. Risk of emotional outbursts

Just because a problem isn’t acknowledged, it doesn’t mean that it goes away. More likely, the opposite will happen, and unresolved emotions will intensify over time. When these thoughts eventually come to the surface (and they usually will), the emotional response will likely be much more intense than if it had been dealt with when the experience happened.

6. May cause mental health disorders

Compartmentalization is a mild form of disassociation. Extreme instances of compartmentalization could result in an individual developing dissociative disorders or personality disorders, where a person’s identity is splintered as a means to manage bad or unpleasant experiences.

Compartmentalization examples in:

A romantic relationship

Good: Being curious whether your partner plans to propose soon but resisting the urge to investigate the square-shaped box tucked away in their sock drawer.

Bad: Ignoring when a partner says something opposing a moral or political belief that’s important to you.  

The Workplace

Good: Not thinking about personal problems while at work, to better concentrate during working hours.

Bad: Convincing yourself that inappropriate comments made in the workplace were just a joke. 

Everyday life

Good: Setting aside worries about a work deadline to be emotionally present at family dinner time.

Bad: Getting a notice of overdue payments and hiding the letter somewhere or throwing it away.

Is your ability to compartmentalize a potential risk?

Sometimes compartmentalization is healthy — even beneficial. However, there’s a point where it transforms from being able to focus on what matters and ignoring little things for the sake of the big picture to an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with stressors. 

If you find yourself struggling to face emotional challenges, it could be worth talking about with a mental health professional. Together, you can determine if this tendency crosses an unhealthy line and, if so, how to safely deal with it.