Okay, so when we look at Sam Fisher’s life, we see a lot of unpleasant things(spoilers ahead). Double crossings, assassinations, dirty deeds while deep undercover, the (supposed) death of his only child, the death of his best friend at his hands. Lots of nasty, dark things. Even if all those bad things didn’t happen to him, the man spends extended time behind enemy lines, undercover in stressful situations, killing and interrogating people for a living. Sure, one gets desensitized to that sort of thing over time, but it still weighs heavily on a person, I don’t care who you are or how bad you think you are.
So what does he do? What does anyone do in that kind of situation?
Well, despite all this, it isn’t until the death of his daughter that Sam finally starts to sink into depression. He has always had a bit of a dark personality, and dark humor, but he was an efficient and stable soldier until her death. Even when spiraling out of control from that, he still maintains his skills, and gets his job done. The answer to how he accomplishes this is…
Compartmentalization is a mental survival mechanism that you can learn to control and exploit to increase your productivity, your happiness, and your overall quality of life. It has both good and bad uses, we, obviously, are going to aim for the good, but let’s look at examples of both.
A husband is being unfaithful to his wife. To deal with the stress of having a wife and a mistress at the same time, he tends to compartmentalize his emotions for both, keeping them separate and apart in his brain.
Your beloved dog of seven years is struck by a car, and dies. Despite this heavy loss, you accept the death of your dog, compartmentalize, and move on, maintaining your quality of life after a short period of grief, and not losing three weeks of your life to sadness.
What makes these bad and good? Well, chances are, the unfaithful husband WILL be found out. His compartmentalization is just his way of avoiding what he needs to reconcile with himself. Even if he isn’t discovered, splitting yourself between two people like that will eventually eat away at you, and ruin one or both of your relationships. In the case of the dog, a sad event that you, unfortunately, have no control over once its happened, is dealt with, and then progressed from. Feeling guilt over not locking the gate, or not checking both ways before crossing, or letting the leash out too far, will do NOTHING to bring your dog back, and will only further impede and damage your life.
How do we compartmentalize, though? Well, for starters, let’s say that compartmentalizing is not ignoring a problem, shoving it down and hoping it goes away. These problems inevitably bubble back to the surface, typically much worse because of repression of emotions and guilt/stress. Compartmentalizing is looking at problems and stressful situations, giving them their due process, and accepting that you’ve done what you can, and letting them go to the quiet part of your brain where you don’t worry about them anymore.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Let’s go back to the dog example. It’s depressing, traumatizing, and unpleasant. But there isn’t anything you can do to bring the dog back. Of course, you should grieve, this is natural. But then you need to put away the leashes, bowls, toys, etc. and move on with your life. This doesn’t mean forget the dog, but be happy for the time you had with her, and realize that brooding over it won’t do you any good. Will you still do things that remind you of the dog, and get a little sad again? Probably. But compartmentalizing is about having a place to store these feelings once you experience them and let them pass, without dwelling on them.
What are some good ways to help yourself compartmentalize? Well, for starters, there’s physical habits. When we stress, we tend to tense up our neck and shoulders, sleep worse, eat worse, etc. When we’re depressed, we tend to slouch, lower our eyes to the ground, eat less or more(depending on how you react), and do fewer things. When we get angry, we tend to clench our muscles, grind our teeth, tighten our facial muscles, and frown a lot. When we get scared, we tend to be jumpy, sleep poorly, twitch a lot, and move more conservatively through life.
Identifying how your body is reacting, physically, to negative stimuli can be the first step. Figure out what your body is doing, and then consciously try to avoid doing it. Unclench your teeth. Roll your neck and shoulders and relax them. Stand up straight. Go to bed earlier and maybe take some melatonin when you do. Working out is also a great stress relief and body “reset” mechanism, and you know how much we love working out here.
Mentally, it’s a different game. Physical changes can put you well on the road, but it’s not everything. You need to mentally face problems, examine them, figure out what resolutions you can effect on the situation immediately, and then move on. If you can do something immediately, do it! If you can’t but you think you can do something in the future, then pick that future date, schedule a reminder somewhere(calendar, phone, blackberry, etc.) and then try to accept that you can’t do anything right now. If you’re buried under debt, do what you can in the immediate time(consolidate credit cards, develop a new budget), and then let it go. Beyond getting a new job, all you can do is continue to work the one you have, and the stress and distraction of thinking about your debt all the time is only going to make you worse at your job.
Being able to mentally examine your situation, settle up what you can, and then let it go is very difficult at first. I personally have a really hard time compartmentalizing past failures, mistakes, and bad decisions. It’s something I’m dealing with right now. I tend to dwell on them, and the fear of those negative situations reoccurring can lead me to being afraid of making new decisions and taking new risks. As with all things, however, you get better with practice(I know I am, this blog is evidence of that).
Here’s some good articles for further reading on compartmentalization:
In the end, Sam Fisher needs to be able to compartmentalize in order to do his job. Everyone does, really, otherwise we’d all spend most of our time being down in the dumps about bad things. My wife is fantastic at compartmentalizing, and I draw my inspiration from her. Compartmentalizing(not repressing) her negative situations and experiences has made her incredibly strong, and also a genuinely happy and content person, and I draw inspiration from her. Remember, you can’t always control the world around you, but you can always control how you react to it.
Dan “DaRatmastah” Wallace