Intentional Compartmentalization

One of my first experiences in social work was in the field of grief and loss, offering group support to children and families who have experienced a death in their family. I entered my role eager to connect and listen but I didn’t anticipate the heaviness of what laid ahead. In my first two weeks, we dove into topics of death that made me feel low and drained to a capacity I hadn’t felt before. When I’d come home, I’d remember the vivid stories from the families I was serving and felt the pain heavy in my heart. Sometimes I’d cry without realizing why. One evening, my brother looked at me and said, “wow, you’re usually so positive but you’re so depressing!” In that moment, I realized something was off. When I was home, I was thinking about the families at work. When I was at work hearing difficult stories, I was thinking about my own family at home. I wasn’t giving my authentic self in either place. I had to do something that would allow me to be fully present in both places and give each space my full, undivided attention.

I needed to compartmentalize. I needed to find a concrete way to leave work at work and home at home. I decided to start with my phone. When I was at work, I would not check my phone or send texts knowing I would easily start thinking about my family. I also decided not to bring any work-related materials away from the office. The moment I walked into the building, I completely checked out of home. When I left at the end of the day, I would completely check out of work. This small step of not checking my phone, not bringing papers with me, and setting a division at the door helped me to be fully present in both environments. I noticed when a client began to discuss a tragedy in their family, I wasn’t thinking about my own. Instead, I was leaning in closer and ready to go deeper with them. When I was home, I wasn’t thinking about the stories and families, rather, I was ready to be present with my own. It was all the result of uncovering a larger issue and why it was happening. Sometimes, the bulk of the work is done in reflecting to find the problem in the first place and the fix is the simpler part. 

In whatever work you do, there may be stresses that carry over into your life at home. You may feel a tension at work that seeps into your peace. With new work-from-home measures, you may find your work stress diffusing into your home more than ever or that your relaxed nature at home is blunting the drive you once had at work. This is all new and it is okay to find yourself some place in the middle. While you may feel like you’re giving less, there are likely areas where you don’t realize you’re giving more. There are ways to strategize; this is an opportunity to get creative.

  1. Notice stress that travels home: Do you feel a continued stream of stress when you’re done with work?
  2. Distinguish if it’s effective or defective: Is the stress assisting you in being productive? Is it draining you?
  3. Determine the source: Where is it stemming from? What is the root of the stress?
  4. Find a simple action that will reaffirm separation: What can you do to reset yourself from work mode to being yourself?

Of course, this won’t be perfect but it will lead to a more manageable day-to-day experience. On days that are just too difficult, remember that those are invitations to do a little something extra to revamp yourself. Whenever we would hear an especially tragic story or have a deeply sad session, our supervisor would ask us, “What are you going to do to care for yourself today?” I challenge you to do the same. It can be as simple as picking up some ice cream or blasting music while taking a longer route. Stresses can be inherently good to keep us on our toes and help with accomplishing what’s necessary but when stresses seem to overpower you or lurk into other areas of your life, reflect on what’s going on and find ways to compartmentalize. You will find a deeper level of presence through the smallest changes. 

Do you notice parts of the day where you are feeling detached or overwhelmed? What is it stemming from? What can you do?