Spring Cleaning: Walk Away Clutter

I’m one of those people who gradually accumulate possessions until their living spaces begin to feel stuffed up. Folks like me sustain an ongoing attempt to spring clean, but something in us always protests. It makes us cling to possessions we don’t need, hesitate before discarding things, and set discouragingly ambitious rules about how de-cluttering should happen. If you’re one of us, perhaps you should consult a doctor. Happily, I’m sort of a doctor (I have a PhD), and through extensive experimentation (cleaning my own house), I’ve arrived at a simple, effective clutter cure I call “Walk-Out Therapy.” It will help you make your home a peaceful space where you can thrive.

Diagnosis: Domestic Stuffiness

The tendency to overstuff our homes is an inherited condition that evolved when living circumstances were harsh. One of my great-grandfathers supported 13 children on a wooden shoemaker’s income; a great-grandmother on my father’s side of the family survived by gleaning wool left on thorn trees by passing sheep and knitting it into socks for cowboys. My point is not that I come from people obsessed with footwear but that just a few generations back, most folks had almost nothing. We’re programmed to be pack rats—to hoard, not jettison—our possessions. Add to that the unprecedented wealth of modern society, and you get an epidemic of clogged living spaces.

The obvious de-cluttering solution is to throw out things the moment you no longer need them. Easy, right? Wrong. Your inner pack rat won’t stand for it. “But I can still wear that!” it squeals as you consider discarding a 20-year-old jacket with shoulder pads. You feel an intensely visceral clutching anxiety that won’t abate until you hang the unsightly garment back in your overstuffed closet.

So, the first step to a clutter cure is to write down your favorite pack-rat phrases. My clients’ top three are: “I have to go through those,” “Someone could use that,” and “But I need it!” Unless you use the object in question at least once a year, such righteous exclamations are actually symptoms of dysfunction. Obeying these protests will keep you overstuffed and off balance forever.

Instead, use your powers of analysis to outwit the primitive logic of these phrases. When I ask clients what they long for, the most common responses are “peace,” “space,” and “freedom.” Clutter keeps us from achieving these goals, and we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars buying larger homes. Empty space is more valuable—psychologically and physically—than almost any object.

With this in mind, walk into any room of your home and focus on 10 random objects. As you consider each, ask yourself (1) Do I truly need it? (2) Do I truly adore it? (3) Would I trade inner peace for this? The answers can help curb your pack-rat impulses, allowing you to clear out and move on. 

Treatment: Walk Away Clutter

Many of my clients have grandiose delusions about how to dispose of their excess stuff. “I’m trying to get bags ready for Goodwill,” they’ll say, “but I get distracted.” Or, “I need to hold a garage sale but can’t find the energy.” Believing you must donate or sell your clutter is another relic of the days when people suffered from scarcity. The poor aren’t a junkyard substitute. I’ve tried to donate broken or ugly castoffs, only to have Goodwill—quite rightly—reject them. Give away items only if they are in good condition. Hold garage sales only if you love them. And stop waiting for that unscheduled weekend to de-clutter your home—it ain’t coming. Instead, proceed straight to the cure.

A walk-out can begin the minute you realize that certain possessions aren’t worth your space, money, or inner peace. After your 10-item evaluation, put two unnecessary objects near your door each day. Every time you leave your home, pick up one item, preferably two. Drop them into the first public trash can you pass (if you’re driving, find a waste receptacle at your destination). The idea is to get items out of your house irrevocably, preventing “trasher’s remorse.” Do not wait to de-clutter in one big fell swoop. Do not ponder or pause. Evaluate, grab, walk out, discard, and repeat. (Although you should avoid walking out someone’s personal possessions without asking first.)

This month, commit to walking out at least two items a day. At first, your inner pack rat will resist. Start with objects that will cause you the least objection (your cat’s disintegrating catnip mouse, the nearly dead houseplant), then move on to more challenging items: the unreadable book, the never-used salad spinner, and, finally, the expensive but atrocious jacket.

Very soon, like any good medicine, the walk-out will make you feel better. It eventually becomes quite intoxicating. I love the slightly naughty thrill that comes from tossing an object, followed by the delicious sensation of my space—and my life—opening up. Walking out your junk is habit-forming. It never loses its power to please, which is more than you can say for most physical possessions.

The final benefit of Walk-Out Therapy is its low level of side effects. The pack-rat part of you will tolerate gradual de-cluttering much better than major surgery. Your loved ones, too, will let go of excess stuff more easily when the removal is slow and steady; they’ll notice your home’s increasing spaciousness without missing the chipped mug or the ancient bowling trophy. So reclaim your home. Walk out your clutter, pushing through resistance and inviting the rush. Then sit back, feel the openness, and breathe, breathe, breathe. 

Choosing a Line

Due to a freakish lack of snow in the Rockies this year, I only recently sneaked in a couple of days of skiing. It was probably a mistake not to go sooner and more often because many of the dramatic breakthroughs in my career have happened while I was on the slopes. My first invitation to appear on the Oprah show came after a producer called asking about stress reduction tips and I told her she’d have to catch me later since I was skiing. All the other experts she had called were frantically sending her emails, personal letters, gifts, and candy grams. Of the twenty people she spoke to, she told me later, I was the only one who had not added to her stress levels. (She called while I was in deep play—coincidentally a very effective method of stress reduction.) It was the first of many tiny career miracles that would happen while I was frolicking in the snow. 
 
In addition to releasing all thoughts of grasping and anxiety—which is the catalyst for the material creation of our fantasies and desires—skiing is one big metaphor for how to live a joyful life. It feels slightly dangerous and, at the moment of most danger when the skis begin to accelerate and the feeling in one’s body is very unfamiliar, the way to save yourself is to abandon all reason and throw yourself down the mountain. Each time you do this, in what feels like a moment of magic, the physics of gravity, snow, and ski combine to swing you back into safety right before you thought all was lost.
 
Skiing is a great teacher for taking risks, but that was not my lesson on this most recent trip. What I learned about this time is what I call “choosing a line.” When you stand at the top of a difficult run, it is best to push all thoughts of anxiety or potential catastrophe to the side and place your attention on the line through the obstacles that will require the least effort. This is the line you ski. If you get off line and find yourself in what feels like a bit of danger, I suggest utilizing the following instructions:  stop, step, stare, and start. Allow me to explain.
 
If life begins to overwhelm you, the first law of expert skiing is to stop. This is counterintuitive when the work is piled up to your nostrils and people (both inside and outside of your head) keep telling you that time is of the essence.  It doesn’t matter. Stop. Withdraw yourself mentally and physically from the frenzy if necessary. I mean, who has not hidden out in a lavatory stall just to take a breather? 
 
Once you are in a place of momentary peace, step out of the process. If your energy is overwhelmed and panicked, you absolutely cannot create a good result. Step aside. You can play “visiting Martian” or “omnipotent archangel” or “magical Zen master”—whatever it takes to make you realize that you are not the slave caught up in the task, but a witnessing presence, a spiritual being having a human experience. 
 
From this perspective, you stare the way a skier stares down a slope looking for the line of least effort. Here is the lesson I learned on my recent trip:  There is always the line. It is the line that a small stream of water would follow as it slips and turns its way down the mountain. When you ski it you proceed as effortlessly and as fearlessly as the water because you are in harmony with nature. Your nature is to follow the effortless line and, when you obey it, effort disappears and an amazed joy replaces it. This is not a miracle, as miracles are meant to defy nature—it is simply the way we were meant to exist. 
 
The reason this lesson came so forcefully to me on my first trip of the season is that during the summer my body had been refining the knowledge that it gained from last season’s adventures. I did not think my way toward the line of no effort, I just gazed until I felt the line. Your body mind knows better than your analytical mind how to choose your line through your next scary field of bumps. If you relax enough and allow the pictures to come into your mind without forcing them, you’ll realize that you have this test mastered even if you’ve never done it before. 
 
Once you feel the line, start again. Pour yourself into the line your body mind has chosen. Relax. Trust. Let the moments that used to be scary call forth a reaction of deeper relaxation and trust. As my favorite yogi John Parker recently told me, the body truth always goes ahead of the mind lie. When you are moving fast through dangerous territory, the mind lie is not only inaccurate but much too slow to be useful. Lead with the body truth. Stay with what is in your heart, not your brain. Follow directions from your gut, not a textbook. Let your body be as fluid as a falling cat that turns in the air because it is designed to land on its feet. 
 
So what is the frightening situation lying before you now? Whatever it is, stop. Step out. Stare at the problem, not with fear, but with the embodied understanding of how nature wants you to work. Then start again. This is the moment you’ll feel the ecstasy of being human and realize that it is the reason you even bothered to take this little vacation into dangerous territory, bitter weather, thin air, and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. Ski on!

Revealing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Disclosure

Cindy was my own little JFK: A riddle wrapped in a question locked inside an enigma. She’d been my client for nearly three months, but I still had no idea what she thought or felt. Our conversations always went something like this:

Me: “So, Cindy, what’s going on in your life?”

Cindy: “Oh, you know. Like, my parents…[long pause]”

Me: “Yes?”

Cindy: “You know how they are.”

Me: “Um, not really. How are they?”

Cindy: “It’s like, well, anyway…I don’t know, they…like…[sigh]”

Me: “Like what?”

Cindy: “You know.”

As flattered as I was that Cindy seemed to consider me omniscient (she said “you know” approximately four thousand times per session), I eventually had to advise that she stop wasting money on a life coach who had no clue what to tell her. “But,” Cindy exclaimed with obvious dismay, “you’re the only person who really seems to understand me!” 

Until that moment, I’d assumed that Cindy didn’t trust me enough to talk about her inner life. Then I realized that she just didn’t know how. To some degree, most of us share her dilemma. We want desperately to be understood, and we think this will happen when we meet the Perfectly Understanding Person. The truth is that we lack the capacity to make ourselves understood, the ability to disclose our real selves in a way that connects us with others. Even if you’re as stuck as Cindy, you can—and if you want to live joyfully, you must—learn to do it. 

The Dance of the Seven Veils 

The ability to make yourself understood is a prosaic, practical skill, like swimming or telling time but more fundamental to your emotional health. In his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” William Butler Yeats called it “the heart-revealing intimacy / that chooses right,” phrasing that emphasizes the importance of opening our feelings to others—but carefully. Most of us reveal ourselves about as gracefully as drunken ducklings until we’ve had a little experience. Like Cindy, we may spend years in inarticulate silence, then blurt out things that make us feel, well, like we’re exposing ourselves. 

The ability to disclose our true selves effectively is a bit like the famous dance of the seven veils, in which the dancer removes one veil at a time, with plenty of dancing in between, creating far more allure than if she just showed up buck naked. Relationships, even completely asexual ones, work the same way (one of my clients used the term falling in like to describe the happy dance of gradual disclosure involved in making friends). Our true selves are hidden behind innumerable veils. Each time we disclose a truth about ourselves—anything from our favorite color to our deepest feelings—we remove a layer. Pay attention the next time you do this. Notice the other person’s reaction. Does it make you feel understood, safe, glad you’ve unveiled a bit? If so, you’ll probably feel like shedding another layer sometime soon. If not, simply stop unveiling. By responding to your instincts, you’ll develop the skill of setting boundaries very precisely. This sets you free to bond with people who really understand you, while remaining cordially detached from those who don’t.

The Art of Self-Disclosure 

Cindy didn’t have any objection to shedding her veils, but she was tangled in knots of inarticulate shyness. She had to learn the art of self-disclosure from the ground up. I use the term art advisedly. I believe even if you’re a bullheaded truckdriver with the emotional range of a stump, developing an ability to disclose will require—at least temporarily—that you become a self-disclosing artist. There are several different ways to awaken the artist in yourself, starting with: 

1. Let your body talk. You could assemble a group of mothers from Zimbabwe, Greenland, and New York, have them describe what it was like to give birth, and rest assured that they would soon be weeping for one another’s pain and laughing at one another’s jokes without any need for interpreters. Lacking a common language, they would speak in Body, the communicative code of gesture, movement, and facial expression shared by all people. If you’re not able to articulate what you feel or believe, you can use this code to let your deep self talk to your conscious, verbal mind. 

Cindy and I started using this process shortly after she rejected my suggestion that she find another coach. I had her describe to me, in as much detail as possible, some of the best and worst experiences of her life. Her words were few and halting, but the more she tried to describe these events, the more Cindy’s body unconsciously began to express profound experiences: hands moving protectively toward her throat or opening into starbursts of excitement; eyes narrowing in anger, then widening in astonishment; shoulders hunching, drooping, squaring off for combat. Every so often I’d ask Cindy to freeze, and we’d talk about what we thought her body was trying to convey.

You can use a similar method alone or (better) with a buddy or counselor or (best) with a group of friends. As you talk about a problem or prospect you’re facing, ask yourself and your observers what your body is expressing. When I do this in seminars, I’m amazed by how much information people get from one another’s physical signals, how sensitively they can interpret nuances of feeling, and how much consensus exists, even in large groups, about what any given person’s body is expressing. If your mind isn’t sure what you’re feeling, you’ll be amazed what you can learn from and say with your body.

2. Fumble for words. Despite the power of body language, we are ineluctably verbal creatures; words usually end up being our preferred means of self-disclosure. Most of us don’t realize that humans have barely begun using language to describe subjective experiences. Until a paltry few centuries ago, most people were far too busy surviving to spend time discussing thoughts and feelings. Many of the words we use to describe psychological phenomena (depression, excitement, humor) were originally used to refer to physical objects or actions (a concave surface, the initiation of motion, bodily fluid). These words were adapted almost fancifully to describe feelings or thoughts. They stuck because no better alternatives existed.

Since using words to capture and convey experience is so new, I think we should all consider ourselves verbal pioneers, pushing back the boundaries of the wild frontier, groping for the words to express things that may never have been expressed before. If you’re intimidated by the thought of saying the Wrong Thing, try deliberately playing fast and loose with words. Most of us censor and edit ourselves when the words that pop into our minds aren’t sensible. If Shakespeare had thought this way, he might have written, “That’s a hurtful thing to say,” instead of, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears.” The second sentence is less factual, but we can feel its meaning viscerally. When it comes to self-disclosure, choose guts over grammar. Say what comes up.

When Cindy began to experiment with voicing her first thoughts, rather than the “right” answer, I immediately began to understand her better. “I feel like my head is full of sand,” she said one day, “with a bird in it.” Then she blushed and apologized, “That makes no sense!” But it made perfect sense to me. I could feel the clogged thickness of Cindy’s brain in my own head, sense the fluttering, winged thing that was buried alive inside it. My inner life had connected with Cindy’s, and her emotional isolation began dissolving.

Try writing down the phrase “I feel like a ———” and then toss out the first ten nouns that come to mind: pizza, orchid, sword, whatever. Now read over what you’ve written and see what rings true. Do you really feel like an orchid? In what way? Be as irrational as you can be. The less you keep the rules, the more your mind will begin to use words as vehicles to convey the sense of your experience, rather than as rigid structures that limit your thoughts and feelings.

3. Use artists’ creations to describe how you feel. Great art, in my opinion, is simply a reflection of the artist’s ability to disclose his or her inner experience very directly and accurately. I know exactly how Edvard Munch was feeling when he painted The Scream, and so do you. A sequence of musical tones assembled by Bach, or a few words placed in a sparse line by e.e. cummings, can convey pure emotion or articulate truths I never knew about myself—I have no idea how this is possible, but it is. A wonderful way to disclose your own heart, then, is to get a little help from artists who communicate feelings similar to your own. I tend to play music for my family and friends (“Here! This is what I’m feeling!”) as a way of disclosing aspects of myself I can’t express. I also plague people with drawings, paintings, books, and movies that have touched me deeply. It always strikes me as miraculous that I—or you or even the noncommunicative Cindy—can borrow the genius of artists who lived in other times and places to build bridges across the voids that separate our hearts from each other. 

*****

As a matter of fact, Cindy the Silent gradually blossomed into one of the most expressive people I’ve ever coached. After learning to interpret her own feelings, speak freely, and ride piggyback on the self-disclosing genius of others, she decided to quit her dead-end job and enroll in film school. She recently sent me a still shot she’d taken of me sitting in my office with my dog, discussing the art of self-disclosure. Beneath the image Cindy had written, “This is a little underexposed, like me. But I’m working on it.” She didn’t need to say more. She knew I’d understand.