Friday, June 5, 2015

Clearing Out Emotional Clutter

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.

Emotional clutter can also mean habits like negative thinking and self-talk that is hazardous to your emotional health. 

There is a lot of truth to the saying "Most of us are about as happy as we make up our minds to be." Whatever our external circumstances, we have a choice to greet each day or each challenge with hope and optimism or with grim self-pity.

My lifelong friend Sister Ramona, who will be 80 in October, was showing troubling signs of frailty when I visited her two weeks ago in Northern California for her 60th Jubilee -- the celebration of her 60th anniversary of taking her vows as a nun. I couldn't help but notice how thin she was, how her walk has slowed, how her voice -- as she renewed her vows at the altar -- was barely a whisper. And yet, her eyes lit up and she embraced me with joy when she spotted me in the crowd. And when I asked her how she was -- really -- she smiled and said "Oh, I'm okay. We'll talk. But I can do everything I was meant to do right now." She is still a healer of souls, counseling Stanford University students, and a formidable life force -- getting an award late last year from the Unitarian Universalist community in the Bay Area for her leadership in organizing women for peace. She has made the decision to live fully every day of her life.

That is in stark contrast with a woman in our community I'll call Luella. Luella has a loving husband, a beautiful home and a reasonable amount of financial security. She has raised three successful adult children. 

But, instead of counting her blessings, she ruminates on what isn't right in her life. Her arm hurts. She hates her son's latest girlfriend. Her cat died four years ago and the memory of that loss is too great to ever consider adopting another. And, most of all, she hates Arizona.

"It's ugly and hot and disgusting!" she complains to anyone who will listen. "I hate it here! It's so beige. It's so full of stupid people. We moved here to be closer to our kids and now, with their work and such, we're lucky to see them maybe once a week. And everyone here is so stuck-up. This just sucks big time!"

It's no accident that others in the community keep their contacts and conversations with Luella brief and only occasional. 

Stopping negative thinking and self-talk isn't necessarily easy. For many, it's a well-ingrained habit. But it can help to listen to yourself, to be aware, when it starts once again. Listen for patterns and old catch-phrases that speak of your disinclination to make positive changes. 

Using cognitive behavioral techniques with some of my patients, I used to recommend a rubber band around the wrist, to be snapped at the first sign of a negative thought to signal the need for a change of thoughts in order to stop the downward spiral. 

I remember one patient named Ron who laughed softly and looked at me in total disbelief when I suggested this method of thought-stopping. He didn't say he'd try it. But, over the next few weeks and months, his outlook began to shift. It was a slow change, but a steady one. He began to lose the fear, anxiety and lack of confidence that had stalled his life and career. As we talked one day, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and showed me his wrist. He was wearing a rubber band.

"I thought this was a crazy idea when you first mentioned it," he said, smiling. "But I decided to try it and it has made me much more aware of my negative thoughts and increased my ability to stop getting into a spiral of pessimism, depression and despair. I can probably do all this without the rubber band now. But I still wear it to remind myself that I have power over my thoughts. I have a choice."

We all have choices. We can choose to keep our emotional lives cluttered with grudges, resentments, pain from the past and negative beliefs about ourselves and others.

Emotional de-cluttering isn't necessarily quick or easy. It can be a slow process. But choosing to do so can be critical to our life satisfaction.

Little by little, we can choose to let go of past hurts and to embrace growth. We can choose to limit our exposure to toxic people and ideas. We can choose to clear the air, let go of resentment and make peace. We can create more space in our emotional lives for loving experiences, for giving to others, for making a difference, for greeting each day with joy.


  1. Ah, a spring cleaning of the mind! Yes! We do need reminders, and this is a great start. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Rosaria! Spring cleaning of the mind is a wonderful concept!

  2. Truer words were never spoken. There are so many people in this world, just cut out those who give you grief. It's easy to go "Oh woe is me" but as you say it's destructive. I have to admit I hold onto some childhood issues because I want to understand WHY, but I will never know so I have to let go.

    1. It's always good to try to understand why, but sometimes, as you say, we'll never know and just need to let it go. Part of the letting go is accepting the fact that, as bad as things might have been, parents tend to do the best they can at the time.

  3. Yes, but easier said than done! I'll skip over my own emotional issues and use the example of my mother who, until the day she died, resented my dad's mother because his mother made no secret of her opinion that no girl was good enough for her precious son, esp. my mother!

    1. Definitely easier said than done, Tom! What can help is knowing that a hurtful habit may have come from a dark place within. My mother tended to devalue her daughters and women in general. That hurt and angered me a lot until I realized that her father had taken no interest whatsoever in his three daughters and doted on his son (who, tragically, was killed in World War II). So as the abused often abuse, the devalued daughter grew up to devalue her own daughters. It hurt less understanding that.

  4. I have always believed that when bad things happen they are threads within our life canvas. The dropped stitch in knitting or making an error in a complicated pattern. Think of a problem within the structure of a wall or room, peeling paint on a ceiling. It may well be a coat of paint covers it and that's the problem. Or, it could be that the coat of paint only masks the real problem -- the leaky roof and moisture from above. Until the real problem is repaired, the peeling paint will happen again and again, making us angrier and wondering why the paint companies can't make a paint that will stick!

    Sometimes we can easily fix the problem and go on; other times, it takes a good deal of skill and a long while to try to repair it -- but even when you can, it's difficult to look at the piece of work in the same way. We will always see the error, the correction and it may haunt us. The challenge is to see it as a continual problem or an opportunity to learn something new. When we live in our past and let those wrongs override our present, we stay the victim but this time, the victim of our own unwillingness to let go. To become a survivor one must gently and with love release the feelings. As you so beautifully pointed out, change can be complicated, it can take a long while. But change in ourselves and the way we think requires little financial output. It only demands a willingness to move forward rather than stay stuck in the murk.

    Your words are perfect as always, well said and beautifully conveyed. This is an article in itself that deserves a wider audience than even your lively blog following!

    1. I love your concept of the complicated life canvas, Jeanie! You're right that negative happenings in our lives can be learning experiences and add to the richness of our life patterns and that we need to release painful feelings with love.

  5. I recently wrote in my journal that I wished our entire family could have one big pain purge. That of course is impossible because I am the only one able to purge personal pain. Call it clearing out emotional clutter, or purging pain, it must be done in order to go forward. It takes hard work. It takes looking at the things we carry in our mind. It takes wanting to be free. Thanks for reminding us.

    1. Wouldn't it be great to have a whole family pain purge at the same time and then go on? When a family is dealing with heartbreak and loss, as I know your family has, it can be difficult as each family member processes the event in his or her own way and at his or her own pace. You're so right that getting past the pain is hard work and takes wanting to be free. Some people are afraid that, if they are free of the pain, they will lose the loved one lost even more profoundly and so they cling to their grief. It takes time to realize that love is forever and that one can begin to let go of pain while keeping warm memories.

  6. Good morning Dr. Kathy,
    As always I feel like your speaking to me when I read your much needed post.
    I am guilty of not cleaning out my emotional clutter and have suffered because of it. Great advice and I love you for writing this.
    I don't know what I am doing wrong but I seem to be having trouble leaving comments. I left one on here the other night and I came back today to see if it took because I noticed on other post my comments did not. So I am trying again.
    Have a great day!

    1. Maggie, I'm so delighted to hear from you! I've been thinking of you so much and am so concerned about your health challenge. Thanks so much for your lovely comments!

  7. Amen to all that.

    There is one thing though that I would add: if we could learn to ‘respect’ more, ourselves and others, there would be so much less pain in the first place. Love is a beautiful emotion, but too often love can hide a selfish impulse. Respect, to my mind, is all embracing.

    I love your posts, there is so much wisdom in them. Just a few days ago I came across a neighbour who suffers from every one of your toxic emotions. He should read your post.

    But here’s another thought: what happens to people who need to cling to grievances when they are asked to give them up? Do they lose a crutch?

    1. You're so right, Friko: respect really is of pivotal importance in our lives and relationships.

      And you brought up an excellent question re what happens to people who need to cling to grievances when they are asked to give them up?

      Working with someone in therapy, I would first spend a lot of time helping them to get in touch with their unique strengths, the special talents and expertise they have regarding their own lives, the freedom and empowerment of not being a helpless child or perpetual victim. I would help them, over time, to see their alternatives to continuing to live with their grievances. Then and only then, would we start to peel away the painful past and work on giving up the grievances and excuses.

      You're right that some people need to use these as a crutch. In therapy, a lot of work is devoted to helping the patient not to need such a crutch. But for many, it's very hard, sometimes impossible, to let go. For some it's just too hard and too scary to start anew with no excuses or grievances. And that's so sad when it happens.

  8. Great post, Kathy. Just what I needed this week.

  9. Yes! I agree 100%. I am working on my own emotional de-cluttering right now. It seems to be the theme of my summer break. Not that I expect it all to be finished and a clean slate ready by the time school starts back. I do realize this is going to be an ongoing journey. I am just so grateful that I finally figured out that this is what I needed to do. So glad you posted on this important issue.