For years I was putting my negative feelings in a box. Here’s what I should have done instead
by Lucy Xie
For years I thought the secret to success was the ability to Marie Kondo your emotions and organize them into neat little boxes. Each box has a label such as “Career” or “Side hustle” and can be stored away in a dedicated space in your mind. If one box is too messy and causing stress then it can be put away for the moment. There is no spillover to the other boxes. I always thought that mastery over organizing your mental boxes was key to getting ahead.
This idea of compartmentalization as a skill became further entrenched when I was an entrepreneur and the line between work and life blurred. The media offered tips on how to develop this skill. By systematizing your compartments, you can apply hyper-focus to each one and solve the top challenges at hand. The combination of compartmentalizing and prioritization helps you to achieve incremental gains in every area of your life. At least that’s what I thought.
Looking back, I was always a bit slow to overcome setbacks. As a child, I would be upset for a week after getting a low grade. In adulthood, this manifested as having to take a day off because a report did not meet certain standards. In these moments my inner voice, guided by what I had read and heard, would ask me to put the negative feelings in a box and store it somewhere out of sight.
Recently, I had another episode where the contents of one box overflowed. My career was seemingly about to take off with a potential job offer but at the last minute it fell through. Sitting on the bedroom floor after taking the call, my mind went blank. Time stood still and the rush of disappointment paralyzed me and my ability to do or think about anything else.
It didn’t matter that there are other opportunities out there or the fact that just moments prior, I had reached a new milestone with my side projects. This was the perfect scenario to flex those compartmentalization skills I had seemingly developed over the years, but I just couldn’t do it.
“I’m not very good at compartmentalizing,” I said to my husband after being left alone for a good half hour. His response felt so random at first that I almost dismissed it.
“You know how we talk about diversifying our income streams? Well, why don’t you diversify your happiness streams?”
That night I slept terribly. In my dreams, I went through all the things that had gone wrong to result in losing the job offer and the ways to salvage the situation. In the morning I woke up and signed up for a webinar about writing. I began taking notes down and getting so excited to advance my side projects that I temporarily forgot about yesterday’s rejection. I looked over to my husband because it suddenly hit me that his words had sunk in.
Compartmentalization is an innate coping mechanism
The American Psychological Association defines compartmentalization as a defense mechanism that allows us to overcome conflicting thoughts and feelings and cope with incompatible realities. For example, my day job requires that I uncover ways to encourage online shopping while my personal life is bound by frugality.
To see this innate ability as a skill for success is like saying that the better you organize your wardrobe, the more stylish you’ll become. If you wanted to develop a sense of style, organizing your wardrobe is a defensive strategy because it saves you time in the future from not having to trawl through a mess to find items for an outfit. You don’t become stylish just because you can organize.
You may be able to recall a moment in your life where you were forced to compartmentalize. Bob Iger, ex-CEO of The Walt Disney Company, recalled the saddest day in his career in his semi-biographical book about leadership. Moments before the momentous ribbon-cutting at Shanghai Disneyland, he made a call to the parents of a two-year-old boy who had been fatally attacked by an alligator at Walt Disney World.
Bob Iger is a great leader and it’s not because he can compartmentalize. To read it that way is, in my opinion, to misunderstand what he was trying to say. He had no choice that day. His agency was demonstrated in acting quickly to call the parents of Lane Graves. He also chose to continue with the ribbon-cutting in Shanghai as part of his obligations as CEO which demonstrated integrity.
Your brain is wired in this way to protect you and allow you to function. You’re neither good nor bad at it. You just are. The ability to compartmentalize means you can create psychic barriers to protect yourself from the stress of conflicting thoughts. This is not the same as having a long-term strategy for emotional resilience. You also need to play offense.
Diversify your happiness streams
There’s a simple exercise that life coaches love to use to get people to think about their lives. It’s called the Wheel of Life and it helps you to assess whether aspects of your life are being neglected and then come up with actions towards a more balanced existence.
You can adapt this to identify which areas of your life give you the most happiness. Compare that with how you currently spend your time to get a sense of which happiness streams to develop.
The additional activities I’ve added to my happiness wheel like drawing and mentoring are low-cost but high-reward. The feelings of satisfaction and self-worthiness generated last hours after the initial investment of time. For this reason, things like shopping or watching movies, while pleasurable, do not feature on my happiness wheel.
When comparing the two wheels it becomes clear that I need to carve out time for even more diversification, and I should probably spend more of it with my husband! Practically speaking, it also means being strict and saying no to things that don’t allow me to develop my happiness streams such as working overtime or watching YouTube videos for hours at a time.
Extra streams of happiness can act as a buffer when things go awry in a dominant area of your life. After having a frustrating day at work and feeling defeated, doing some art later that night can restore a sense of identity and self-worth.
In this example, you’re playing defense and offense. Your ability to compartmentalize creates a barrier to help you leave work at the door but it is your active choice to draw something that helps you switch from feeling negative emotions to positive ones in another context. Diversifying your happiness streams means you’re never relying on any one thing to give you a sense of fulfillment.
Make time to work through your emotions
Playing offense is not strictly about escapism. Putting negative feelings in a mental box momentarily and doing something else can be a helpful distraction. It becomes potentially harmful if the box is shoved out of sight and not brought back out to be processed. A psychologist in Texas calls this dark side of compartmentalization “secretive-escapism”. Think of a loving husband who cheats or someone hiding their addiction.
At some point, you will have to work through your negative emotions. Playing offense can help by providing a meaningful respite in the form of something that actively restores your emotional equilibrium. In my earlier example, writing for a couple of hours generated enough self-esteem that I was able to revisit my rejection from the “dream job” and look at it from a more objective standpoint. Only then was I able to realize that I was punishing myself when it was really just a matter of not being the right fit for the role.
By doing activities you can rely on as sources of happiness, you can bring yourself back to a place where you are strong enough to deal with the negative emotions in the box.
This has been a game-changer for me. I used to drown in a sea of negative self-talk or try to contain the toxicity in my mind. Now I utilize my mental capacity like Marie Kondo organizes people’s homes: there are always spaces that hold the potential for happiness and fulfillment.