Boxing up Emotions: The Good and Bad

Rose Kormanyos talks about compartmentalization and the positive and negative impacts it can have on law enforcement relationships.

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If you’re an officer, you may find yourself using compartmentalization to stay focused and act in stressful situations. As spouses, we want our officers and first responders to be able to utilize this skill because it keeps them attentive and safe. However, compartmentalization can have some unintended fallout in terms of the ability to feel present and connected in our relationships. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Rose Kormanyos, works with medical couples helping them to understand the benefit of compartmentalization and how to reengage with their emotions in order to increase connection and intimacy in their relationships. Rose shares how she does this so you can compartmentalize when you need to at work and be able to come home and connect.

What is compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization is separating out emotions that are contradictory to our situation. We take out the emotion, feeling, or thought and we stick it in its own compartment so it’s not in the forefront of our mind. This ability comes from the need to be focused on situations that take priority over others.  If humanity did not have this ability, we would not be able to function. We couldn’t work, parent, and certainly wouldn’t be able to do the jobs that first responders do without incorporating some compartmentalization.  Without compartmentalization, a first responder brain would be telling them to avoid the danger they need to walk toward such as running into a burning building or a hostage situation. First responders need compartmentalization to stay safe on the job! Problems arise when we use compartmentalization to avoid and stay avoidant.

Compartmentalization and the inability to emotionally connect

“When we numb the dark, we numb the light.” Brené Brown

The law enforcement community does really well at compartmentalization and developing habits of neglecting emotions while on shift in order to handle calls. Focusing on an argument that took place at home diverts attention away from important details of critical situations. It must get put aside.  This habit becomes conditioned and can spill over into relationships and parenting which makes it difficult or impossible to tap into feelings. The brain cannot differentiate between negative and positive emotions, it just distinguishes the emotions as an event, occurrence, or flat emotion. The habit of compartmentalizing becomes so strong that the brain lacks muscle memory to also be in touch with and identify feelings. People begin to move through life without being conscious or mindful of what is happening with emotions. You can be in the middle of Disney World and feel no joy at the laughter of your children because your brain automatically puts joy in its own box and shelves the feeling.

Emotions are a major currency of intimate connection

When first responders are not able to access emotions, their ability to intimately connect or attach to their partner is impacted. In relationships, we know that our attachment bond is strong and secure by sensing emotional cues from our partner. We are looking to see if our partner is available, responsive, and engaged. Our nervous system is on the lookout for these signals for reassurance. If you are used to compartmentalizing, these are going to be hard to experience.  Without them, your partner is left questioning your relational connection. Without any currency of connection, our love bank is left with insufficient funds, and we need to find a way to build it back up.

Find a way back to your connection

Have awareness

With the downside of hypervigilance and compartmentalization, it can be difficult for officers to be available, responsive, and engaged. Together, as a couple, have awareness and come up with a process of how to engage with each other effectively. Make a plan of action on what you can both do to approach the lack of connection.

Explore reconnecting to emotions

Exploring emotions is not a “flip-of-the-switch” kind of exploration. It is a process! Think about it more like providing physical therapy for your emotions and you have to build them back up in strength. Keep in mind, if feelings have been shoved down for decades, your window of tolerance for emotions and feelings may have changed. It may be smaller than you remember and can take some time to gradually grow your tolerance bigger. When you recognize your feelings have grown, fully experience them! If something humorous makes you belly laugh, sit with your feelings! It is ok to feel your feelings!

Mindfulness

At times, compartmentalization can cause us to disconnect from what we’re feeling physically. A way to bring this back is to practice mindfulness. Be more in touch with what’s going on around you, what you’re feeling, and what’s happening in your body. Take a walk and be present with nature.  Be aware of smells and the sensations of the wind on your skin. Take note of the sounds you’re hearing and what are you feeling on the inside. Be mindful with your loved one! Watch someone you care about and observe what it is that you notice in your body when they’re doing certain things. Pay attention to and acknowledge those familiar feelings.

Tolerate distress that comes up

If you just go from shoving down all your feelings to suddenly feeling it all, it can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. Develop distress tolerance skills to help you move through difficult emotions.  This can be deep breathing, some kind of physical movement, or even journaling. Communicate with your partner about any distress you may feel. There’s something really powerful about feeling a difficult emotion in the presence of someone. If your partner can hear what you’re feeling and give you love, acceptance, and encouragement, then the part of your brain that thinks you’re not supposed to share emotions, can start to feel connection again.

Balance

As first responders, find balance with compartmentalization on the job and at home. Remember, compartmentalization is needed to stay focused on the job but gain control of how emotions present themselves in your relationships. This can increase attachment and connection!

Reflective listening

When schedules allow, set aside 20 minutes, and take turns with your partner on reflective listening where one person is the listener and the other the speaker. When you are the speaker, pick an emotion you experienced that day and describe it to your partner the best you can. Explain what the feeling felt like, or if it presented in your body. Did your jaw tighten or did your stomach cramp? If you are the listener, all you have to do is listen. Do not try to change it, make it go away, or fix it. Just listen and then summarize back to your partner what you hear them saying. Use the phrase, “What I am hearing you say is…” or “I hear you saying that” Reflective listening makes it easy for the person who’s compartmentalizing because all they have to do is reflect.

Communicating the impact of compartmentalization

“How do I get them to open up?”

Stay away from blaming your partner for compartmentalizing. Instead, talk about your experience and what you are noticing as a result of the lack of emotion and feelings from your partner.  Try and use soft emotions instead of ones that come from anger and frustration. The softer the emotion, the more vulnerable and well received it tends to be.

Honor and understand that this is a slow process. It’s taking off the badge at home and with it, taking off the vest of compartmentalization in order to show and enjoy emotion. You aren’t getting rid of the badge and vest but hanging them up to better connect in your relationship. As a spouse, let the first responder lead the way and support the unpacking of feelings. Heroes don’t have to do this alone.

Rose Kormanyos is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist providing couples counseling in Ohio and soon in California.  She is a former Ecologist who now uses her scientific training to help logical thinkers, including medical professional couples, to get out of their negative patterns and deepen their connection.  She is a Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist (EFT) and owner of Redwood Marriage and Couples Counseling.

Ohio: www.redwoodcounselingcincinnati.com

California (Coming soon): www.redwoodcouplescounseling.com

YouTube Channel:  https://www.youtube.com/@rosekormanyosLMFT

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Boxing up Emotions: The Good and Bad

Rose Kormanyos talks about compartmentalization and the positive and negative impacts it can have on law enforcement relationships.

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Podcasts