Cleaning House—3 Simple Categories for Ordering Your Emotional Life
Have you been through a move lately? Well, I just moved my entire family less than two weeks ago. This move covered 10 years, 3 kids, and a whole house full of stuff. Right now, I’m writing and surrounded by half-unpacked boxes and piles that are awaiting my attention. And I am finding that in the midst of all of this chaos, there is something very calming and reflective about sorting through and ordering ten years’ worth of living.
As I sifted through tiny objects in my desk, I thought about the momentous events that occurred in our lives over the past 10 years. Ironically, in this crazy busy time it is the slowing down and paying attention to the tiniest of details that offered me the time to reflect and really savor those events. While packing for the move I began to think, “Perhaps moving is not too far off from trying to keep our emotional worlds in “good enough” order in the midst of our fast and frenzied lives?” Really, there are just 3 important categories to focus on when you move–what you are keeping, what you are giving, and what you are letting go!
While emotions are a bit amorphous and can be hard to track, they are not mysterious. Most of us experience emotions as bits of energy that relate to experiences, attach to thoughts and can define a moment. Emotions are not fact. They can give us information about something, yet too often we react to our emotions as if they are our sole guide in our lives. As a result, we either under- or over-serve our emotions when all we really have to do is tune in to our emotions to see what they have to offer us.
How long does it take to attend to our emotions? I mean, “who really has time for that anyway?” Well, I understand your impatience. Even though I help couples use their emotions to better connect with each other during couples counseling, and teach children and teens to manage their overwhelming feelings in group and individual therapy sessions, I too can become impatient with the process of tuning in. But the process of packing up my house has reminded me that all it really takes is somewhere between 60-90 seconds. When we really and truly give our feelings time, we have a better chance of understanding their relevance in the moment.
As I counted down the days and hours until our move, I estimated that each fragile item took me less than a minute to wrap—what a perfect practice in mindfulness! No wonder why I began sorting through moments in my life in my head while I sifted through piles of stuff in my house! I’d decide to organize a box of gifts from loved ones from their travels to Hawaii, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. “We will keep those and find a spot on our shelves in our new living room,” I’d think. I posted several items on Craigslist that I thought would be useful to other families with small children. Giving toys and clothes away for future use by another family helped me remember how my kids played and grew in this house over the past few years. And, I finally let go of those favorite outfits that fit me before I had my 3 children and trashed the clothes that really nobody would want to claim.
So what emotions do we want to keep, give away, and let go of in our daily lives? If I give myself at least a minute and a half to focus on my daily habits and tasks of living, will I live a more conscious life with a healthier tone and tempo? I believe that the answer is yes! Over the past 30-40 years, the leaders in positive psychology have been building evidence on how to live happier lives. They suggest savoring positive moments in life by carefully attending to the full sensory experience of those moments. They conclude that if we can amplify pleasant moments and slow down, we can keep those feelings and moments more fully alive in our minds, and thereby experience the benefit in our daily lives more regularly.
Happiness experts also suggest that giving and gratitude are primary components of living a more abundant and happy life. Giving what others might need and want, even when it is still cherished benefits both those who give and those who receive. I witnessed this firsthand when I gifted my children’s favorite riding elephant to a family of small children. My kids kissed and said goodbye to that elephant with such vigor and were so happy to send her off to another family.
Lastly, how do we know when we are really done with an emotion that has held on too long? Anger can be a perfect example. When we’ve been hurt or experienced a loss, it can stay with us until we feel safe and secure again, and only then are we ready to say goodbye to it and let it go. It is a bit like that too tight, old pair of jeans that you’ve saved and saved and keep hoping to fit into again. Sometimes, we just need to admit that we’ve outgrown them and that we don’t have a use for them anymore. It takes time to come to that realization, AND it is a choice! But making that choice to let go of old, negative emotions then makes room for other, more positive feelings and new experiences.
So as I packed up my remaining boxes, cleared out the last bit of clutter, and gifted that final item, I felt grateful for the time that I had to reflect. When life feels uncertain or emotions feel chaotic, we can remember that taking time to reflect for only a minute or two will help us reorient ourselves and reorder our emotional world. We can slow down and remember to sort our emotions into 3 simple categories–what we would like to keep feeling, what feelings we want to impart or give to others, and what feelings we are ready to let go of.