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Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Compartmentalized v. Integrated: The Mind of Elliot Rodger

Does Too Much Compartmentalization Risk Disconnecting You From People?

Continuation of a Work in Progress... (see prior post: Preventing Future Isla Vistas)

As more details of the mind of the Isla Vista shooter, Elliot Rodger, come in, I am reminded of the difference I have noticed between compartmentalized and integrated personalities. That’s because it appears that when potential “red flag” warnings appeared in Rodger’s past behavior, he seemed able to quickly compartmentalize and upon questioning by authorities appear to pose no threat.

Interestingly his parents, who appear to be quite caring by all reports, were aware of his deeply disturbed mind (as is often the case of family members who are in touch with a mentally ill member), but probably unable (as many other similar parents with similarly disturbed young adult children will attest) to influence it much after he turned 18.

Mentally healthier people who have compartmentalized minds have diversified personalities which enable them to behave differently and appropriately in a variety of situations such that they can behave like a boss or worker on the job, a parent and/or spouse and/or grown child at home, a teammate on a sport, etc. To be competent in each area they are said to be good at “having boundaries” such that one role does not blur into another.

One of the challenges however of being highly compartmentalized is that over time, people may lean more and more into those compartments where they feel most competent, capable and confident. That can cause other compartments to either atrophy from disuse or in some cases never develop in the first place. Over time these people can appear to be more like “human doings” that don’t feel particularly present as people even as they appear quite competent in a particular function. Think of IT instead of HR (or Romney vs. Obama).

This may explain some of the challenges that successful problem solving entrepreneurs have in “relating” to spouses and children who don’t want solutions or advice or to be figured out, but want to be listened to and understood (See video regarding entrepreneurs and spouses).

Integrated personalities appear to be more “present” as “human beings” and better able to relate to other people as people instead of as function. Think of HR instead of IT. On the other hand because of their emotional “caring” for others, they may have more difficulty maintaining boundaries and remaining focused on tasks because of an over-concern for pleasing or not upsetting other people.

Integrated personalities often have an easier time at empathizing with others than compartmentalized personalities. This is important from a societal standpoint, because empathy for others is one of the main deterrents to committing violence against them. That is because when you are sensing another person’s feelings and caring about them, it is difficult to act angrily at them as that is a motor function.

The distinction between being compartmentalized and integrated became clear to me when recently I was having lunch with a good friend who I experienced as having a big and generous heart in terms of caring about the welfare of others and his community. In spite of this, I experienced an emotionally withheld part of him that I told him felt like there was a mote in the middle of his personality separating his core from the outer aspects of him.

He smiled at me and said that as a teenager he was quite “messed up” (he did not elaborate what that meant) and he discovered that he needed to compartmentalize that part of himself to keep it from intruding into his functioning. He did that very well and it resulted in his having a highly productive and to his point of view meaningful life. He did say however that he had no desire or intention to awaken the “sleeping dogs” that still exist in those dormant compartments. He also said that he is not a very empathic person, but he is highly spiritual and very duty bound in giving back to the world that is based more on a sense of responsibility to his fellow man than an empathic understanding of them.

Which brings me back to the mind of Rodger. Is it possible that his being highly compartmentalized enabled him to avoid prior apprehension by authorities (but not the apprehensive feelings of his parents)? And is it what enabled him to have his darker compartment avoid detection by others?

If that is true and if there is a risk in highly compartmentalized personalities of certain parts of their personalities atrophying at the expense of their entire functioning (especially in regard to interpersonal skills), might that be something we should take into consideration as we raise and teach children so that they can better relate, connect and communicate with the world instead of withdrawing into a dark compartment and plotting destruction?

About the Author
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

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