For many of us, life runs in compartments: part of your time is work, another part, separately, is spent with your friends and family, then part in pursuit of social or political causes, with sports or studies, on travels — there might be many more. It's not just that these occupy different stretches of time: they are really more like compartments in that we often apply only part of our person to each. We have a work persona and a play persona. We forget our goals and commitments for a while when we go traveling. What changes from context to context is not just what we do, and how we do it: it's also who we are (who we take ourselves to be) that gets temporarily transformed, depending on the compartment within which we're currently enclosed.

It's characteristic of a compartment to shield you from what goes on in the other compartments. This can happen in many ways. One is a neglect of memory, suppressing or ignoring what went on in other compartments in the past. (Do you have to push memories of your recent weekend out of your head in order to be able to focus on your work?) Another is playing down aspects that may be central in another compartment: skills and habits that are required while running in one rut are simply forgotten or remain dormant somewhere else. (Do you find it difficult to show the same patience and understanding you have for people you just met to those you've been familiar with for a long time?)

If this goes too far, it creates an unfavorable condition. Though it looks much like valuable effectiveness from a point of view within the compartments, it means that you live your life not fully as the person you are (or could be). Those compartments fill a significant portion of your life time, so, when viewed together, they must be connected: there have to be ways of looking at yourself that are in harmony with each other. These ways don't have to be identical, or even continuous, but they must be integrated, fit together. For example, you may go to extremes to feel the thrill every so often, maybe do some extreme sports, precisely to create a counterweight to routine and precision requirements in your job. That you create variety and even a polarity in your life is fine; but if each side makes you forget or ignore the other side it gets you on the wrong track. Even while you're running in two different ruts here, they should be balanced against each other, and support each other so that neither wears you out.

There might be conflicts between the overt traits that come to the front in one compartment and the hidden or sleeping ones (those which aren't currently engaged) that are needed only in others. If such a conflict surfaces, we might feel shame for those aspects of our person that do us no good in this compartment, because they belong somewhere else. And so we ignore or suppress them. But it's not just this, it's not just the aspects of our person that don't belong in the current situation. Even those things that work in the current compartment are only relatively optimal. They might work well, but they don't draw on your full resources as a person. This is the kind of thing that makes you feel as if you're not fully centered in your own life. Or, to put the point somewhat differently, they're showing you not as the person you are or could be, but as another person, an impoverished one which only has the overt traits central to this current compartment situation. You live your life alternately as one constrained and one-dimensional person and then as another, equally one-dimensional and constrained person — until you flip back again.

So, get the creativity you exhibit in cultural activities (like painting, or playing an instrument) into your work life; get the energy you find in physical activities such as sport (or sex) into your creative life; dedicate your professional skills in time management and coordinated, methodical procedure to building a lifestyle as well (doing those cultural and sports activities frequently and regularly enough to get much out of them), ... — in other words, integrate everything with everything. And just as always, pay particular attention to the character qualities which are central to you as a person, to the way you want to live your life. These above everything else must be integrated over whatever you do.

And why stop there? Reflect on why you have these compartments at all. More often than not they are structured by the world around us rather than laid out by ourselves: perhaps your day is fixed by the beginning and end of working hours; and in addition to the rigid time window here, space is also often constrained: you're in a specific workplace where you remain for almost all of that time. Once you have children, the morning starts the moment they wake up, not when you do. The duration and character of your morning commute depends on where you live. Social activities are aligned with the rhythm of your social circle, and perhaps with less obvious things such as Friday nights, the happy hour at your favorite pub, and the like. And think about how many of these structures you have chosen and actively shaped, and how many you have just taken up as they came along (perhaps even sometimes without giving them a thought at all).

Compartmentalization results from the interplay between the structure we have imposed on our lives (or at any rate, the structure that has been imposed on your life, whether you have done it yourself or let others do it) and how much of our own self we put into the elements of this structure: how we organize ourselves in order to accommodate these structures, and especially how we restrict ourselves (or let ourselves be restricted) in order to fit in. When we have to ignore or suppress part of ourself to fit into some compartment (or to perform better in some compartment), then there's something wrong: either we have carved up the world into compartments the wrong way, or we have applied ourselves badly into the compartment. But since this is the structure of your life, it is your own responsibility to find a good fit: find out whether you need compartments at all; and if you do, how to make them work so that you always apply yourself with your full person, even when accentuating aspects that are central within a particular compartment. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.