lmost every one of us knows what is means to take a deliberate approach to prepping your gear before a mission. It’s an essential and sometimes painstaking task that requires absolute attention to detail. We pack, unpack, repack – check, recheck and do it all again until it’s just right. We naturally give this task the attention it requires because we know that our lives will depend on that gear. We know that one minor thing out of place, one piece of equipment not tied down, or one minor aspect overlooked could compromise an entire operation.
I wonder how much time you devote doing the same for your mental preparation? Five minutes of casual thoughts, twenty minutes of thinking through the mission? I remember as a young private in Ranger Regiment being introduced to a few CAG (DELTA) guys during my first major training event. At the time I didn’t fully understand the 1,000-yard stare that felt like they were looking right through you. Having come to the Army with several years already spent in the fire service, I understood focus, but this was something very different. The initial assumption was that it was arrogance or dismissal of everyone else, a superior attitude. There was this intensity that nothing else in the world mattered at that particular moment expect the mission at hand and it made you feel invisible.
As my experience grew I began to fully understand that this was the process of getting into a mental space where all other worries, thoughts and issues drifted away. These men, in many cases unknowingly, were separating what science refers to as cognitions in a unique form of rationalization. This process is done in order to remove natural conflicting mental processes. They were compartmentalizing the various aspects of their lives – from home and family, to morals, ideals, and what others would consider normal behavior. These men knew, intuitively, that they might be faced with decisions and required to take actions that go against some of the most basic aspects of humanity. What they were accomplishing was the process of building boxes – locking those thoughts into separate spaces in order to eliminate potential conflicts.
Compartmentalization, by definition, is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoidcognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves). It is the process of compartmentalizing that allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self-states. But what does that mean to us? More definitively put, compartmentalization enables you to separate the idea that taking another life in the course of your duty (justified) and the idea of taking a human life without specific cause (unjustified). When mental conflicts arise and especially when those conflicts are severe, delays in recognition, decisions and action will occur. For us, that results in mission impact, performance fractures and potential failure.
Over the past decade of research, interviews and my own personal experiences, I have found one of the foremost differences between a warrior and the rest of the world is their engrained ability to build their mental boxes, to compartmentalize their life in order to focus at all levels. Over years of training and operations, they seem to intuitively understand the process required to accomplish this, yet even within these high-functioning communities, you will still see issues emerge causing severe fractures in the performance of a team. We walk a fine line in the lives we’ve chosen – our role dictates that we persistently move against normal (logical) human behavior patterns and engage in activities that cross the boundaries of basic cognitive capacities. By nature, the necessities of mental survival dictate extreme measures and those measures can have consequences as Lt. Col Grossman points out in his book On Killing – there are great psychological costs that weigh heavily on the combat soldier or police officer who kills if they are not mentally prepared for what may happen; if their actions (killing) are not supported by their commanders and/or peers; and if they are unable to justify their actions (or if no one else justifies the actions for them).
To express the importance of understanding how the mind works, we look at the term isolation (psychology), which is a process that separates thoughts from feelings. This is the point in which we begin to disconnect from those around us and start shutting down. There are long term consequences when isolation takes hold but when we knowingly focus to compartmentalize and actively separate different cognitions (incompatible/conflicting ideas) from each other we gain a measure of control that enables us to undo that which we have done. Understanding these processes enables us to leverage them appropriately and provides guiding boundaries for when building your boxes turns to isolation or when you didn’t build them well enough and conflict arises. We refer to Isolation as a post-protective state of mind – where actively compartmentalizing is a pre-protective state of mind. To highlight the difference even further, how often does this thought ring true?
“You know, this is how you are with your team and this is how you are with your family. It seems like I could never actually be me, I felt compromised and inconsistent, which made me withdrawal even further from all of them.” – TRN
We see the impacts of isolation and failure to compartmentalize all around us. A good friend of mine, and retired Delta Operator, tells the story of prepping for ops during the first Gulf War – In Country, mission tasked, ready to roll… one of the team members got caught up with issues at home and he allowed it to penetrate his mind so deep it completely took him out of the game. Ultimately he had to sit that one out. Whether your a Team guy, a CAG guy, a Ranger, a cop, a fireman, a security operator, or just happen to function in spaces that are innately high-risk or high stress, if you can’t develop the ability to build your boxes and compartmentalize your life, you could be setting yourself or your team up for failure.
Compartmentalization is one of the skills we have focused on for years in all of our programs and especially in Operational Mindset. We have found the faster someone can acquire the skill, the more focused they become. It bleeds into your ability to recognize what’s actually taking place around you and frees your intuitive senses to allow the “connection” you need to the operational space. It has always been interesting to me in the discussion periods of our Operational Mindset Seminar; some may refer to it as “soft, emotional stuff.” My response has been and will always remain this… “Last time I checked, there wasn’t anything soft or emotional about putting your family in a mental box so you could, without remorse, deal with the threats and stay focused on your mission.”
The reality is we are all humans and come with an engrained sense of humanity, right and wrong, and strong ethics – it all contributes to the life we’ve chosen. Functionally though, these core traits cause disruptions and conflicts in the mind as we move through our operational environments. They are not always obvious and generally do not come to the forefront as an actual question or decision but rather they are left lingering deep in the layers of our minds and are the normal cognitive conflicts that come with being a soldier, a cop, a fireman… I’m a father, a husband, a son, a brother, an American – but I am going to have to do things, see things, make decisions and take actions that in some way may compromise the idea of that person, so – in the boxes they go.
- Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves ByJOHN M. GROHOL, PSYD psychcentral.com
- Tangney. Leary, Mark R. Leary and Price, June. ed.Handbook of self and identity. Guilford Press. pp. 58–61.ISBN978-1-4625-0305-6.
- On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyLt. Col Grossman (1995) (ISBN 0-316-33000-0)
- Nancy McWilliams,Psychoanalytic Diagnosis(2011) p. 135-6