Give Yourself Permission to Radically Compartmentalize

Radical compartmentalization (RC) is the permission to experience a full range of emotions, even if contrary to broader sentiment, in order to take forward action. As we think about being and leading during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s critical that we give ourselves this permission, especially if your business (or personal situation) has something to celebrate.  I specifically mention permission to celebrate, because most of us already feel the permission to see the negative in this situation, but that part is important too.  RC allows you to recognize the nuances and subsets of any situation and spend time accordingly. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about those affected by this virus, whether directly or indirectly. It doesn’t mean that we don’t believe it’s a real problem. Covid-19 certainly is real and a problem, and we need to create (and take) space for the sadness, shock, or anxiety we each may be feeling. At the same time, there is still joy to be found in life and it’s okay to experience that.

This topic emerged for me in a coaching conversation last week…  I have numerous CEO clients who are dealing with the negative impacts of this virus. Their workers are home and scared, their businesses are down quite substantially, and they are worried about the future of their companies. But this client was different; this crisis has injected vigor into their business. Their product is in great demand which is leading to strategic insights that the whole company is realizing, driving a renewed commitment to the mission and purpose behind why they do what they do. As the CEO relayed these feelings to me, they apologized: “I don’t want to make light of the situation, I’ll be honest and let you know how excited I am. My team is really energized by our ability to help. Not only for our clients, we’ve also been able to help nonprofits with free product that has made a huge difference.” THAT IS OKAY! In fact, it’s more than okay. The rest of us need to know that life is continuing and that there are positives to be found despite so many negatives around. Further, the team deserves the kudos for the hard work they are doing, and need to know that it’s ok for them to celebrate as well.

There are numerous psychological studies and texts that illustrate compartmentalization as a valid conscious and subconscious defense mechanism during times of emotional strife. In other words, the psychology experts have already given you permission to be happy when others are sad, and even when otherwise you might be sad! We specifically consulted with Dr. Angelo Samburnaris, M.D., C.P.I., an expert in anxiety and depression, to bring in specific medical expertise on the topic.

In our interview with Dr. Sambunaris, we asked, “Is it okay to put my anxiety aside in a compartment so I can get work done?” He shared, “I think if you are despondent or anxious to the extent of being despondent all the time, you will fail. If you are despondent, you are not doing the things you need to do to prepare for survival. Do you need all the toilet paper?  No, but I need some.  Do I need all the cans of organic black beans?  No, but I need some.  When did we move from a survival mentality to a give up (and feel sad all the time) mentality? We NEED to get people out of that mindset.” Further, he noted, “Compartmentalization is not about being in denial; it’s about putting things where they belong and not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life. You can’t just ignore your issues and expect them to go away, but obsessing won’t help either.”

Personally, I think it’s vitally important to allow ourselves to engage in radical compartmentalization at a time like this. Who knows how long this period of uncertainty and sacrifice will last? What we do know is that if we all put ourselves into a dour state and remain there until it’s over, this will be far harder for us to bear. For my fellow World War II history buffs, consider the London blitz: as seen in the pictures below, amidst the rubble of destruction and heartbreak of war, life still thrived. Flowers bloomed, children smiled, love blossomed, and life went on. I can think of no better example throughout modern history of a people who “kept a stiff upper lip” and, in the words of Winston Churchill, “kept buggering on!”

How can you apply these lessons to your life? Perhaps consider the following questions and jot down a couple of your own thoughts to return to over the coming weeks and months:

  • What is stronger in my life as a result of this pandemic?
  • How is my business better? If not yet, how could it be better and how could we emerge even stronger?
  • What is a glimmer of hope or light that I see today?
  • How can I share that hope with someone else?

How can you apply these lessons to your business? Many leaders are stuck in the “this is the downturn”: compartment. Mirroring the advice from my private equity clients, I invite you to step out of that compartment for a bit, look around, and find the “niche of success” compartment. I.e., despite the overall business climate, find the places where you can grow, re-tool, or otherwise use this time to your advantage.

  • Where are you seeing pockets of growth that you can capitalize on right now?
  • What changes can you make during this time to make a positive impact in your business?
  • What acquisitions or expansions are more possible now than they were 3 months ago?
  • How can you re-deploy your company’s strengths to help?

Finally, radical compartmentalization is not airy-fairy positive thinking regardless of the circumstance. There are negative compartments too, and that is also okay. Just as you give yourself permission to celebrate what is going well, also give yourself permission to sometimes “just be” in the negativity. When needed, let yourself feel the sadness for those you know who are sick, for the financial impact to yourself or others, or for anything else that you need to mourn. Set aside an hour (or whatever time you need) to “be” in the moment of negativity.  What do you need to mourn, what do you need to process? Give it the time it needs… my advice is simply not to let that be your only compartment.

Note:  Special thanks to Dr. Sambunaris, Heather Bolen Ph.D., and Melissa Thomas-Dubois for their assistance with this article. Also sincere thanks and gratitude to the many clients who have granted me the privilege of working with them, both previously and during this especially trying time.

Photo sources:

  1. Britain’s Home Front 1939-1945 Civil Defense source: This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial License. Photographs taken, or artworks created, by a member of the forces during their active service duties are covered by Crown Copyright provisions. Faithful reproductions may be reused under that license, which is considered expired 50 years after their creation
  2. License and copy right attached to photo
  3. Photo by GDJ (

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