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Whenever we have moments in life when we are consumed with problematic issues, especially those that look like they are going to take a while to resolve, it’s important to take time and take care of ourselves, allowing for the space that we need in order to properly manage our thoughts, feelings, and energy.
Yeah…wouldn’t that be GREAT?
“I’m sorry, I’m not coming coming in to work today – or this week – some things have happened and I’ll need some ‘me’ time to ensure that I stay in balance.”
“I’m going to have to reschedule our performance/project until I’ve had some time to sort out some things that are weighing on my mind. I’ll let you know when might be a good time.”
Really, it would be great. And every once in a blue moon, we may get an opportunity to take some time away. But really those opportunities are usually called vacation, and if they ever happen, we plan them with the thinking that they are to be filled with fun, relaxation, and/or adventure, and dealing with problems on vacation is not a vacation, so it becomes a time that was supposed to be great that got ruined by some other stuff.
And forget the luxury of vacation even – oftentimes there’s just no way to escape daily life. You have to go to work. You have to finish a project on a deadline. You have a performance. You have an exam. You have students. You have a family. Those constant responsibilities are not going away. So how do you get rid of ongoing problems, or a new problem that’s presented to you at a really unfortunate time, so that you can move through things or stay productive without falling apart?
First of all, if you thought you would be able to get advice from this on how to actually make your problems go away, you should think about that. Problems don’t just “go away.” A problem is typically resolved, one way or another. We either take the time to work through it, or we let it go (because perhaps it wasn’t our problem to deal with), or it hangs about us or it gets worse. So normally, you can’t just get rid of a problem. But – you can compartmentalize.
For our purposes here, the ability to compartmentalize means you can take something that’s going on and set it to the side to deal with later, allowing yourself to deal with tasks at hand. I don’t mean trying to forget something or putting it off in some form of procrastination – those imply that you’re trying not to deal with something at all or trying to ignore it and hope it just goes away. What I’m speaking of is the conscious decision to separate your thoughts and feelings from the problematic issue or event until such time that you can properly address it.
We see this happen in life all the time, and the most obvious example is that of the first responder. First responders must jump into action; they don’t have time to be personally affected by the catastrophic things they witness. Firefighters, EMTs, nurses and surgeons, and others, including civilians who run toward an accident rather than away in order to help save someone – all of these people make a decision to compartmentalize their horror, sadness, shock, and/or fear and instead take immediate action. Most of them probably don’t even know they are doing so; the ability to compartmentalize in the face of catastrophe is a built-in human survival skill. It is not a flawless system, however, and this shows up in the form of hesitation or even immobilization. And of course there are also varied levels of this: like almost any skill, the ability to compartmentalize can be inherent or it can take a lot of practice to master.
It can also be a lot trickier when we are not looking at life-or-death situations. Survival skills tend to kick in when we become involved in what the body considers to be something that requires survival mode. So what about when something is not life-threatening to us? What if it is a loss, or an argument, or a misunderstanding, or something that just sucks? These are the things that tend to consume us and can really affect our quality of life and also render us unproductive.
First, the problematic issue and all of its aspects has to be identified. Become aware of all of the ways it is affecting you: emotionally, cognitively, and/or physically. Once you have identified the factors, you can make a conscious decision to place them to the side for a determined amount of time. For example, if you can’t sleep because of thinking about whatever it is, you can decide that you will put the problem items away until the next day, or until after an important event the next day. If you are in the middle of work that needs to be done, you can decide to put the problem aside until you get home or until after dinner. The time you decide upon does not have to be the one and only time your address the issue – it can just be a time that you decide to start some work on it, and when you need to put it away again you can compartmentalize again, repeating the process of identifying and gathering the problematic factors in order to send them away.
How you actually move the factors away is somewhat of a personal choice, and it depends on what works for you. I like to visualize an imaginary action of packing the emotions and thoughts into a box as if they were tangible things and sending the box off on a (very) long conveyor belt, so long that the box goes out of sight. Or sometimes I’ll let the box float away into space on a tether. I can still get to it (remember problems don’t just go away), but it’s out of sight for now. I find that for me, when it’s out of sight it’s definitely not occupying the same amount of space and energy that it was. You may envision pushing the box off a cliff, or putting it in a car and watching it drive away – whatever works for you. These may be stronger release cues for you if you are a visual learner; if you are less of a visualizer and more of a kinesthetic, you might want to literally brush things off of your mind and body (even if you think this is ridiculous, I highly recommend it – I learned this from Carolyn Braddock during a course I took as part of my Social Emotional Arts Certification, and there’s something about the act of physically brushing negative/low energy and thoughts off of yourself as if they were stuck to the outside of you that’s highly satisfying).
After doing one of more of these kinds of exercises, it’s important to turn your focus immediately to whatever you need/want to be focusing on at that time. Otherwise the “problem box” can come traveling back like a boomerang, although if that does happen (and it’s entirely possible), take a moment and pack the box up again and send it farther away. In this way, you are teaching the brain that you meant it – you’re not going to deal with whatever it is now, and you will say when it’s time to do so. The act of compartmentalizing can be quite empowering and immensely helpful when you are in a place where you can’t afford immediate down time for assessment and potential resolution.
Now as I warned before, this is not an excuse to start a long-term avoidance of dealing with things, using the act of compartmentalizing and sending things away constantly until you get so good at it that you never recall the box and then work to resolve the issue. And there are also times to use the ability to compartmentalize and times when doing so is perhaps not to your advantage (like becoming different versions of yourself to please different people), so use this skill responsibly. In the midst of trying to navigate life, the last thing we need is to compound our stress, and this kind of instructional mindfulness can be a life saver. Which makes me think – maybe it’s a survival situation after all.
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