7. Emotional Challenges While Organizing

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Previously, I gave an overview of the practice of simplifying. Simplifying is making life more simple by letting go of stuff that no longer serves you. In this post, I’ll discuss a common challenge you may encounter when simplifying, emotional responses to your possessions. I will also make recommendations about how to respond in a way that honors these emotions and still lets you make progress organizing.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to organize other peoples stuff than your own? Think about why this is. Other people’s stuff is just objects. Hence, when you work with other people’s stuff, you are completely objective. However, your own stuff is not just objects. Instead, it represents memories, failures, accomplishments, regrets, relationships, and even entire stages of life. We have emotional relationships with many of the objects we own, and so many emotional relationships of so many objects can become overwhelming, even paralyzing.

I have heard many, many examples, like these:

“Oh look, a love letter from my ex.”
“That statue given to me by a friend who died.”
“This is the project that got me my promotion.”
“This box of papers relates to a legal battle with my former business partner.”

Karen had saved all the paperwork related to a disagreement she had had with her boss at a previous job. In answering some questions I asked, and through her own introspection, she realized she was holding onto this paperwork because she was still harboring anger and resentment about the situation. When she became aware that this possession was bringing up unpleasant feelings in her and lessening her quality of life, it became easy for her to let it go.

Caroline had also saved paperwork from her previous job, even though most of it was irrelevant to her current position. As she described the paperwork and the experiences that correspond to it, a common theme emerged. At her previous job, she felt recognized and appreciated. Now, although she still does quality work, she doesn’t feel validated or appreciated by her current supervisor in the same way. She realized that she was holding onto this paperwork because the memory of that past recognition helped her to feel more confident and capable in her current job. With this realization, the criteria for deciding whether to keep something or let it go were changed. Instead of keeping everything, we kept only those things which most recognized her ability, including awards, honors, and letters of appreciation, and we put them in a folder labeled “Confidence Boosters”.

I could literally go on for hours with many different examples, but I think this is enough to illustrate that our possessions can bring up any kind of emotional response in us, including joy, sadness, confidence, grief, fear, anger, regret, pride, shame, and love. This is common and completely natural. I have seen many examples of tears and laughter during organizing.

Most people agree that if you lose someone you love, you will have to go through a grieving process. We recognize that the experience of this emotion, grieving, is actually a process that takes a certain amount of feeling and a certain amount of time. We recognize that if we don’t grieve and don’t complete the process, the grief will stay with us, you might say as unfinished business, until the process is eventually allowed to complete. Only after it’s completed will it be resolved.

I believe that all emotions are like this. I believe that emotions that are not acknowledged and felt will stay with us, part of our consciousness, until eventually allowed to complete.

So if you’re organizing and going through your stuff is bringing up emotions, you don’t want to ignore or suppress these emotions, because that can keep them stuck. On the other hand, you don’t want to get so wrapped up in feelings that you become overwhelmed and unable to make progress organizing. I created an approach which I believe is a good way to both honor the emotions and still reach your organizing goals. I summarize this approach with three words: breathe, acknowledge, and decide. Just remember B. A. D. Yeah, I know, that spells BAD. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate acronym. In any case, let’s take a closer look at each part.

1. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Any paramedic will tell you that when they encounter someone who’s in a panic state, the first thing they say is “take a deep breath.” Just taking a deep breath can significantly change someone’s emotional state. You may have a tendency, when you start to experience strong emotions, to constrict your breathing and tighten your muscles. Consciously taking a deep breath will help relax that tension, create more openness, bring you more into the present, and empower you to move ahead to part two, which is acknowledge.

2. Acknowledge. Acknowledge any feelings you experience. The easiest way to do this is just to say to yourself “I’m feeling angry right now,” or “I’m feeling sad right now.” You could say it internally or aloud. If you’re working with someone you feel comfortable with, you could choose to say it to that person as well.

I recommend using the phrase “I’m feeling angry right now” rather than the phrase “I am angry.” Do you see the difference? Saying “I am angry” tends to create an identification with the emotion, and makes it harder to separate between you and the anger. On the other hand, saying “I’m feeling angry right now” creates a separation between you, who are feeling the emotion, and the emotion itself. After all, you are not the anger; you are just experiencing anger in that particular moment in time.

Here’s an example of acknowledging emotions. I have a friend who taught his young son to say hello to any emotion he becomes aware of. Just to say hello to it. The boy will say “hello, fear” when he feels afraid. It’s very cute. Just being aware and recognizing an emotional response is often all that is necessary to put the feeling in perspective and allow you to move forward with part three, decide.

3. Decide. After you acknowledge the emotional impact the item is having on you, then make the decision about whether the item should stay or go using the full range of decision-making faculties at your disposal. We all have many faculties we can use in decision-making, including emotions, gut instinct, objectivity, reason, intellect, and collaboration. Collaboration is asking opinions of other people. Other faculties are your desire and determination to reach your organizing goals and an awareness of what is truly important in your life. We want to acknowledge the role that emotions can play in decision-making, but call on our other faculties as well. You may have heard the advice “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This phrase captures the idea, but I would state it more generally as “feel the emotions and do it anyway.” “Feel the emotions and then move ahead anyway with your decision of whether this possession should stay or go.”

Let’s look at a few examples of this. I know from my own personal experience that I feel fear and nervousness before every presentation I do. But of course, those feelings don’t stop me from doing the presentation. When I call on my other resources, like the preparation I’ve done, my knowledge of the subject, my experience, and my passion for the topic, my confidence and motivation becomes greater than my fear and this helps me to move ahead with the presentation.

As another example, I still feel some grief when I think of how my mother passed away at a fairly young age. After the death of any loved one, it’s important to allow time for the grieving process. But eventually, there comes a time when it’s important to get their affairs in order. I still feel a closeness with my family members when I remember how we were able to feel the grief and still make decisions about what to do with her possessions.

To review, breathe, acknowledge, and decide is my BAD approach to going through emotionally-charged possessions. In addition to that, I also have a bonus suggestion. Previously, I introduced the three S’s of organizing, which are Simplify, Sort, and Store. The bonus suggestion involves the second S, sort. My suggestion is to sort or categorize the item based on the emotion. For example, you might create containers labeled “good memories,” “makes me laugh,” “I’d rather forget,” or “pisses me off.” In this case, acknowledging the emotion is actually built into the sorting process.

After you sort stuff in these categories, it’s easy to look over these categories and get a sense of how much emotional energy you are devoting to a category. For example, you might say, “I didn’t realize I was keeping so much stuff that pisses me off. I’m not sure I want to keep such a huge box of stuff that makes me angry.”

Feelings are often evidence of healing. Making a decision about an object can actually be a way of helping to heal the emotional relationship it represents. It’s been my experience that organizing your possessions can facilitate the healing of whatever unresolved emotion the object brings up. For example, letting go of a card that makes you feel angry can help you resolve and heal your feelings about that past experience which is the ultimate source of that anger. Deciding to keep a photo of a deceased loved one can be a way of honoring that person’s memory and what they meant to you. Letting go of a gift from an ex can help create closure and let go of unresolved feelings about that past relationship. Letting go of and healing your relationship with past events will help you live more fully in the present.

That about wraps it up for this comprehensive discussion of how you can organize stuff that’s emotionally-charged. Looking ahead, my next post will be devoted to the phrase I hear a lot when working with people who are simplifying, “I might use it someday.” If you’ve ever used that phrase, I think you’ll get a lot out of it, so I hope you take a look at it. Until then, may your emotions be your friend and ally on the path to getting organized.

One Response to “7. Emotional Challenges While Organizing”

  1. Fenster says:

    I’m looking forward to getting more information about this topic, don’t worry about negative opinions.

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