Decluttering is one of my favorite things to do. It’s not just because it makes my home look exponentially better in a matter of hours, but it also makes me feel lighter physically and mentally. I’ve written plenty about the benefits of decluttering our physical spaces, but today, I want to talk about mental decluttering.
Is that even a thing?
You bet it is, and we can get good at it with a little practice.
Most of us are not even aware of the tens of thousands of thoughts being churned out of our minds every day. We flit from one thought to the next because each spurns and triggers something that directs the next and on we go with no awareness of what’s happening.
To make matters worse, for some of us, we have anxious minds, and that means that not only are we having thousands and thousands of thoughts per day, but our thoughts are riddled with worry, and those worried thoughts grow, and then grow larger, and they wear us out and our bodies and minds feel exhausted. All the time.
Our lack of awareness about our thoughts is at the root of our problem.
We all know people who refuse to think about things. Many times we refer to them as being “in denial”. They won’t think about a relationship that just ended, or the death of a loved one, or their poor financial situation. This can be incredibly unhealthy, because as we know that monster will come back and manifest in an ugly way later on. But, we do have the ability to shut thoughts off, it’s just that some of us do it and some of us don’t. They key is figuring out when it makes sense to use this ability.
Which thoughts should we let go of?
I used to think that it was impossible to control what I thought about. The fact that I was a chronic worrier with high anxiety just meant that I’m more sensitive and I can’t control it or help it and it’s just the way I’m made. This is true to a certain degree. I am sensitive, but lots of people are.
The key is figuring out when we’re obsessively worrying, or brooding, or “mulling over” things just to feel like we’re somehow in control of them, and when it actually warrants our attention.
Let’s take things a step further.
Not only can you figure out when your thoughts are on a runaway hamster wheel, but you can become the observer of your thoughts.
I know this sounds crazy. Stick with me.
I like to think of it like I’m in a candy factory, and I’m standing next to the belt where the chocolates (dark chocolates of course, let’s not be ridiculous) are being squeezed out onto the belt and making their way down for packaging. My thoughts are the chocolates, and as I’m standing there (with a great class of red wine, hello, I could be there a while), I get to observe them all, and pluck the ones I want off of the belt.
As I’m standing there, I can see which “thoughts” (and oh, how I wish my thoughts were actually dark chocolate right about now) are healthy, positive, loving, productive, nurturing, sustaining, creative, and intuitive. Those are the thoughts I want to pick up off of the belt.
When I see thoughts like old tapes about how I was bullied in eight grade, or how my body doesn’t look as young as it once did, or what if conspiracy theories are true, or I hate my thighs, or could my last tweet have been misinterpreted to be offensive to so-and-so…I want to leave those on the belt and let them keep moving. I don’t want to pick those up. And if they come by again, still leave them on the belt. They don’t need to be chosen, given attention, or digested.
Try This Exercise
The better we get at being the observer of our thoughts, the better we start to realize that we have absolute control over them. Once we do that, we have control over how much our thoughts control our emotions, our actions, and our lives.
For the next day or so, try this exercise. When you start to realize yourself feeling any negative emotion – frustration in traffic, losing your temper with your children, disgust toward your boss – go ahead and take three deep breaths and become the observer of your thoughts.
For example, I try to do this on the highway when someone in the passing lane is texting or having a lively conversation on their phone, oblivious to the fact that they’re operating a motor vehicle, and driving 10 mph under the speed limit. Before I get huffy, find a way around them, and give them the stink-eye, I ask myself “why” I’m having these feelings and thoughts.
- Is this person causing me to be late? Is this person the real reason I’m going to be late? Am I actually going somewhere that I need to be “on time” for?
- Is something else frustrating me and I’m taking it out on other drivers? Did something else happen that day that is under my skin and I feel like I need an unhealthy excuse to blow off steam?
- Do I feel ignored, slighted, unnoticed, unimportant, and insignificant in other areas of my life and this driver who is doing the same is proving me right and that feels bad?
- Am I exhausted and just want to get home?
- Am I really the best driver on the road and every one else should learn to drive as awesome as I do?
After a few days of being the observer of your thoughts, you’ll start to notice a pattern. You may realize that you have a habit of perpetuating negative thoughts in specific dynamics. I would challenge you to consider looking at those areas of your life where you’re always having problems. Are there routinely negative thoughts you’re having that have created a stronghold you’ve not been aware of before?
For example, let’s say you have a business colleague you haven’t been able to get along with for years. Her name is Michelle (sorry, to anyone named Michelle, I don’t mean you specifically). You hate Michelle. Michelle is overbearing, obstinate, rude, crass, demanding, narcissistic, and quite frankly, not even that bright. No one at the office likes Michelle, but she’s been at your company for 20 years and seemingly has some strange control over senior leadership and they won’t get rid of her. The whole drive in to work, the whole drive home from work, in your conversations with your spouse, on the weekends, all you can think about is how much you detest Michelle. You work with Michelle every day, and it literally ruins your day, which in the big picture is ruining your life.
You already know this.
The problem is, you think you’re stuck with Michelle and how “Michelle-y” Michelle is for as long as you work there.
Try this instead: Decide that you’re only going to think awesome thoughts about working with Michelle. I don’t recommend being in denial about what she’s really like as a human being, but, I do recommend stopping the rapid-fire cycle of negative thoughts about and toward Michelle. Try thinking about how much you love your job, you love your coworkers, how thankful you are for your paycheck, for your business opportunities, for the benefits your company provides, for your 401K. Whatever redeeming things you can think of about your job, start being thankful for them.
The “chocolates” you’re taking off the belt about your job are now going to be all about what you love about working at your job. Then, your thoughts about Michelle are going to be put down. Grab them out of the heavy backpack full of “I hate Michelle” thoughts and put them back onto the belt.
How does that feel?
This exercise works for the thoughts you have about every aspect of your life. Once you start to clear your mind of mental clutter, especially the negative clutter, you will be shocked that you start to feel the same way you do when you clean out a closet or a cabinet. Lighter, freer, clearer.