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We live in a time that feels far from simple. Signs of success include big houses and multiple cars and incredibly busy lives. We fill our houses will lots of things. We’re proud of our full schedules and how organized and together our lives are.
Busy, busy, busy!
Except, few of us really have all that and even if we do have all that, we may feel overwhelmed if our minds aren’t balanced and we’re off-center.
This is a type of clutter. Because our brains are cluttered, we often start accumulating clutter in other parts of our lives.
Let’s dig right in. In one of my previous blog posts the subject was clutter. Most of that article was about physical clutter. It’s fairly easy to clean up a messy room caused my carelessness. But when clutter is the result of a messy life, emotional attachments or just leaving no time for quiet contemplation, it takes more effort to clear it out.
It takes more of an intentional process to work through this type of clutter.
Even if you’re the super organized type (I aspire to be you when I grow up!), you’re human. At some point you’re going to become out of sync.
The world works in warp-drive. We’re supposed to have projects completed almost before they’re assigned. Your children have more activities going on at one time than we used to have in a year.
When our thinking starts to become chaotic we begin to perceive the world differently. Our emotions can appear unusual and situations that used to be simple, become harder to deal with.
At that point your thoughts become chaotic. You feel emotions in unusual ways and you become more fearful. Life starts becoming more painful and harder. You may find yourself more critical and judgmental than you used to.
You’re likely reacting to life rather than responding in a thoughtful way.
Whether you can see the clutter or not, it harms you and those around you. It blocks you from your connection with yourself and with your higher power. You cannot thrive while living a clutter-full life.
But when you’re living a life full of clutter, be it mental, emotional or physical clutter, you can get caught up in a cycle of overwhelm and despair that nothing can change your situation.
I’ve been there.
I used to run my house and family and business like a boss! My gardens were glorious. My house was nicely decorated yet still cozy and a “lived-in” home. It was clean and decently organized. I didn’t just feed my family, I put gourmet meals on the table and cut the darn crusts off the PB and J sandwiches into cut little shapes!
At the time I was teaching gazillions of cycling classes and boot camps and lifting weights. From the outside, I had my life “together”.
Que the overwhelm.
My husband picked up his mother, who was going to visit with us for a couple of weeks, and our new rescue Great Dane puppy at the same time. The next day, my mother-in-law stayed in her room except to go to the bathroom. I checked on her in between classes. The girls were home but were busy being pre-teenage girls. By the time I left to teach my evening cycling class, I’d called my husband and told him it was time to get home. I couldn’t leave her alone anymore.
As I finished teaching, my husband called to tell me that his mother wanted to move in with us but wanted to specifically ask me if that was okay. She was dear, at that moment at least so of course I said yes.
The next year was full of situations that were out of my control. I didn’t have the tools to cope with her Alzheimer’s and a husband who desperately wanted to do the right thing but wanted his mother to not be sick. Not to mention two children who were trying to transition into young womanhood and we were training the most stinkin’ cute puppy in the world.
I spent a lot of time learning about transforming fear into love that year but the lessons learned from that year and beyond are for another day.
For the purposes of this article though, I’m referencing the clutter that took over my life and what I learned about it; and also, how I found peace with it.
Overwhelm happens when we use our reptilian brain. We react to what appears to be an emergency. That ancient part of the brain, the amygdala, becomes activated and starts a cascade of stress hormones through your nervous system. You go into fight or flight mode.
This is wonderful if you need to outrun a bad guy or flee a burning house. But if you’re dealing with a sun-downing 82-year-old woman, this is not a helpful or healthy place to be.
I’ve felt this way when studying for an exam I didn’t prepare well for and certainly more recently when confronted with piles of papers to sort because we couldn’t face them at the time. Again, the fight or flight response makes all these situations worse, rather than better.
Animals often go into a state in which they uncontrollably shake to diffuse the fight or flight response. We don’t do that. Once this response has been triggered there isn’t an easy way to stop it. The response stays on as long as you perceive a threat.
That also means that the response can be triggered later on through painful memories, fearful thoughts, dreams, attachments to objects or other strong emotional situations.
Overwhelm is a monster wreaking havoc on us. For me, it manifests in procrastination. I can find much more important things to do like exercising or creating chaos or eating too much, or traveling more is prudent (that is hard to admit).
Perhaps we buy things or just spend time shopping even though we don’t buy anything. I won’t quote the statistics on how much time we spend on social media but it is years of our lives.
All of this is clutter.
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines clutter as:
intransitive verb: chiefly dialectal : to run in disorder
transitive verb: to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement or reduce effectiveness
We don’t even usually recognize that we’re recycling old wounds and living in fear. We’re creating more and more clutter in our brains and eventually in our homes or at work.
We find ways that actually reduce our effectiveness. The pain won’t stop until we do something to clear it out. It takes work.
We have to rewire our nervous systems. And that means learning to slow down. That means bringing a mindfulness to every part of our lives.
That means consistently practicing this new way of thinking until it becomes your unconscious reaction. This will break the cycle of feeling overwhelmed. For that to happen, we need to do the following things.
To go fast we need to slow down. That means that often the exact opposite behavior is what is required to get where you want to go.
In this case, our brain needs time to recognize its’ new pattern. You’re creating new neural pathways in the brain so give yourself a chance.
You took years to create those old well-worn neural pathways. These new neural pathways will start to work their magic and you’ll find yourself wanting to de-clutter more and more of your life and take better care of yourself.
You may be used to spending most of your time in highly charged situations. You might even believe that you thrive on that environment.
You won’t for long because you’re keeping yourself in that fight or flight response. It’s important that you take time away from situations that trigger you.
You need to do this consistently.
Find a new way. If you find yourself feeling angry and judgmental on your commute to work, find a new way. Take a train and read a book, for pleasure. If you drive, remember that everyone is no better or worse than you. Find a new perspective as you drive.
This awareness of the need to switch from reactive thinking to thoughtful response must be a complete effort.
I recently heard a saying, “you don’t wait to see the accident coming to put on your seat-belt”. Consistently cultivating our ability to slow down and respond rather than react in the easier situations means that when we are confronted with a more difficult situation, we can keep our cool and are more likely to get what we want.
In my case, I’ve got physical clutter. I know that as soon as I clear the physical clutter away, my excuse as to why I don’t meet a deadline or forget an appointment is gone. I think the clutter is upsetting me. And it is. But it’s also serving a purpose, albeit a not so nice one.
In the past I’ve either ignored the mess by closing the door or tried to do the entire thing at once. Neither method produced good results. Avoiding the mess obviously didn’t help and going in to do the whole thing ignored the emotional baggage attached to the job.
Remember small changes produce big results. One of the things I teach people is that small changes create big results. So what if I used that approach on my office and my house?
It hasn’t been perfect but I’ve been breaking the job down into smaller pieces.
Sometimes I empty out a drawer and don’t even look at it. I move it to a different location and then go through it in a less emotionally charged place. This keeps me out of feelings of shame or guilt or frustration or anger or whatever emotion fear tries to make me experience.
Choose awareness. The first step with ANY problem is some sort of awareness. Often, we rush right past the feelings we have in our daily life that send us into overwhelm and clutter up our lives.
If we first bring awareness to these situations and then slow down before we respond, we break that cycle of overwhelm and de-clutter our lives. As we get better at this, the process gets easier and the clutter starts almost vanishing.
Once you start to see even a small area that is clean and shiny and organized and yours, you are likely to want more. That small area will grow.
That is what I’m experiencing. One drawer at a time; one stack of papers at a time; one box of old photos (stored those for later) at a time; one shelf of old blankets at a time; and so on.
It feels good.
And when I feel those overwhelming emotions start cluttering up my brain, I put them aside even though I see they are there, and find something else to do.
Overwhelm is something we chose. We might not like to admit it but everything is a choice. How we look at life is a choice. How we feel might not seem like a choice, but it is.
Know there is nothing you can’t handle. Overwhelm usually happens when we decide something is too much for us. I’ve decided that there isn’t anything I can’t handle. I have the tools. I know how to slow down and back off. I can find other things to do or ask for help. I can meditate. I’ve got the tools. I’ve got my plan.
If I practice the steps outlined above and use my tools, I can get over overwhelm and tackle clutter LIKE A BOSS.