NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, August 15, 2016

How Compartmentalization Can Be Used As a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy in Therapy

Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism that is usually discussed in negative terms.  Used as a unhealthy coping strategy, compartmentalization is usually used to avoid feeling the discomfort of conflicting thoughts or behaviors that are contrary to one's values or beliefs (see my article: Living Authentically Aligned With Your Values).

How Compartmentalization Can Be Used as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy in Therapy

There are many examples of how compartmentalization can be used to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

So, for instance, an otherwise ethical person might use compartmentalization to deal with conflicting feelings about cheating on her taxes.

Another person, who is usually loyal, might compartmentalize his guilty feelings about an extramarital affair.

But a healthy form of compartmentalization can also be used as a short term coping strategy to help you get through a difficult time.  The emphasis is on short term because as a long term coping strategy compartmentalization usually backfires, which I will discuss in the first fictional vignette in this article.

To a certain extent, most of us compartmentalize as a temporary coping strategy whether we realize it or not.  Just like many defense mechanisms, compartmentalization on a short term basis, can help you get through certain experiences in life temporarily so you don't feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Most of us have had the experience of having to put certain disturbing issues on the back burner temporarily to focus on what's pressing at the moment.

The alternative to putting certain issues on the back burner would be to try to cope with all your problems at once, the most pressing and the least pressing, all at once.

Not only would this be psychologically exhausting, but it doesn't work.  Trying to focus on everything at once means that you're not really focusing on anything with any degree of attention or clarity.

Fictional Vignettes
Let's look at two fictional vignettes.  The first one is an example of an emotionally unhealthy way of using compartmentalization and the second one is an example of a healthy way of using compartmentalization as a short term coping strategy.

Vignette 1:  Compartmentalization As An Unhealthy Coping Strategy
Bob was happily married, successful in his career and he had many friends.

Most people who knew Bob, including his wife, children, other family members, friends and colleagues, thought of Bob as being a loving, smart, friendly, responsible and practical person.

Their view of Bob was based on the wholesome way he lived in most areas of his life--except for one that they didn't know about:  His secret compulsion to gamble.

Not only did Bob keep his compulsive gambling a secret from those who were close to him, but he kept his own emotions of guilt and shame compartmentalized within himself to avoid feeling uncomfortable that he was engaging in behavior that went against his values and his beliefs.

Compartmentalization as an Unhealthy Coping Strategy

His compulsive gambling was a split off part of himself, like a modern day "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide."

This compartmentalization was not like having a split personality where the different aspects of a personality aren't known to the core personality.

The compartmentalization was more like a form of dissociation:  When he was gambling, he was fully immersed in that activity and he didn't allow himself to think of the negative consequences for himself and his family.  And when he was with his family, he didn't allow himself to think about the compulsive gambling.

This strategy helped him to avoid feeling the emotional conflict of behaving in a way that was shameful to him.

But after a particularly bad losing streak where Bob lost most of the family's savings and he was unable to meet his next mortgage payment, his worlds collided in a devastating way.

He felt the full negative impact of the guilt and shame that he was trying to avoid when he was faced with talking to his wife and children about his devastating loss.

Aside from dealing with his family's shock, anger and disappointment, Bob felt so emotionally overwhelmed that he considered suicide.  But when his wife's anger and sense of betrayal cooled off to the point where she could speak with him, she gave him an ultimatum:  Either get help or she would divorce him and take the children.

Shortly after that, Bob came to individual therapy to start picking up the broken pieces of his life and he and his family also participated in family therapy.

Vignette 2:  Compartmentalization as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy
Alice was going through an emotionally challenging time in her life.

She was trying to cope with the care of her elderly mother, who was partially disabled as a result of a recent stroke; her husband's recent job loss, and helping her son through the college application process at the same time that she was starting up a new business.

Compartmentalization as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy

Several months ago, when she began taking steps to start her own business to provide coaching to people who wanted to improve their public speaking skills, her life had been going fairly smoothly.

But within weeks, her husband was laid off from work, her mother had a disabling stroke and her son needed a lot of her attention choosing a college.

Initially, Alice felt so overwhelmed and emotionally paralyzed that she considered abandoning the development of her new business and going back to her old job just to have stability in one area of her life.

At the same time that Alice considered going back to her old job, she felt the full weight of how disappointing it would be for her to give up a long held dream that she was on the verge of accomplishing.

She talked to her husband and sons as well as close friends to get help with her decision.  But she got conflicting messages.  Her husband and sons encouraged her to persevere with her goals, but her close friends told her to play it safe and go back to her former job.

Not sure which way to go, Alice started therapy to get help.

After learning basic coping strategies, including breathing exercises, meditation and other self care strategies, Alice felt that she had a lot more clarity about her situation and she was able to mobilize herself.

She looked into her mother's insurance and discovered that they would pay for several hours of a home attendant's services. After talking to her siblings, they agreed to pitch in to help with the mother's needs.

Alice and her husband talked about their financial situation, which was good.  Her husband also felt confident that he would get another job with a former boss or, if not, he would use his extensive network of colleagues to find another job.

He encouraged her to go for her dream and not delay any further.  He also told her that he thought she could go back at any time to her former employer, who would love to have her back, if her business didn't work out.  In addition, he agreed to take a more active role in helping their son with the college application process.

As a result, Alice began the process of developing her new coaching business.  She designed a website and she began making contacts to market her business.

But every so often, even with her newly developed coping strategies, Alice felt overwhelmed, especially about not being more active in terms of her mother's care.

She talked about her feelings in her therapy, and her therapist helped Alice to see that her feelings that she "should" be doing more to help her mother were part of older issues in her family where family members were overly dependent upon her, even when she was a young child (see my article:  Working Through Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now" in Therapy).

Alice and her therapist both agreed that, since she already had so much going on now, the current time wasn't right for her to work on her earlier unresolved trauma.  They agreed that they would put this issue on the back burner for now and her therapist would help her to temporarily compartmentalize her feelings so that she wouldn't be overwhelmed by them.

Whenever Alice began to feel guilty and ashamed about not doing more for her mother, she reminded herself that these feelings were based on her past (then) and had nothing to do with the present (now).

Whenever she did this, and sometimes she did it several times a day, Alice was able to put aside her worries and focus on developing her new business.

Alice used this short term coping strategy of compartmentalization until her life calmed down:  Her husband got a new job, her mother made progress in out patient rehabilitation to be more independent, and her son completed the application process.

After her life calmed down and after she began to get referrals for her business, Alice's therapist told her that she thought Alice was ready to deal with the early unresolved emotional trauma.

At that point, Alice asked her therapist why she needed to deal with it at all.  She felt she could continue to remind herself whenever she felt guilty or ashamed that this was related to her history and not to her life now.

But her therapist reminded Alice that using compartmentalization in this way was only a temporary strategy so she wouldn't become emotionally paralyzed.  It wasn't going to resolve her problem.  Sooner or later, there would be another life event that would trigger these feelings and it would be best to work on resolving the old trauma.

Her therapist talked about how soldiers who are in battle learn to compartmentalize their emotions so that they can be effective at the time.

But if these soldiers continued to compartmentalize their emotions once they got back from battle, they could develop serious emotional problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  This is why they need to get help in therapy to deal with the trauma of war--so that it doesn't have a lasting negative impact on their lives, including getting emotionally triggered, anxious and depressed.

Similarly, Alice needed to work through the unresolved childhood trauma so that she wouldn't continue to get triggered in her life.

By that point, Alice trusted her therapist and they began to use effective trauma treatment modalities, including EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing to help Alice to overcome the unresolved trauma (see my articles:  Somatic Experiencing: Tuning Into the Mind-Body Connection and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

By the time she completed, Alice worked through her unresolved trauma and she was no longer triggered by difficult life events (see my article: Psychotherapy to Overcome Unresolved Childhood Trauma).

Compartmentalization as Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy

She was glad that she was able to put aside the emotions that were paralyzing her so that she could eventually work through her childhood trauma when she was ready.

Compartmentalization, like most defense mechanisms, is a form of denial.

If it is used as a long-term strategy to avoid uncomfortable emotions associated with thoughts and behavior that contradict important beliefs and values, it will eventually backfire, as it did for Bob in the first fictional vignette.

When compartmentalization is used as a short term coping strategy with the understanding that the dissonant emotions are temporarily being placed on the back burner until there's a better time to delve into them, it can be an effective strategy under the guidance of an experienced mental health professional who can provide support and teach other coping strategies.

Depending upon a client's emotional state and what's going on at the time, an experienced psychotherapist can assess when it's the right time to work on resolving the problem so that a client doesn't get stuck avoiding it (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're feeling overwhelmed and you're having difficulty coping with your emotions, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist who help you in therapy to develop the necessary coping strategies and, eventually, when you're ready, to work through the problem (see my article:  How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than using denial as a permanent strategy to deal with uncomfortable emotions, get psychological help so you can eventually work through your problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients in my private psychotherapy practice to work through their problems to lead a more fulfilling life.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.