I look at my desk and am shocked that it belongs to me. Believe it or not, while being a recovering hoarder, I consider myself to be hyper-organized. Although I’m not a materialistic person in the consuming sense, since a young age, I held on to nearly every material thing. No exaggeration. Any notes that were sent to me, cards, photos, gifts given to me – anything that had the slightest sentimental value. I was a collector. I use that term loosely because it is a fine line between collecting and hoarder for someone who is even slightly OCD.
If it came across my path, I attempted to collect it. Stamps, bottle caps, funky pencils, coins, stuffed animals, erasers, bazooka joe wrappers, buttons, found objects for art projects, baseball cards, Happy Days cards, Mad Magazines, leaves. The list goes on. Once in elementary school I started collecting straw papers just to see how many I could get. I collected thousands of straw papers. Every lunch period friends would give me their straw papers for my collection. I held onto those until I was in high school. By the time high school rolled around, I was much more evolved and onto more sophisticated collections no longer needing those dorky ole’ straw papers. Still, I reluctantly let go of my straw papers.
And then by the time adulthood rolled around, I landed with about 60 huge photo albums that I lugged from one home to the next including my move from the east to the west coast. Boxes of cards, pieces of paper, tokens, postcards, newsletters (even if it only housed one important piece of information I kept it) came with me to every new place I ventured. I used to pride myself on being eternally organized with my stuff. Each item was placed in its appropriate box. Each photo went into an album. I kept files for anything that seemed important. Outside of the normal stuff – automobile, rental documents, warranties, health and car insurance, I maintained files for directions, entertainment info, interesting people I met – documentation of all sorts. I filled four drawers of a huge filing cabinet.
Certainly, in some ways, given my obsession with orderliness and control, I collected so that I had something to organize. There was comfort in that. Any psychologist could have a hay day with my behaviors. Collecting to ease a compulsion and an obsession with organizing to ease the stress of collecting. You can find me on or about page 417 in the DSMIV.
I fooled myself into thinking that the $50,000 I spent on a Masters degree in Psychology was to help other people. In retrospect, it was the most expensive therapy I ever received. I have no regrets. It was shortly upon earning my degree that I began to feel the freedom of letting go and of trusting that I would be okay in the process. While I don’t necessarily consider myself cured, at least now I can claim to be a normal neurotic instead of a, well, neurotic neurotic. Hence the recovering hoarder.
Over the years, I have been electronically scanning items that I would like to keep even if only in a virtual sense. I’ve actually reduced my photo album collections by 50% and just last year eliminated three recycle bins of paper from my filing cabinet. Ahhhh…that feels goooood.
I still have some battles with the notion of holding on. It ebbs and flows. Only recently I snagged something from the recycle bin that my husband was trying to throw away without my knowledge. Fortunately he’s not an enabler in this relationship, but it’s hard to slip something by me. He was pitching something he held onto for nearly three decades: the December 9, 1980 LA Times Newspaper. Front page article: Ex-Beatle John Lennon Is Shot to Death in N.Y. I just couldn’t let that one pass me by.
I am still hyper-organized and have to quell the stress that surfaces when there are stacks on the desk, too many emails in the inbox, too many dirty clothes piled in the wash basket, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes I still find myself unconsciously straightening envelopes at the card store and tidying up shelves at the grocery store. If I’m out shopping and see something in an aisle, I pick it up and find the proper place for it. The big difference now is that I can have a hearty laugh at the behaviors knowing all along that there is some nutty nutbar thought driving it.
And that brings me to Day #2 of Minimizing Clutter in an effort to Manifest or maximize abundance.
I looked at my desk and had a short-lived mini freak-out. I took a photo to have a point of reference – a benchmark of sorts – for showing change. That’s about all I did for this goal on Day #2. It felt like too big a task to tackle. I battled some maladaptive thoughts specifically the Negative Kick Start and Extreme Thinking.
With a Negative Kick Start, one is likely to use the words no or can’t without thinking through other possibilities. It generally leads to frustration and a self-fulfilling prophecy. With Extreme Thinking one categorizes situations as black or white, good or bad. Taking the negative details and magnifying them while filtering out all the positive aspects of that situation. Extreme Thinking also leads one to come to a general, negative conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over. You predict the future negatively without considering other, more likely outcomes. You have to be perfect, or you’re a failure. There is no middle ground. This style usually leads to feelings of anxiety and sometimes panic and oftentimes to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Example Phrases of Extreme Thinking include:
- I must be thoroughly competent, achieving, and likable at all times, or else I am an unworthy person.
- It was the most horrendous day of my life! Nothing went well today!
- That’s the nastiest person I’ve ever encountered!
- You will never change!
For me, I looked at my desk and thought; I can’t do anything with that mess. I’ll never get through all that stuff. So, I went and cleaned the kitchen instead and then came back to work. The self-fulfilling prophecy is that I believed the unhealthy thoughts, acted on them and then had an excuse to validate that those thoughts were indeed true. For instance, I’ll never get through all that stuff. I avoided the stuff, did something else, came back to the stuff and saw nothing had changed. Voila! The thought was validated. I chalk Day #2 up to a learning experience instead of a failure. Well, I first considered it was a failure and eventually re-framed it to a hiccup along the way. Another opportunity to learn.
And along came Day #3 – February 18, 2010
I looked at my desk and took a deep breathe. Then spent about two hours on emails and focused on one of three projects. About ten hours passed and my desk looked the same – maybe even a little worse. I started to think this whole Minimizing Clutter and Manifesting Abundance thing was a bad idea.
Synchronistically I stumbled across an ABC news video on Six Energy Zappers with clutter being one of them.
Finally Day #4, February 19, 2010, I took some action.
I spent the day working as I usually do but this time instead of flowing between stress and avoidance with the messiness that was surrounding me at my desk, I decided to take a good look at those thoughts and work on reframing them.
I can’t do anything with that mess. I’ll never get through all that stuff.
With thought re-framing, there are four useful steps to take:
Step 1 – Stop and Catch the Thought
By this, I mean, catch the verbatim thought or thoughts that seem to be causing the negative emotions and preventing action – these are called Automatic Thoughts. People have automatic thoughts throughout the day – some are useful, some are neutral and some are downright unhelpful. Many people repeat the same patterns and automatic thoughts for various situations. These thoughts are at the tip of your brain. If you stop and listen, you will catch them.
Again my automatic thoughts were:
I can’t do anything with that mess. I’ll never get through all that stuff.
Step #2 – Look at the Thought
Take a good look at those thoughts. The goal is to assess their validity and usefulness. Is the thought true or false? If you have no evidence to prove the thought is true, then it is false until proven otherwise. In most cases, anytime one uses an absolute like with Extreme Thinking, it automatically gets thrown in the False category. Other examples of absolutes include: All, None, No One, Everyone, Never and Always.
Ask, how is this thought serving me? Draw an objective conclusion about the thought. What are the gains of this thought? Sometimes there are secondary gains to maladaptive thoughts. The secondary gain could simply be the habit of feeling miserably comfortable around a thought that brings you grief and anxiety.
Dispute the maladaptive automatic thought: Ask yourself, What is the best argument against this thought? Here’s where you get to debate the thought. Imagine you are an investigator assessing the situation from the outside.
Clearly my thoughts were False. For me, the best argument against my thought was that surely there was something – at least one thing – I CAN do with my desk. And this whole judging it as a mess thing was annoying. While it may have had some aspects of messiness. It was not a mess. It is what it is – little stacks of papers. And never get through all of that? I’m not that much of a mind-reader.
Step #3 – Shift the Automatic Maladaptive Thought to Something Healthier
Work toward changing the maladaptive thought by shifting perceptions from those that are unrealistic and harmful to those that are more rational and useful. Find or create evidence to support the best argument against the maladaptive thought. This is where you give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting go of the maladaptive thought by acknowledging that it no longer serves you. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? When you have the answer to that question, continue to ask yourself, and this is a problem because…
For instance, I know that those thoughts of mine were not serving me, so I was able to shift from that place forward. But what if I needed to so some more reflecting? It would go something like this:
Q: What’s the worst thing that can happen?
A: The worst thing would be that I spend the rest of my life at a desk covered with piles of papers and stuff.
Q: And this is a problem because….
A: Because it stresses me out to see all that stuff.
Q: And this is a problem because…
A: Because I think that I don’t function optimally when I’m stressed.
Q: And this is a problem because…
A: Because when I don’t function optimally, I won’t get through all my work.
Q: And this is a problem because…
A: If I don’t get through all my work, my clients will think I’m a loser slacker flaker and they won’t contract with me anymore.
Okay. Stop right there. Am I a loser slacker flaker? The answer is (usually) a flat-out NO. Therefore, I am causing myself undue stress. My desk does not define me, my personality, my attitude, my work or my abilities.
The irony in many cases is that often maladaptive thoughts are about protecting our vulnerabilities, which are exactly what the maladaptive thoughts harm in the first place. Let me explain: If I’m worried about upsetting you because your reaction is going to give me anxiety, but yet I have anxiety worrying about your reaction, what’s the point? The maladaptive thought is doing me more harm than you ever could!
Consider the reality: it is much more likely that the story you are making up in your head is not nearly as challenging or difficult as the reality you would experience if your thoughts didn’t run the show. Shift those thoughts to something more realistic and healthy.
Step #4 – Create and Practice
After you have shifted the maladaptive thoughts, create a new thought and practice using it over and over again. By changing thoughts, emotions change, and by changing emotions, behaviors change. THIS is how you release yourself from the inaction or reaction of maladaptive thinking.
My new thoughts:
Well, I can certainly do something with this desk. It may not get completely cleared off, yet I can take it in chunks and try to combat one small section or one stack. While I may not get through all of it today, I can at least feel the freedom of taking some action and making some progress.
And that is what I did Friday evening and Saturday (Day #5) morning. I found myself in the process and it flowed with ease. I spent about four hours sifting through the little stacks. While the process is not completed, I am quite satisfied with the current outcome.
- I sifted through unnecessary papers and either filed them, electronically scanned and/or recycled them.
- I took several pages of notes from a folder, typed them up and recycled. I’m working toward becoming 75% paperless in my office, so it’s a practice for me to shift from pen and paper note taking to Word document note taking. It’s been a slow process and yet over the past couple of months I’ve been typing notes directly on my computer more so than writing notes with pen and paper.
- I dusted off everything – twice around – because it’s been a while.
- I went through my overflowing business card file and liberated about 30% of the cards in the recycle bin – after typing the information from many of them into my Contacts folder on Outlook.
- I finally did something I’ve been meaning to do for over two years. One December back in 2007, my husband took me to San Francisco for an overnight birthday celebration. While out and about we ran into the San Francisco Twins. These two gals, Vivian and Marian, are a San Francisco icon and simply delightful – not to mention a load of laughs. I asked if I could take their photo and they responded with an enthusiastic YES and then requested I send the photo to them. I promised to do so. I’ve had their information at the front of my business card file since that time. TODAY I printed the photo, wrote a letter, put it in an addressed envelope and now it’s ready to go! Woo hoo. I am a person of my word…unfortunately my actions sometimes take their time whereas my words not-so-much.
- On my desktop shelf, I had a stack of six National Wildlife magazines that belonged to my Dad. He used to read them, underline things that he thought would interest me and then mail them out. When I was home last summer helping my mom sift through his piles of paperwork (the walnut did not fall far from the tree), I came across those magazines. I brought them home and they have been sitting there for eight months untouched. I still haven’t been able to get myself to read them. I took about 10 minutes out Friday evening to have a good cry. Within those magazine pages exists underlined sentences, written by a pen that was held by my Dad when he was alive; and he did this because he was thinking of me. Because he knew what was important to me. I took the magazines and made a special file for them. One day I’ll look at those magazines. I’ll probably electronically scan any page that has underlined content and will either donate the magazines to an office or recycle them. One day. Just not today.
There are things that we never want to let go of, people we never want to leave behind. But keep in mind that letting go isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new life.
– Author Unknown
If you’d like to follow this journey from the beginning, the links below will direct you to the series of posts to date.
– February 17, 2010