My friend Susan, who has been attending a cardiac support group after her heart valve surgery a few years ago, called recently to catch up. She began to tell me about her support group and then stopped, suddenly exasperated. "There is a woman in the group who is 84 years old and still complaining about how her parents limited her life and caused her so much pain," she said. "Can you imagine? Have you ever heard anything like that?"
Yes, actually, as a psychotherapist, I've heard stories like this many times. While we are all affected by a variety of life circumstances and events, there are some who find themselves haunted by past pain, by present toxic relationships and by negative thought patterns that prevent them from living life fully and joyfully.
It occurred to me that, even as we complete annual spring cleaning rituals, read best-selling books about the virtues of de-cluttering and think more seriously, as our birthdays fly by, about parting with cherished belongings, heirlooms and just plain junk, that we might also think about some emotional de-cluttering.
What is emotional clutter? It's the stuff you hold onto that makes living in the present less enjoyable.
Emotional clutter can be grudges and old hurts that weigh you down with remembered pain that stretches to the present and that separates you from those once loved.
Think about it: as time goes by, does it really matter who offended whom? Does the apology you felt was due feel so urgent now? Would it feel worse to be the first to say "I'm sorry!" or to continue an emotional estrangement?
When you think of the energy it takes to hold onto righteous anger and, over time, the toll this takes on you, do you really want to continue to carry a grudge or nurse old wounds?
Or would it feel better to open your mind and your heart, to reach out with love -- whether or not the other person responds in kind -- and begin to release those old ghosts from the past?
Emotional clutter can be echoes from a distant, painful childhood where the remembered voices of those who caused you to suffer still resonate.
There are those, like the woman in my friend Susan's therapy group, who cling to pain from the past and preclude any possibilities of growth and change and joyous living. There are those whose lives become about victimhood, those whose lives become a string of excuses for not reaching their true potential because of what happened in the past.
Clearing the hurt may mean looking at the situation a new way: your parents weren't experts on the person you were or the person you've grown to be. So their hurtful predictions or observations aren't valid anymore. It can help lighten a lifelong load of pain to tell yourself that your parents did the best they could, that they loved you as much as they were able and that any hurt that they inflicted, whether intentional or not, came from their own dark place of remembered pain.
Emotional clutter can be toxic relationships and the feelings of resentment and inadequacy these inspire. This may be a friendship that has always been problematic or one that has changed over time.
While healing estrangements can be life-affirming, there are times when distance from someone who causes us pain makes perfect sense.
When I was in my twenties, I had a friend I admired and enjoyed, someone who was quite different from me but, for a time, we celebrated our differences. Then I began to notice that who I was and what I needed were beyond her consideration and, that as much as I wanted to talk this over, she would never listen. She would call me at 3 a.m. to cry over a broken relationship or simply to read me a poem she had just written, unmindful of my need to sleep because I had to get up and go to work in a few hours. As the financial gulf widened between us when her more highly compensated career took off, she made fun of my modest circumstances and asked if I'd like to live in her maid's room and jettison my career in journalism to become her secretary/maid. She was astounded when I turned her offer down and called me ungrateful. We drifted apart, both of us finding life perfectly fine without the other.
In all the years since, I have found freedom, not only in our distance, but also in getting to the point emotionally where I could wish her well and quietly cheer her continuing success without lingering anger or resentments.
Emotional clutter can be agitation over people and events over which you have little, if any, control.
Is it really worth your emotional energy to get upset over something that is unlikely to affect your life -- like who wins or doesn't win the Superbowl or "Dancing With the Stars" or, more recently, the transition of Bruce into Caitlin?
The fact that 10,000 people actually signed an online petition the other day to urge the IOC to rescind Bruce/Caitlin Jenner's Olympic medal is astounding. Most of these people may disapprove of this sports icon embarking on a gender change in the latter years of his life or find the concept and reality of transgender individuals bewildering. But the fact remains that he won his Olympic gold medal fairly, with incredible hard work, and as a man, back in 1976. Nothing will ever change that. And the gender switch, after all the publicity dies down, is her and her family's business, not ours. We can hope that Caitlin and the Kardashian clan will go live happily ever after off the media radar. But there isn't anything we can do about it. So why get upset? If you find yourself riled by the denizens of reality television or sports or, for that matter, by the evening news, stop watching.
Emotional clutter can be old prejudices and beliefs that color your attitudes in a rapidly changing world, weighing you down with anger and fear and resentment.
I've heard vitriol flying in our community clubhouse about gay marriage, all things Obama and racial resentments of all varieties. Tempers and blood pressures rise. But this is a very different world from the one in which we grew up. It is a world, albeit still imperfect and evolving, where one's sexual orientation or the color of one's skin doesn't automatically preclude the possibility of living a life with full rights as a citizen. And while one certainly can take issue with our current president over any number of policies, so much of what pulses through the Internet and impassioned community coffee klatches seems based on pure hatred with a sprinkling of fear because he is different.
This is a world where you can certainly hold religious, political and personal beliefs of value to you and that enhance your ability to live your life with love. There is room for constructive debate and a variety of opinions.
But standing firm with a stubborn "That's the way I was raised..." can be hazardous to your own health and well-being. Carrying so much fury as the world changes around you can hurt you most of all.
Perhaps a question about the free-floating anger and hostility online and otherwise is what purpose does it serve? Is there anything you can do to change a situation or actively embrace a cause? Does it increase your peace of mind? Your happiness? Presidents come and go. There are causes where we can make a difference - and ones that are truly futile and frustrating.
Knowing the difference between these and acting accordingly can be critical to one's emotional well-being.