January 26, 2015

Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter.

Petras Gagilas/Flickr

As someone who grew up with a grandmother and a mother with hoarding issues, I thought I was pretty good at spotting clutter.

Being surrounded by piles of useless junk as a child resulted in me being vigilant about avoiding it as an adult.

As a result, I developed a reputation for being quite ruthless when it came to material clutter: If it doesn’t have a purpose, then it doesn’t have a place.

However, it turns out that I wasn’t as good as letting go of clutter as I believed I was. In fact, I was holding on to a sort of clutter many of us have: emotional clutter.

In brief, emotional clutter are the things that we hold on to even after we tell ourselves that we are “over” it, like a traumatic event or a bad relationship. As I have shared in previous writings, I have had more than my share of bad relationships, including some that were mentally and physically abusive. Even though I had long since cut all ties with these individuals, I still carried around various mental reminders in the form of memories, and even physical ones like old letters, photos and journals kept during that time.

While I will always believe it is important to learn from past mistakes, there is a difference between learning and being reminded of these bad times.

Keeping various mementos of the past was not helping me to remember lest I ever forget. (I could not have forgotten about those times if I tried.) Rather, all they were doing was causing me to re-live some very bad times over and over again.

Sometimes I would get reminders when I least expected or wanted to be reminded. For instance, I was once searching my email for a message from a co-worker and happened to come across a group of email from an ex-boyfriend berating me for some supposed past failing. I had nearly forgotten about that particular incident until I saw those messages again. Not surprisingly, the end result of seeing them was a deep funk that lasted most of the day.

While some may point out that the obvious solution is just to get rid of all things that remind someone of an unpleasant person or event, I was quite reluctant to do so because I thought that by doing so I would be admitting that all that time spent on each respective person or thing had been a waste of time. Lastly—and, it took me a some time to admit this—having these reminders justified the anger that I still held even when I told myself I was over it.

Look at how I was treated! How could he do that?! 

However, holding onto emotional clutter is much the same as holding on to physical clutter: sooner or later, no matter how much room we think we have, we reach a limit.

My turning point was when I asked myself if it was really worth it to hang onto these things at the expense of better, happier memories.

One of the first steps I took was deleting a complete folder of emails that I had kept from an old boyfriend of several years. As I pressed the keys to delete the folder I thought about the possibility that at some point I might need these for whatever reason or that I would have regrets for deleting what was essentially our history together. However, once I did so, an interesting thing happened: none of those things happened.

It was clearly a case of out of sight out of mind.

The same was true as I went through photo albums and removed pictures of people and events I no longer wanted to be reminded of or at least didn’t want to be reminded of continuously.

While not everyone may want to take as radical approach as I did, just putting aside such things or telling ourselves we aren’t going to discuss or dwell on various things unless there is a good reason to do so can be helpful.

Lest anyone think this is the same as denying the past, it is not. Our past has a place and all memories±good and bad—have a place. However, just like most of us have places in our homes where certain things go, such is the case for bad past experiences.

The phrase “Let it go” is one that is often repeated but for anyone who has ever attempted it, it can be much easier said than done.

I’d rather replace that with “Put it in its place.” While doing so also comes with challenges, it can be more attainable or at least result in a better state of mind.

While it may not result in the release of all mental clutter, at the very least it cannot hurt to try to let go of some of it.




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Author: Kimberly Lo

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Petras Gagilas/Flickr

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