by L.K. McBrearty
After almost 20 years of life in the military, whether on active duty myself or as an Army spouse, I’m still trying to climb out of the inevitable clutter that PCS’ing every few years and life, in general, has created. I find myself sounding like a broken record—if you would just take five minutes every day and put things back where they belong things wouldn’t get so messy and out of control.
But alas I and many others of us just can’t follow that simple advice. And so the mess piles up. When I finally think about trying to tame it, it’s too overwhelming and go find something else to do. I can always deal with that pile later, right?
But do we? Maybe one pile gets cleared, but another gets created or there are already 5 others awaiting my attention. This is because in most cases I don’t really deal with the clutter, I just move it around. Maybe I hide it somewhere so my guests or family won’t see it. Or even worse, I freeze up by the thought of having deal with it all and just find something else to take my mind off the clutter.
Wait a minute you say. What’s this HGTV organizational tutorial have to do with PTSD? Everything, I say.
When the memories of traumatic events invade our brain, this is like the piles of clutter found all over of our houses and offices. If we don’t organize those memories and put them in their rightful spot, then they just continue to grow and pile onto one another, sometimes even sprouting even more piles of clutter.
A cluttered brain can’t think. It can’t function. This exacerbates the problems of PTSD faced by so many. Just like a little pile of papers can in a few years turn into a hoarding nightmare, so can the cumulative effects of a little clutter of the brain.
So now what? Start organizing your brain, just like you would organize your house. And just like in your home, everyone’s brain is different. Just because I find that organizing my closet by color works, doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way. But there are some hard and fast rules for organizing that when you follow them, should help keep the clutter at bay. And if you find that your physical condition is just as messy as your mental condition, use these rules simultaneously for both situations.
1. Clear it out
In your home, if you have piles and piles of stuff everywhere, it’s hard to do anything about it. Often this is when we freeze and find something else more pleasurable to do. When our brain is overburdened with clutter the same effect happens.
We look for happiness elsewhere—alcohol, drugs, sex, anything but being left with our cluttered thoughts. So, get rid of the temptations to put decluttering off for another day and start it clearing out. Just like emptying a room, empty your brain. Try meditation, prayer or just try to be still for a few minutes and let your brain rest. Quiet the clutter so you are mentally prepared for step 2.
Now it’s time to get dirty. Go through everything that you just cleared out. Label each thing, Trash, Donate, Keep. Depending on the amount of clutter you have this could take a few hours or maybe even weeks. But every step you take is a victory. So how do I trash, donate and keep thoughts? Several ways.
Trash—evaluate your thoughts. Are they self-defeating, hurtful, and just not healthy? If yes, these are trash. Toss them out of your vocabulary and ban them from returning.
Donate—seems strange to donate your thoughts, but when you think about it when you share ideas, whether in talking or writing, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Find an outlet to share your thoughts—private journal, one on one with a friend, blog or with a professional. But only those that are worthy of sharing; remember you already trashed the bad ones. And by bad ones, I’m not saying you have to talk about furry kittens and rainbows all the time. Or even smile while doing it. I’m saying that cruel, hurtful, harmful, or self-defeating thoughts are not what you or others need. Those are thoughts that cause more clutter, are defeating, and should be trashed.
Keep—One of the cool things about mental organization is more often than not, a donated thought is also a keeper. Not always. In some respects, you can share the thought and by the act of sharing the thought has released its cluttering grip on you. But if you’re not sure, ask yourself a few questions. If you can answer “yes” to any of them, keep it. If “no” it needs to be trashed or donated.
Does this thought support you? Do you love it? Is it essential? Not all thoughts/memories are happy ones and some are rather awful ones but are actually worth keeping. Here’s why. The awful event that comes into your thoughts and memories is a part of your life and helped shape you into who you are today. Trying to pretend it never happened is not realistic or helpful. So even unpleasant thoughts may be keepers. But you’re not done yet. Just labeling something doesn’t get it off the floor and make it easier to move and think. Organizing does.
You’ve sorted and gotten rid of the trash and have begun the process of donating. Now it’s time to organize. Put like-minded items together. Step back and assess what you have left and how to properly store it. Happy thoughts are easy and even fun to organize and store. It’s the memories of unhappiness that become harder to deal with and so are often just left out to become clutter. For memories, recognize they are just that—memories of a past event. Done. Unchangeable.
Guilt, regret, and self-loathing are all destructive thoughts and need to be trashed. However, along with those memories are lessons learned, ways forward, and new chances. Even though these two thoughts are linked through a common experience, they should be stored differently. Memories, like photo albums, need to be put away on a shelf and only taken out when you choose to do so. Present and future opportunities created from this experience can now be put to the forefront and help make your thoughts more functional and supportive for your goals.
The hardest part of this process is spending that 5 minutes every day putting things back where they belong. If left out until “I have time” or I”I just can’t do it right now” you’ll find yourself back at square one. This leads to the final rule. Build good habits.
4. Build Good Habits
This is why you have to find the organizing technique that works best for you and not just what Pinterest or some shrink told you. What works for one person may not work for another. Evaluate where and how you naturally put things down and “organize” your life. How do you already organize your thoughts? Adapt that process and set up systems to protect you from accumulating more trash. Donate often and evaluate what you keep every day.
We all know what to do, but going through the process is actually a very difficult process. Take these steps in small chunks and accept that there will be times when you may have setbacks. That’s OK. Just clear your space and begin to sort. Evaluate your plan and make adjustments. This is a process and it will take time.
Organization often seems like a pretty easy and simple process to implement. But as we all know, it is a constant battle in all our homes and minds. For most of us, the clutter is a nuisance and a constant, but a controllable distraction from the goodness in life. But in some circumstances, the little bit of clutter building up on our desks and junk drawers can explode into a hoarding situation and can become overwhelming and downright dangerous. When this happens in our mind it can be deadly. Never be afraid to call in a professional or ask for help.
This was first published on August 13, 2014.