Spring Cleaning Your Mind: Clearing Away the Clutter of Negative Thoughts

DaffodilsBack last week when it was snowing (in April!) I was thinking about spring cleaning. When I announced this to my family their faces lit up, filled with such hope: yes, borderline hoarder me actually had been listening to their pleas all those years and was finally going to roll up her sleeves, arm herself with oversized trash bags and tackle the clutter of nondescript stuff that has been multiplying sci fi style in our basement for—yikes—decades. But no, quickly enough their hopes were dashed. Much to my husband’s and daughters’ chagrin, what I meant was that I would merely think about spring cleaning from the comfort of my laptop, the fuss, the muss, the bags of nondescript stuff had no part in my plan. But still, I had a purpose other than avoidance of onerous tasks.  I was thinking in earnest of spring cleaning, but of a different kind of decluttering—in this case freeing the mind of thoughts outdated, useless, broken and taking up valuable space.

When you mention the word decluttering, these days, Marie Kondo’s name pops up in the mind of the millions of the more traditional and deserving roll up your sleeves spring cleaning types, but given the reach of her message she popped up in my mind too. Her Does this spark joy? keep it or scrap it question for sorting the clutter we live with got me thinking about what really gets in the way of our experience of joy. It also got me thinking of the many humorous spinoffs from Ms. Kondo’s good work my favorite being  Maddie Dai’s New Yorker cartoon in which a burglar, TV in hand, ponders whether his loot sparks joy…. but I digress.

What really does make us feel joy? Research tells us that happier people don’t necessarily have more happy thoughts, they have fewer negative or unhappy thoughts. We can confirm this with our own data. When we conjure up recent joyful moments they might well not have come from sought after, highly engineered, often costly experiences— the beach vacations, great tickets to a Broadway play, the no holds barred birthday celebrations. Rather, joy is hidden in plain sight for us. Every day. Like yesterday when I saw a social studies poster my daughter had been working on for hours till every inch of that board was covered—it was a work of art! Or when a friend confided in me recently about a hard time she was going through and I felt that deep trust of friendship. Or when I noticed the quince starting to bloom, a plant whose color I find hard to describe—is it orange—is it red? It’s a shrub my parents had at in my childhood home and I like the continuity. These moments –opening up to a surprise connection with people in the check out line, or with a friend, noticing beauty around us—could have been just as easily missed if we hadn’t had attention available for them. Joy requires presence. Joy is presence. I could easily have barked at my daughter for taking so long on the poster and neglecting her chores (and may have a little at first…), could have focused on my own difficulties and missed that connection with my friend and marched right past that quince bloom rushing to get into my car for what? I don’t remember now. But I do remember the quince.

What does your inner clutter sound like? Is it a gridlocked conversation with your personal intrusive inner critic or pessimist or just the rush, rush, rush of busy-ness? It is difficult to access the joy that is right in front of us when so much of our attention is taken up by this clutter.  So, while I am all for the traditional spring cleaning (especially when my husband does it), here’s an opportunity to give a good once over to the clutter we may most neglect: the detritus of disappointment, jealousy, presumed failure, and other negative emotions which accrete in our minds.

Label The Clutter and Get Distance We would never imagine that the piles of mail, drawers of broken or at least unnecessary small appliances, the dried out bottles of old shoe polishes, old phones are our treasures (and that, dear readers, is the ten second tour of my house!). When we really look at those items, we know they’ve got to go, it’s just a matter of when. In contrast, when we open the doors and drawers in our mind, and find there the old messages that we tell ourselves: that was stupid, what are you doing with your life?! I’m a total failure, etc. these negative thoughts stop us in our tracks and we would think by the way they grab all of our attention that we confer upon them great value and authority. We can’t help when that first negative thought comes along, but we can develop a habit of refraining from adding ten more in its defense. Rather than keep those thoughts alive with our attention, label them.  When you hear the thought: I am a failure, or that was stupid, say: I’m having that “I’m a failure thought” right now. Or, there’s that “That was stupid” thought again. Put it in the right drawer, the junk drawer. This cleans out the pile of these thoughts and puts them in their rightful place of knee jerk human reaction to disappointment or uncertainty—or simply passing idle time—like when we’re trying to go to sleep. The less we engage with these thoughts, the pile shrinks, it’s almost like the mind is self-cleaning with certain key maneuvers.

Zoom Out: Look Elsewhere Recently my husband—an artist with a physicist’s soul and a sense of vastness the scale of which makes me a little overwhelmed at times, said: “ the mind is very big. There’s always somewhere else to go,” (baby boomers may hear echoes as I do of Carl Sagan famously saying “billions and billions” when referring to the stars). And I thought—that’s great, we do seem to be drawn to the clutter—when really we could go elsewhere in the vastness of mental space, unlike our homes which are naturally limited. Go anywhere—center yourself noticing what is in front of you, stretch back or forth savoring happy moments, feel gratitude for what you have, send love out into the world. Also good news: walking away from our piles of physical clutter, just makes us slackers, walking away from the negative noise in our minds and directing our attention elsewhere retrains the brain on a new pattern and makes those other connections weaken and atrophy resulting in fewer negative thoughts. Notice that this is different from coping with a problem by distracting yourself—which is a popular strategy we turn to, but as I say to my young patients—if your worry is telling you there is a bear next to you and you try to distract yourself from it, it’s not going to work (and it shouldn’t!). You must first remind yourself it’s a picture of a bear that your worry is showing you, then you are free to roam.

Lose it In Translation: Break free of the broken record Those susceptible to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) know what it’s like to have the pile up of negative thoughts playing on repeat. We are boring, we are failures, we are filling in the blank with the opposite of encouragement. Are we boring or our depressing thoughts boring—they are so repetitive, we need a break from the playlist that I call “depression’s greatest hits.” Enter Google translate. I don’t know if there’s research on this, but anecdotally from my kitchen I have found that if I put in a line about myself, my marriage, whatever it may be that’s been running laps in my mind and translate it into any romance language I feel suddenly uplifted.  Why does this work? Novelty. It doesn’t instantly trigger the crestfallen feelings that have been cultivated by its native tongue counterpart. English may be the exception here, other languages being far more beautiful to my ear, but there are so many to choose from. Portugese is a current favorite of mine, but there are nearly a hundred to choose from. “Eu sou um fracasso”—sounds energizing and exciting to me instead of saying I am a failure. It would definitely get me off the couch and back to work.

Rethink the Rush When our now grown daughter was three or four she played a game where she ran around the living room and then flopped on the couch and said, “I’m so busy!” Hmmmm. Yes, that was a clear mirror held up to our lives. One of the loudest sounds of clutter for many of us that we have to work around is the constant rushing sound of our inner timekeeper urging us to hurry up. What does that timekeeper know of quality of life? When we keep ourselves set in rush mode we engage our fight or flight reaction, which because it is engineered to keep us safe from big threats like bears, is an immediate counterpoint to the part of us that could stop and notice a wonderful moment in the making. So rather than build up the clutter of adrenaline filled messages, flash your power and take a few slow deep breaths—just to show yourself that you can afford it. You’ll feel better and paradoxically you’ll do be more efficient without the fear of being late nipping at your heels.

If You’re Sad and You Know It, That’s OK Worry and negative thoughts can clog up the switchboards in our minds, but sometimes when we are feeling other feelings—sadness, grief, loneliness, anger we can try so hard to not feel those emotions that the effort to not feel what we’re feeling blocks our access to other feelings. It is a natural instinct when we have an unpleasant emotion that our first reaction is to defend against it, but then we’re not just saying “no” to this emotion, we are shutting off to everything. If we say no to an emotion, our inner alarm lights up our defensive system. Part of our alarm is feeling that what is unpleasant is wrong. If we can make room for feelings, then we make room for others—and even for joy. When a difficult emotion rises up in you, you can quell your anxiety about it by saying—I feel anxious, and that’s OK. It’s a feeling and like a wave it will come and it will go. Paradoxically, accepting and making room for those difficult emotions makes them feel less overwhelming and helps us to integrate and flow with the feeling.

So declutter away, free your mind and make room for joy and if you do decide to tackle the piles of papers and other visible clutter, please just don’t tell my familyit will make me look bad, well OK, if you must, you must.  Happy spring, all!


©2018 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.


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