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Using Journal Writing to Clear Your Clutter
by Carolyn Koehnline, MA, LMHC
Editor’s Note from Susan de Wardt: Here’s a practical article that speaks to a topic that confronts so many of us: what to do with all the ‘stuff’ in our lives! Clutter Consultant Carolyn Koehnline uses writing techniques to clear the mind as you clear your space.
I’ve been interested in clutter since the late 1980s when I was in graduate school studying to be a psychotherapist. At the same time that I was learning to look at the world through psychological eyes I was also making my living with a small housecleaning business. That’s when I found out that all kinds of intelligent, interesting, creative people were overwhelmed with daily life and confused about what to keep and what to let go. I wasn’t alone. Many, like me, had sticky note reminders everywhere, piles of papers, and boxes full of things we’d carted with us from home to home.
My time as a housecleaner became a meditation on clutter. It eventually led me to where I am today, a mental health counselor who also teaches and consults about confronting clutter. I do so with care and respect. Looking truthfully at what is filling your time and space takes courage. Deciding what to keep and what to let go is a transformation ritual. Periodically weeding out the clutter allows you to integrate what has happened so far in your life. Keeping the treasures and releasing unnecessary burdens allows you to be more fully present and engaged in life.
What is clutter? Here is my definition. It is the excess baggage in your home, head, heart and schedule that drains your energy, gets in your way, distracts you from your priorities, and has no real place or use in your home or life. It fills up your living spaces with things that are no longer relevant to you, and your schedule with activities that leave you feeling exhausted and unsatisfied.
You may feel that you need to just get a giant dumpster and throw everything in it. You you may fantasize finding the perfect organizational system - one that will contain everything beautifully and allow you never to have to get rid of anything. But I have a different suggestion. Get out your journal.
How can journaling help you clear your clutter? It is one of the best ways I’ve found to address the mental and emotional clutter that is attached to the excess baggage in your home and schedule.
Mental clutter includes the blur and lack of clarity that comes from being overwhelmed and scattered. It can also show up as worrying, overanalyzing or other endless energy-draining mental loops. Emotional clutter is anger, grief, fear, or shame that has gotten stuck in your system in a way that keeps you from moving forward. These hidden but powerful versions of clutter are what make it so easy to accumulate things and activities that aren’t helpful to you. It is also what makes it so difficult to let them go.
Let’s say you are attempting to clear your desk. You look at it and immediately feel a combination of panic, frustration and guilt. Your thoughts go something like this.
“I hate having to deal with this. I don’t even know where to start. I am such a loser for letting this stuff pile up so much. What is wrong with me?”
Notice that this is the kind of thinking that is going to get you absolutely nowhere – except maybe out the door as soon as possible. This might be an excellent time for a five-minute de-cluttering writing. Let yourself yammer away on the page. Think of it as clearing the mental clutter. After five minutes you can rip it up or shred it or throw it in the fire and watch it burn. Take a deep breath, pour an imaginary bucket of refreshing water over your head, and prepare to make a fresh start.
Having cleared some space in your mind you can now use your journal to shift yourself to a more useful kind of thinking. Turn to a fresh page, then set a timer for five minutes and begin with the question, “How would I like this de-cluttering session to go today?”
Well, let’s see. First I’d like to light a candle, put on some energizing but relaxing music, and make sure I have enough light. Then I’d like to set up some sorting boxes with clear labels. Oh yes and I think I want to turn off the phone. I know that by the end of this two hour session I want to have dealt with a significant chunk of paperwork, not just shifted piles around.”
Five minutes later it’s quite possible you will be feeling focused and energized, clearly able to visualize the transformation about to take place. Most importantly you will have shifted from speaking to yourself in the voice of a harassing bully to that of a supportive friend with useful ideas. All in all these two writings will have taken you ten minutes.
In addition to my clutter classes I regularly offer the Journal to the Self® class based on Kathleen Adams’ wonderful book by the same name (Adams, 1990). So many of the twenty-two techniques she offers apply beautifully to the clearing of mental and emotional clutter. Faced with an overwhelming garage you might do a quick “cluster,” (pp. 87-93) free associating in a web-like structure all the different parts of the project, and then putting them into some kind of logical progression. You might “dialogue” (pp. 103-122) with your clutter in general to discover what kind of stance will help you face off with it. Or you might have a written discussion with a particular emotionally-loaded object to see what will help you find closure with the underlying issue attached to it.
When I wrote my own book, Confronting Your Clutter: Releasing the excess baggage from your home, head, heart and schedule, I made a point of including very brief, simple clutter-focused writing exercises, some practical, some playful, some dipping down into the realm of feelings and underlying beliefs. Writing helps you go inward and apply the information being shared directly to your places of confusion and suffering.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to write about every little object and decision. When you are confronting your clutter, pay attention to when you start to feel bogged down or stuck. Know that this is a good time to take a break. Breathe. Stretch. Drink Water. Read something inspiring about clearing clutter. But resist the temptation to turn on the TV or check your email. Instead, set the timer and start writing. You’ll be amazed how much more possible clutter-clearing projects feel when you’ve removed them from the blur of life and given them even five minutes of your full, sustained attention.
Adams, K. (1990) Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth. New York: Warner Books.
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About the Author
Clutter Specialist Carolyn Koehnline, MA, LMHC, has had a psychotherapy practice in Bellingham, Washington for nearly twenty years. She brings a unique perspective to the subject of clutter, focusing on the mental and emotional excess baggage attached to physical and schedule clutter. Her approach combines practical strategies, psychological insights and writing, music and art. Whether working with individuals, small groups, or large gatherings she has a gift for making daunting changes feel doable. Carolyn is also a Certified Instructor for Journal to the Self®, a workshop based on Kathleen Adams’ book of twenty-two journaling techniques.
Carolyn is available for psychotherapy, clutter coaching, and workshops, retreats and worship services on clutter-related topics and journaling techniques. She has written two books. Confronting Your Clutter: Releasing the excess baggage from your home, head, heart and schedule is a collection of essays, poems and exercises specifically to be helpful without being overwhelming. Carolyn also wrote and illustrated The Bear’s Gift, a transformational children’s tale for all ages. To order books or to get more information about Carolyn’s services, visit www.ConfrontingClutter.com.