Compartmentalization Nation

Oct 28, 2013
Originally published on October 28, 2013 12:58 pm

We are a country at war, yet we live as if we are at peace. We are in economic turmoil, but the stock market soars, and corporations and banks prosper. We decry violence in real life but celebrate violence in entertainment, such as Grand Theft Auto V and Breaking Bad. We warn our young people against promiscuity, while society's sexualization of young people continues.

And on and on.

How we do it — live with all the contrapuntal paradoxes — is a modern-day mystery. But what such daily disconnectivity ultimately means for the soul of our nation is worth examination.

Me Vs. Me

Sorting out certain emotions or priorities, says Kristy Boyce who teaches psychology at Ohio State University, can be — for an individual — a coping mechanism for dealing with negative thoughts about the self. "When you compartmentalize," she says, "you basically separate the positive vs. negative thoughts about yourself."

For example, a person can create a "Good Me" category versus a "Bad Me" category, Kristy says, and "once you've compartmentalized, all of your positive thoughts are only linked to other positive thoughts in memory, and the negative thoughts are only linked to other negative thoughts."

This organizational method can have upsides. Putting aspects of the self in separate containers "can lead to higher self-esteem and a more positive mood," Kristy says, "but only if you can focus on the positive aspects of the self."

Conversely, she says, if negative thoughts take center stage, your self-esteem can plummet — because thinking about one negative thing then reminds you of all the other bad things about yourself.

Faces Of Leadership

What if the individual is a political leader? Some people believe that a politician's adeptness at dissociating the self from the situation is a valuable skill.

Slave owner Thomas Jefferson was able to argue against slavery. For Lyndon Johnson, historian Alan Brinkley once noted, the ability "to prevent troubles in one area of his life from intruding into other areas" in 1963 and 1964 "was something he later seemed to lose." And George H.W. Bush exhibited the capacity "to put aside a problem and throw himself into something else," according to The Washington Post in 1991.

"We need presidents that are strong," Sean Hannity said on Fox News in October 2012. "You know, Bill Clinton, as critical as I was during Monica Lewinsky, you have to hand it to him, his ability to compartmentalize, do his job, deal with impeachment was, frankly, pretty amazing, in terms of the skill level and his ability to handle that."

State Of Disunion

And what of a nation?

We call ourselves the United States, but at times we lurch along due to countless incongruities — like an operating system sometimes frozen by incompatible programs.

Through the centuries, certain American leaders have called for philosophical unity. "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately," Benjamin Franklin warned the Continental Congress in 1776 before signing the Declaration of Independence.

What does it say about our national character that we are able to balance our unwieldiness, cordon off our complexities and live in harmony with our dissonance?

As a nation, says Kristy Boyce, "we like to compartmentalize because it allows us to feel good about the country without actually having to deal with all of the negative facets of the country."

Usually, she adds, "we can try to forget everything negative and feel that we live in a great nation. It's only when something questionable happens — that is, a school shooting, political scandal, etc. — that all of the negative thoughts come flooding back and then people begin to question what is happening to our country."

And then?

"Then we recompartmentalize," Kristy says. "And it all starts over again."

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