The Rise of Compartmentalisation and the Decline of Happiness


Trapped In Contradiction

People have become used to being compartmentalised. By virtue of this reality we are trapped in contradiction with our inner most self.
Compartmentalisation is a subconscious psychologically defined mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalisation allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalised self-states.

This means that a persons life is separated into convenient boxes, each serving a specific purpose, and each standing alone from the other in its form and function. Simple examples of this could be found in:
Work / Social / Politics / Religion / Economics / Family / Community / Personal

Each of these distinct boxes are extensions of a persons existence. In an ideal world or philosophy of thought, these boxes would have aligned common values and ideals running through them, which would make the ‘boxes’ porous to the flow of common purpose and ethical conduct.

Unfortunately, this is not how it works for many of us. What really happens is that the boxes are separated, almost entirely, by a vastly different set of values and ideals. The boxes compete against each other rather than compliment each other. Each is a defined and independent ecosystem running on a separated power source. This is not healthy. It means that people begin to conduct themselves, and act in accordance with, very different value systems and principles, depending on what box they find themselves in.

This is how human beings have evolved to avoid dealing with the cognitive dissonance that occurs when what you experience goes against what you believe to be right or normal. This dissonance crops up in many of the boxes we compartmentalise ourselves in.

  • In our social lives we talk about being free and able to express ourselves, but at work we follow conduct that says ‘tow the company line above all else’
  • In politics we vote for change but in our own lives we stay the same, and we perpetuate old patterns
  • In our families we believe in morality and solid values, but at work we work within corrupt and immoral systems that undermine human integrity
  • In Church we speak about community and care for the weak and the poor but we work for companies that increase social disparity and heighten inequality.
  • We have liberal views but we invest in economic practice, which undervalues liberal ideals, and encourages individualism.
  • I show up on social media in contradiction to the person I am in private or in personal life.
  • In my social group I stand against corruption but when I get caught drinking and driving I don’t hesitate to bribe the police
  • I am a person who believes in common humanity but when I choose a place to live I don’t want to live with people who are not like me.
  • I don’t like chauvinism but I spend time with people who are chauvinistic
  • As a boss I am hard and unforgiving but I am so gentle and loving to my kids and friends

These are just some of the many examples of how our boxed lives are at odds with each other. Life is full of contradictory actions. The more we are separated like this the more we are in conflict with ourselves, with our innate moral coding. The more we live separated from ourselves by compartments the less we are able to become whole and aligned. Instead we become distracted, conflicted, and in constant contradiction.


rise of compartmentalisation


Why Do We Live This Way?

Perhaps it is because we are stuck in ‘survival mode’ and ‘fear’. Perhaps we find ourselves in these situations because of how we were told we should live, by our parents and peers? Perhaps we are fundamentally incongruous beings and this is the trauma of being human? Perhaps this is how we have to be to survive? We will contradict personal values and integrity in the name of survival always.

A great example of this is when a community chooses to hide criminals, or gain from criminal behavior, because this provides much needed financial support in hard times. This is how people survive in hard times; they release themselves from their integrity in favor of survival.

I often wonder how people work in companies that are definitely causing major problems in the world. I don’t believe that they are aligned with the damaging nature of these companies, or systems, but yet they comply and work within them all the same.

How do people go to Church and listen to the teachings of Jesus but then when they leave the church they go back to lives and work which completely undervalue these teachings? How do people live with this dissonance?

This is what I think is the major problem affecting human beings today. We have become so compartmentalized in our different parts of life that we fail to find ourselves as a functioning whole. We are split personalities serving very contradictory forces.


The Duplicity Of Peoples Values

I was listening to a historical account of how slavery in America, and the cotton trade, set the stage for how the economic system in the US evolved, which in turn influenced global economics. In America, slaves became the asset against which capital was raised, and this asset became what global investors put their money into. Despite a growing negative sentiment towards the practice of slavery from around the world, at the same time the increased financial investment in slavery became greater and greater, signaling a terrific and terrible example of the duplicity of peoples values. Socially and politically slavery is a bad thing, but when it comes to making money, it’s a sure bet.

In South Africa it is not hard to make draw very similar comparisons, especially when it comes to investment in mining and agriculture. There are so many examples of this compartmentalised behaviour where individuals put their money into systems which fundamentally undermine human rights, and which support political regimes which go against our personal morality.

If we look to modern day economics for signs of this dysfunction, we find it in investment practices by pension funds and private equity firms. Investment in poor labor practices, undermining human rights, propping up authoritarian regimes, and many other such examples abound. If you asked the individual investors themselves whether they support such practices many would say no, but when its about making money they are only too happy to let their money pour into these situations.

Another excellent example of cognitive dissonance is found in religion. In the US, evangelicals are strong supporters of Donald Trump, and anti-immigration, and many are racist, but in Church they subscribe to teachings which suggest that their ultimate care and support should go to the weakest and most hard done by in society. Their religion is in direct contradiction to their political attitudes.

When we look at this on a more personal level, we find many strong examples of this compartmentalised way of living. In our social groups we talk strongly about how bad corruption is, and how bad those are who engage in it, but the moment we get ourselves into a situation which requires ‘being corrupt’ we are only too happy to condone and justify it. I know of so many personal examples of this. Bribing policemen when someone is caught drinking and driving, paying officials for expedited work visas and getting stuff done quicker by paying under the table.

Work is another superb example. We default to authority figures, and their behavior and attitudes, when inside we are screaming at the indignity of it, but we do nothing about it. In many cases we actually begin to treat others the same way when we get promoted to boss level.

We also find ourselves in a range of personal situations in which what we believe within ourselves does not align with the social situations we put ourselves in. We say we are not racist but then we exist in social groups which allow racist slurs to flourish, we do not believe that men are better than women but we allow all kinds of male dominant commentary to prevail at the cost of our own beliefs. We don’t stand up for our innate beliefs because we fear the consequences of dissention. We are trapped by fear.

I could go on and on about this subject. I believe that many of us find ourselves in such contradiction to our personal values and morals that we become conflicted and unhappy, because we are knowingly acting with impunity towards our inner most selves. I like to believe that many of us know we are doing this, and it causes inner conflict, but we keep doing it, much to the detriment of self.


Break Down Your Compartments

I have been on a mission for a while now to break down some of these compartments, and to find alignment across the different boxes, so that I can be in integrity with my own values and beliefs, to be in harmony with myself. I have found it very hard, because as I turn the stones in my different boxes I find more and more examples of how contradicted my own life is. It is hard to act when I uncover something that says ‘I am contradicting my own values here’.

In some cases I am succeeding at breaking down such compartments, and acting with aligned integrity, and in others I am still lacking in confidence to act in accordance, rather than in dissonance, with my own values.

The fact that I am aware of the personal discomfort compartmentalisation causes me makes the effort and risks associated with breaking this dynamic worth pursuing. The more I break down the walls and find common alignment across the boxes the more internally happy and self-respecting I become. I still have a long way to go but I am getting there.

How are you doing?

Join the Conversation

8 Responses

  1. Sometimes we have to put on different hats and different personas, the difference comes when our values are challenged

    1. I never change my values and beliefs between my personal and professional life. My values and beliefs come first.

    2. I agree, I accommodate someone, or something but I will not change my values. If my values are not in line, I will reassess and alter.

  2. I always different values and beliefs to each box, work, family, social, community personal
    Each one of these requires a different you in order to be able to be aligned with different missions that they serve.

  3. Fear should not dictate our lives, our values should matter and learning about different mindset not only frees me but helps me understand other people as well.

  4. I don’t compromise on my core values but I also realize that I have shortcomings so from time to time I may slip up. I believe that’s ok as long as I did not have ill intentions, I will keep trying to be a version of myself I will be proud of

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