Compartmentalization (psychology)

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Compartmentalization is a form of psychological defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict are kept separated or isolated from each other in the mind.[1] It may be a form of mild dissociation; example scenarios that suggest compartmentalization include acting in an isolated moment in a way that logically defies one's own moral code, or dividing one's unpleasant work duties from one's desires to relax.[2] Its purpose is to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self-states.[3]

Psychoanalytic views[edit]

Psychoanalysis considers that whereas isolation separates thoughts from feeling, compartmentalization separates different (incompatible) cognitions from each other.[4] As a secondary, intellectual defense, it may be linked to rationalization.[5] It is also related to the phenomenon of neurotic typing, whereby everything must be classified into mutually exclusive and watertight categories.[6]

It has been said that when thinking about death people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in a mode of denial and acceptance about it, but they both have the result of making the thinking individual very passive.

Otto Kernberg has used the term "bridging interventions" for the therapist's attempts to straddle and contain contradictory and compartmentalized components of the patient's mind.[7]


Compartmentalization may lead to hidden vulnerabilities related to self-organization and self-esteem[8] in those who use it as a major defense mechanism.[9]

Social identity[edit]

Conflicting social identities may be dealt with by compartmentalizing them and dealing with each only in a context-dependent way.[10]

Literary examples[edit]

In his novel, The Human Factor, Graham Greene has one of his corrupt officials use the rectangular boxes of Ben Nicholson's art as a guide to avoiding moral responsibility for bureaucratic decision-making—a way to compartmentalize oneself within one's own separately colored box.[11]

Doris Lessing considered that the essential theme of The Golden Notebook was "that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalise. 'Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love...'".[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Compartmentalization". APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. 2020.
  2. ^ "Medical Dictionary". Farlex and Partners. 2009.
  3. ^ Leary, Mark R.; Tangney, June Price, eds. (13 July 2005). Handbook of self and identity. Guilford Press. pp. 58–61. ISBN 978-1-4625-0305-6.
  4. ^ Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (2011) p. 135-6
  5. ^ McWilliams, p. 200 and p. 136
  6. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 286
  7. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2009) p. 42
  8. ^ Ditzfeld, C. P., & Showers, C. J. (2013) (2013). "Self-structure: The social and emotional contexts of self-esteem. In V. Zeigler-Hill (Ed.), Self-esteem (pp. 21–42). Psychology Press". Retrieved 2022-05-04.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. ^ J. W. Reich et al, Handbook of Adult Resilience (2012) p. 192
  10. ^ R. J. Crisp, The Psychology of Social and Cultural Diversity (2011) p. 16 and p. 39
  11. ^ G Greene, The Human Factor (Penguin 1978) p. 38
  12. ^ Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. 10