by Michael I. Kaplan
During my time of service in the U.S. Army I vividly remember the many hours I spent training on firing ranges and the stress of performing well in weapon qualification courses. In the early stages of my training, if I shot poorly during the initial cycle of fire — I tended to shoot poorly for the entire cycle.
My instructors would constantly repeat the same words of wisdom each time this occurred: “Kaplan, you’re not shooting 6 rounds in this drill … you’re shooting 1 round, six times. What happens to the first round has nothing to do with what happens to the next.”
During this same period of early training I vividly remember the many hours I spent training in martial arts dojos and the stress of performing well when fighting against multiple aggressors. If I failed to execute a proper technique with the first attacker, I tended to become highly stressed and ineffectual against all the attackers.
My instructors would constantly repeat the same words of wisdom each time this occurred: “Kaplan, you’re not fighting against 3 attackers in this exercise … you’re fighting against 1 attacker, three times.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was being mentally conditioned and effectively trained to compartmentalize my stress. By the time this strategy took hold and became habitual I didn’t even realize this phenomenon existed. It wasn’t until later in my career that I learned this strategy actually had a name: compartmentalization. In the early days of my career I didn’t perceive its benefit. Now I get it.
In the field of psychology, compartmentalization is viewed as an unconscious defense mechanism which is developed by our mind to avoid cognitive dissonance. In short, it’s an involuntary coping strategy that serves to alleviate anxiety and stress.
I disagree vehemently with the negative connotation this definition conveys – I believe compartmentalization to be a very positive attribute – and I believe we all have the power to apply this mechanism in a very conscious manner. While this holds especially true for the veteran entrepreneurs I work with regularly, it actually applies to any veteran regardless of their personal or professional environment.
Having the ability to compartmentalize – and deal with a wide array of highly stressful events simultaneously – will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.
You’ll have days when your life is turned inside-out: a business crisis occurs, a family member becomes ill and a pipe breaks in your home … all at the same time. Being able to separate these events and deal with them individually will protect your sanity.
This doesn’t mean to suggest you try to bury the stress; that may work temporarily but it remains an unresolved issue. It means to put the stress in boxes, open the boxes individually for short periods of time, and then remember to close the box before you move on to the next.
Admittedly, the ability to compartmentalize events is a skill that takes some time to learn. However, I have seen it work in a wide range of environments and I know it to be an effective strategy when dealing with extreme stress. Like any skill, it takes time to become proficient and even longer to master. That said, the discipline and dedication required to effectively compartmentalize extreme stress is definitely worth the effort.
If veterans can master this skill on firing ranges, in martial arts dojos and then eventually in combat environments they can surely master this skill in the civilian world as well. The truth is many veterans have actually mastered this skill during their military experience. In their new civilian environment, they just need to learn how to apply it.
It’s been my experience that even when some veterans are able to compartmentalize their stressors, they still have a difficult time closing a box before they move on to the next.
For many veterans who aspire to the highest standards of excellence and settle for nothing less than meeting that standard, everything is a personal test and it’s very easy to become emotionally attached to the mission at hand.
Additionally, they spend too much time in each compartment and allow themselves to become emotionally drained. Think of the stress in each compartment as radiation. In small doses incremental exposure is safe, but prolonged exposure can be lethal.
Open a compartment, spend as short a time as possible dealing with the issue and accept the fact that successfully coping with the associated stress will be an incremental process. Once you achieve your initial progress, remember to shut the compartment before moving on to the next issue.
When everything seems to be going wrong at the same time, just remember that it’s not everything; it’s a bunch of smaller things unrelated to each other. When you “throw the first round” in your civilian career qualification course, it has absolutely no impact on the second shot fired in your quest for that dream job.
If you fail to execute a technique properly when faced with multiple interviewers at once – and one of them sneaks in a “sucker punch” question – it has absolutely no impact on your effectiveness to engage others coming at you from all directions with difficult questions.
Extreme and prolonged stress is your enemy. The ability to effectively compartmentalize will allow you to defeat this enemy on any field of battle. When you master this skill, effective compartmentalization becomes both your armor and your weapon.
When you’re properly armed and shielded, let the enemy surround you all day long. You’ll be able to attack in any direction and know you’ll successfully engage it.