Compartmentalize at your own risk

Troubling times, reflected in the tumult we see outside ourselves, and when you feel the same tumult within, you know you are allowing these observations and experiences to touch your heart. And that, my friends, is not a bad thing.

Today I ended up writing about something completely different from what I originally intended. An exploration of trauma bloomed from my head.

Compartmentalizing tragedy and trauma

African Americans experience more stress than their white counterparts. I know this raises hackles, but hear me out. The truth is, it's the same for most subjugated populations that are suppressed by a dominant cultural narrative. Coping while black is a thing. Monica Williams of the University of Louisville refers to this as race-based trauma, or race-based traumatic stress. This phenomenon focuses specifically on the increased stresses that people of color experience due to being unfairly targeted by law enforcement, the constant barrage of violent images associated with black bodies in media and entertainment, etc etc. Feel free to add more examples in the comments.

Hall (2010) used a grounded theory approach to explore the coping mechanisms of black women. In her section about coping, one statement stood out to me:

"...this participant’s coping mechanism provides insight into how most African American women manage stress: ‘‘I try to compartmentalize everything; that way, I manage the priorities. So I put things that are not so pressing on the back burner and sometimes just leave them there."

Indeed, in the days since the shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I have heard many black friends communicate the need or instinct to do just that. Compartmentalize. Move through your day. Because I am still a toddler mother, I can't help but think of the words of Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen, because I have memorized the songs against my will: "Conceal, don't feel. Don't let it show."

I experienced this viscerally, as this was something that my father - a career military man with several active tours of duty during the post World War II occupation of Japan, the Korean Conflict, and in Vietnam - often tried to impress upon me. He felt it was a critical skill to develop in order to survive the " slings and arrows of outrageous fortune " (Hamlet Act III, scene 1, lines 1749-1783). He was convinced that this allowed him to maintain a degree of functionality in the world that he would not otherwise have.

The Risk of Compartmentalizing

There is inherent risk in taking this pathway, and considering our current climate, where social media allows us to repeatedly view traumatic events and talk about them ad nauseum and ad infinitum, perhaps we could all benefit from being aware of this - and for our Black friends and family, even moreso.

Compartmentalization is sometimes considered a subclinical manifestation of dissociation. Dissociation is commonly associated with trauma survivors. Traumatic dissociation has been found to be highly associated with the development of PTSD and depression in rape survivors. Among veterans with PTSD, those with the dissociative subtype reported more severe PTSD symptoms, comorbid depressive and anxiety symptoms, alcohol use problems, and hostility than those without the subtype. Adjusting for PTSD symptom severity, those with the subtype continued to report more depression and alcohol use problems.

Dr. C├ęcile Rozuel discussed the moral threat of compartmentalization in detail in her 2009 paper:

"Even if we can safely store in the back of our mind a particularly negative feeling so that it will not affect our behaviour and perception of self, the feeling remains present and real. We have not dealt with it, we‟ve simply put it aside. We may no longer be affected by this feeling consciously, but our unconscious bears its marks. And it usually happens that one event or one sentence during a casual conversation, sometimes with little or no connection to the situation or the feeling we worked hard to dissociate from, will immediately trigger an uneasiness reminding us that the original feeling remains, notwithstanding the amount of conscious efforts to suppress it. We do not forget because we cannot forget. The most compartmentalized person nevertheless stores all of his or her cognitive and affective experiences in their psyche, whether at the conscious or unconscious level.

Jung examined this phenomenon through the concept of complexes. A complex develops when we have failed to integrate the dual energy of a particular experience or thought. This energy is then captured by an archetype (possibly the shadow which is our primitive, darker side) and remains unprocessed."

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of the school of analytical psychology. During his career he briefly worked closely with Sigmund Freud (1907-1912), but he split with Freud over the significance of sexuality in human life. The term analytical psychology came from his later examinations into the symbolic meanings of the content of the unconscious.

This is getting woo, but stay with me!

Jung cautioned against compartmentalization, because it is an act of making some conscious emotional process unconscious, which can act as a force that splinters the self.

"Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual‟s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions." (p. 76)

Channel, channel, channel

Rozuel argued that "In particular, compartmentalization challenges the possibility to ascribe personal responsibility to an individual and only provides a temporary and superficial relief from pain and distress. More importantly, it limits our ability to connect to our values, to be moral agents, and to act with moral courage and moral integrity."

This last bit struck me mightily.

My personal value, based on past experiences that significantly shaped my worldview in an extremely negative light and led to a lifelong relationship trauma processing, has for the last decade been about unification. Not outwardly, inwardly.

I've purposely been mucking around in all the deepest, darkest, forgotten, forlorn parts of my mind to try to shine a light on the dark parts. Just get to know them. Let them know I see them. Things I once feared, hated, or disliked about myself won't disappear if I try to battle them into submission. I don't want to conquer my demons with force. I mean, I've tried that and it doesn't really seem to end well for any of the parties involved. As above, so below, I suppose - you see that play out again and again in the world, throughout history, and within yourself.

Leshia Evans in Baton Rouge
It is possible that the very act of compartmentalizing trauma and authentic emotion can be an active barrier to participating in social justice efforts. To act with moral courage and moral integrity is the very foundation of what it means to be a social justice warrior. To connect with our values and be moral agents means that we are charged with the responsibility of seeking out those dark parts within ourselves and at least making peace with the purpose that you created them with, either intentionally are not. Coming to peace with these parts of yourself is a way toward nonviolence that tends to be less shaken by external events or complications, because the work is within, and you can pick it up and put it down at any time. My hope is that by doing this shadow work, within, I can externalize these efforts and so become a lantern to help light the way for others to see that this is a way. Not the way, by any means. But ... a way.

Sun Tzu's seminal and essential classic The Art of War has been a great comfort to me. Seriously. For all my social justice warriors out there, for all my friends struggling with anxiety and depression, for all my Black brothers and sisters who are struggling to come to terms with some troubling and earth shaking truths that have existed for some time and are only coming to light now because of the efforts of strong willed individuals, please take a moment to think on these tidbits. The whole book is good, but I know y'all busy.
  • The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. 
  • If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle.
  • The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting.
  • Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
  • Swift as the wind. Quiet as the forest. Conquer like the fire. Steady as the mountain.
Unity with and Respect to all my fellows who are risking so much to help those who are in need, Black Lives Matter, my LGBTQ and Latinx friends and peoples, our Disability Rights Advocacy warriors, and my social justice fam.

UPDATE July 16, 2016

Check out my facebook ramble that contextualizes the blog post a little bit more. And follow milk & equity on facebook for more of that kind of stuff, if you're into it.


  1. This article is really informative and undoubtedly sheds light on many issues that are essential for the development and progress of the nation and the world.


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