We are in what many people feel is an in-between season. The rush of the New Year has passed, often along with the determination to keep resolutions. And Spring seemed to arrive late, especially for those on the east coast. If you live in a wintry place, this sense of limbo can feel especially stark: the longing for some fresh beginning, some proof that transformation is possible. The waiting can be hard, and sometimes it can feel like we’re stuck in Winter forever — both the literal and the metaphorical kind.
At this time of year, on the verge of a new season, it’s a great time to look at the role that clutter plays in keeping us bound to the past.
There’s a reason that Spring Cleaning, even with all its dust and built-up grime, is a profoundly liberating act: it is intentional, declarative. It clears out what isn’t working and makes room for something fresh, something alive with light and new energy.
We all have different preferences and tolerances for the amount of stuff that surrounds us. The important distinction lies in recognizing what kinds of things we’re surrounding ourselves with.
In our living and working spaces, clutter can be more than just things that take up physical space. Everything we keep comes with its own story. When we hold onto things that reinforce unconscious habits, old hurts, and ways of thinking that don’t serve us, we can unknowingly anchor ourselves in unhealthy choices and behaviors from the past, despite our best intentions and earnest efforts. We want to be free and to live freely — but we often get in our own way.
How the need for safety can keep us stuck.
We’ve talked before about how our brains resist change. The amygdala
, that tiny almond-shaped and ancient area of our brains, plays a huge role in calling the shots when it comes to reaction, behavior, and habit. It reacts instantaneously to perceived danger and initiates the fear/stress response in order to protect us from that looming threat. It’s driven by a couple of simple formulas. One is: Safety = Survival. The other? Familiar = Safe. So, familiarity gets intimately linked to survival.
But in 21st-Century life, what the brain perceives as dangerous isn’t always dangerous; and what the brain perceives as safe isn’t always safe — or beneficial. In the pursuit of security, predictability, and survival, we often find ourselves stuck — in repeated thought patterns, old stories, toxic relationships and memories, destructive emotions, engrained habits.
What’s more, scientists at Yale School of Medicine observed in 2012 that letting go can be literally painful. When facing the task of discarding things that are personally significant, there are two areas that light up in the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula.
These are the same places that light up in the presence of conflict and many forms of psychological pain. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Neuroscience of Change, explains: “Perhaps the simplest way to think about the ACC-insula combo is that it creates the signal of ‘something wrong.’ The brain circuit motivates you to look for an opportunity to prevent harm or relieve anxiety.”
And we know exactly how the brain responds when it feels like something is wrong — it wants desperately to cling to familiarity and safety. So too often, we hang on.
So what’s the secret to getting unstuck so you can move forward?
You can imagine clutter in various forms: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual. Some things, like a drawer full of unpaid bills or a closet of memories from a broken relationship, certainly can and do hold more than one form at a
But it’s easy to see how certain forms of clutter can lock us in; they can quietly become the limiting story that we keep repeating to ourselves. When we open that closet and see the reminder of the partner who left, without realizing it, the story can become, You aren’t worthy of love. No one will stick around. When we keep trying to deny the drawer full of bills, we can start to believe, You’re a failure. You’ll never amount to anything.
Rather than supporting a clear vision of the future, toxic clutter can hold our gaze to the past; it can block our ability to see out, to see a way beyond. In fact, even the word “clutter” comes from the Middle English “clotter” (to clot) and “clatter.” Everything gets sticky, congealed, and surrounds us with confusion and noise.
Getting unstuck involves identifying and facing clutter, of all kinds. Doing this can be uncomfortable (even painful!), because it means contemplating letting go, and letting go is change. Dr. Judith Sills, in a recent Psychology Today article, points out: “At its deepest level, the prospect of letting go forces us up against our three strongest emotional drivers: love, fear, and rage.” It may not surprise you to know that all of these primal, intense emotions travel right through the amygdala. Our brain fiercely links them to our very survival.
So we know that letting go isn’t always easy. But when you’re spinning your wheels in the muck of the past, it’s impossible to launch into new territory. If we want to be ready to greet a new Season, we have to be willing to face the grime.
You can start small. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you’re contemplating letting go of something:
* How long has it been there?
* Do I feel free and happy when I look at, use, or hold this item?
* What are the thought patterns that are attached to this?
* What do I tell myself — about myself or about others — each time I encounter it? Is it life-giving?
* What price am I paying for keeping it around? Is it worth it?
* Where does this object anchor me — my past, my present, or my future?
* Am I ready to let it go?
Even just honestly identifying what’s blocking the view forward can be powerful. Says Dr. Sills: “Acknowledge your secrets. Nothing nails us to the past more than the energy it takes to keep them.” Small victories — that flicker of emotional freedom and the sense of re-directed, flowing energy — release doses of reward chemicals in the brain that can encourage you to dig in and keep pushing forward. Even the simple act of naming out loud the clutter for what it is can be the catalyst for something bold, empowering, and new. No moment of courage is wasted.
This is something we can do at any time, in any season, of course. But as the light is growing, the ground is stirring, and everything is preparing for a greening season — why not now?
Did you know that increasing the activity in your prefrontal cortex can help calm the stress response of your amygdala? This brings more clarity, better decision-making and more! If you’re feeling ready to start some Spring Cleaning in your life, for a limited time, you can have a complimentary Higher Brain Living® session! Click here for a special offer and to sign up.
Sources consulted for this piece:
Grufferman, Barbara Hannah. “Life After 50: Are You Stuck? Lost the Clutter and Find Your Life.” Huffington Post, Jan. 02, 2011.
McGonigal, Kelly, Ph.D. “Why It’s Hard to Let Go of Clutter.” Psychology Today. August 2012.
Sills, Judith, Ph.D. “Let It Go!” Psychology Today. December 2014, pp. 52-59, 86.