Emotional Decluttering: learning to spark joy
It’s February, the month of love (*rolls eyes). As a relationship therapist I’m often invited by media outlets to talk on the headlines of love: finding and keeping, loneliness and heartbreak, and sex and spice – because it’s February and that’s what we do in February.
Even if you don’t subscribe to Valentine’s Day, there was probably a time when you did. A time when you fell for the idea that your worth could be measured by the amount of valentine’s cards received, or that the quality of your relationship could be measured by the number of roses, chocolates and candlelit dinners your partner coughed up for - a time when being single went from perfectly manageable independence to woeful Greek tragedy when blasted in the face with the full force of the Valentine’s Day marketing machine.
Expectation, followed by disappointment, followed by deterioration of self-worth.
We all know it’s just another day and just another money-making campaign, but for some of us, the haunting disappointments of Valentines past still make it through our critical guard and whisper an almost imperceptible taunt – nobody loves you. It may not be loud enough to ‘hear’ consciously, but it may be just be loud enough to bring our mood down without us even knowing why. It doesn’t help that in this blessed green and pleasant land of ours it does nothing but rain, in February.
This year, instead of waiting it out, hiding away under a metaphorical duvet until March brings the promise of spring and chocolate, why not use this time to follow through on those New Year’s good intentions? Dry January gave our livers a break from the toxicity of alcohol and we de-cluttered our wardrobes to keep ourselves busy. Thanks to Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo, we learned how to fold stuff and to identify what sparked joy and discarded what did not- let’s make February the month of emotional de-cluttering – Konmari style!
Marie Kondo has indeed been quite the topic of conversation so far this year. It seems like everyone is talking about her de-cluttering philosophy and techniques. When I was watching her series Tidying Up (Netflix), it occurred to me that her methods could be put to good use in the tidying up of the outdated thoughts, self-limiting beliefs and critical assumptions that can undermine our best attempts to feel better, do better and be better and so inspired by this technique, I’m sharing a few steps to guide you as you de-clutter your emotional closet.
Step 1. Pile it all up so you can fully realise the extent of the task.
Listing thoughts is somewhat more complicated than emptying a wardrobe onto the bed and requires a quieter, more reflective energy. Give yourself focussed and uninterrupted time to sit somewhere peaceful and then take a pad and pen.
The three main clutter categories are Resentment, Self- doubt and Fear of failure. Today we are going to focus on the big gun- resentment.
Pile on the resentment
Resentment is harboured anger lingering from past hurt and is like Japanese Knotweed of the soul; it creeps into every available space and chokes the life from joy, ambition and passion. We keep hold of it for two reasons:
1. It’s righteous anger and even though it feels bad, it also feels kind of good. We were in the right and they were in the wrong. They are baddies and we are goodies. They are persecutors and we are the injured party. In this at least we are justified in feeling sorry for ourselves. We can pause for a moment from the internal self beating and bask in the reflection of our innocence – can’t we? Yes – for about a minute before we remember our own part in the offence and pick up the stick to beat ourselves once more.
2. Resentments remind us to keep our guard up against a world of people hell-bent on tearing out our hearts and stamping them to the ground as if we meant nothing. They act as a self-protecting defence mechanism that trips the replaying of evidential videos in our heads – playbacks of all the times people were untrustworthy or dangerous - lest we forget and accidentally trust someone again. Every new risk (also read dating, trusting new partner, challenging a current partner) prompts us to press PLAY, lick our old wounds and batten down the hatches. Phew – safe! And alone. And angry. And sad.
The truth is that in general people behave badly because they are reacting to fear: Fighting, Freezing or Fleeing. There are no baddies, nor are there goodies and thinking in that polarised way is childlike and makes us feel like victims. Sometimes we have been victims but that doesn’t mean we are victims. Victims are powerless and unable to defend themselves. As adults we can take measures to keep ourselves as safe as possible and take responsibility for that job.
Step 2. Take each item on your list and hold it close…
1. Allow yourself to feel it. Play each event out in your head as if you were watching it on stage.
2. Then imagine you are in a hot air balloon rising up above the story. You can no longer hear the chitter-chatter, the he-said-she-said of it. You can only see yourself and the other person(s) silently acting out their flight, flight or fearful reactions.
3. Now, act like an all-knowing sage or Zen master and attempt to compassionately understand why each person is behaving that way. Be as kind as you can to both of you. Looking at behaviour with compassionate curiosity will release the air from the resentment and it will fall to the ground like a deflated balloon. Fold it away into the past where it really belongs.
4. Thank the other person for presenting you with an opportunity to learn more about yourself and then ‘POOF’ let them disappear from your mind- they’ve been living there rent free for too long.
5. Visualise whisking your wounded self away to a beautiful paradise island, or to the arms of someone safe and leave your wounded self there, happy and satisfied.
Step 3. What feeling does the memory spark now?
In a few days, think about that same resentment again. Is it still there? Or do you feel something very different when you think of that old memory? Sometimes the pain is still there and it seems we need to hold onto it for a little while longer. Allow yourself a small pile of ‘pending’ resentments to revisit soon. But do revisit.
Eventually, once you’ve learned the trick and felt the calming benefits and freedom of actual headspace, you will begin to naturally and almost unconsciously apply the technique to self doubt and fear of failure too. The more of that emotional junk you can fold away, the more room you’ll have for planning the kind of loving and courageous future that sparks nothing but thoughts of joy.
Out with the old resentments and in with faith in our ability to make better judgments in the future and here’s to already forgiving ourselves in advance of the times we get it wrong.
Rachel Morris is a certified Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist