Healthy Compartmentalizing

As I write this there is a lot going on, and I’m having all sorts of feelings about it. Black Americans being murdered by police and vigilantes, protests, people pissed off about protests, folks struggling from economic and mental health effects of sheltering in place for months, COVID 19 deaths passing 100,00 with no vaccine or even effective treatment in sight. It’s a lot.

The thing is, it’s not always the right moment for me to feel all that. When I am working it’s not like I have to be an emotionless robot, but it’s not the place for me to process my anger. When I am talking with friends who are people of color, it is not the time for me to put my anxiety center-stage. When I’m around certain family members or other people who have demonstrated low ability to listen empathically, it’s not the right time for me to open up to my vulnerable grief. 

That doesn’t mean that I’m not entitled to my feelings, that I “shouldn’t” feel sad or scared or stressed because others have it “worse,” or that I should bottle up my feelings and work work work until I collapse from burn out. In fact, quite the opposite. If we deny, repress, suppress, and distract ourselves from ever feeling anything difficult or upsetting, it will certainly come back to bite us at inopportune times and in unhealthy ways. We aren’t getting rid of our feelings, we’re just hiding them away for a bit until they ferment and explode. 

Making space to feel

What’s been helpful is finding the right time, the right space, the right people to accompany me Sometimes that means I’m accompanying myself, sometimes it means I’m with a friend, a partner, a therapist; whoever it is, I make sure it is someone who has the space to listen to me in that moment, and is not deep in their own feelings or in crisis and needing support. (Sometimes this means taking turns processing and supporting each other!) For me, it means finding a time when I’m not in-between appointments and rushed, but other people might find comfort in only having a few minutes to process heavy stuff so it feels like there’s some containment around it. The right space can mean home where I have some privacy, but other times walking in nature on a socially distant hike is the setting I need. When I have what I need, I can let myself feel and express—in healthy ways—everything. The rage and pain I feel at living in an unjust, oppressive world. The guilt I feel about the privilege I carry as a white person in a white supremacist society. The deep grief I feel at all that has been lost by so many of us. The fear and anxiety I feel about the unknown and uncertain future. 

I often feel a knot of fear in my stomach, a worry that if I start crying I’ll never stop. That has never happened. I know it won’t happen, and yet I fear it almost every time. And every time I let myself cry (or scream into a pillow, or sprint in the middle of a walk) the feeling builds, crescendos, and falls away, and I feel some measure of relief. More waves of emotion come, they always will. But they never last forever. 

Back to healthy compartmentalizing

In other moments though, when it’s not the right time, or not a safe space, when I need to be supporting someone else instead of making it about me, or when I’m just exhausted and depleted and don’t have it in me to feel any more, I engage in healthy compartmentalizing. I have often felt a wave of tears coming over me in public (I’m a crier), and I go through a little ritual in my mind. Like any “good” mindfulness practitioner, I start by acknowledging and naming my feelings. I try to do this in as welcoming a way as possible, even if it’s an emotion I’m sick or or scared of. Oh it’s grief, welcome. Oh hello fear, and its friend of late, anger and judgment (amazing how anxiety about the state of the world can so quickly flip into anger at a fellow pedestrian for walking too close). After naming, I imagine putting it into a box and lovingly setting it aside and promising to come back to it later. And then—and this is crucial—I go back to it later. Maybe I let myself cry in the car for a few minutes before moving on with my day. Maybe I talk about it over dinner with my partner. Maybe I process it in my own therapy. If I don’t keep up my end of the contract and go back to it, the feelings aren’t going to keep up their end and stay in the box for long. 

Do your own work

There’s a lot happening right now, and it is natural to have a lot of feelings about it. Your feelings may be different from mine, and that’s OK. Whatever you are feeling, find some space to process in ways that aren’t going to harm others (punch a pillow, not a person) or take energy away from others who need to be taking care in not giving support out. Therapy is a great space to process what you are feeling, so that you can stay in good working order. If being of service and supportive to others who are suffering and struggling is important to you, do the work to keep your mind and body and soul in good health so that you can show up and be a support to others, and not crash from burn out or explode from bottled up feelings.