I define mental clutter as the stuff that not only takes up space in our brain, but continues to live rent-free as we feed, clothe, and otherwise sustain it. It’s the stuff that sends us on all sorts of twists and turns and eventually leads us down a road that goes no where fast. If we let it, mental clutter will move in and take permanent residence in our minds. With a little work, we can find a way to cleanse our minds and move forward. But first we need to explore the most common types of mental clutter.
There are 3 types of mental clutter that are particularly damaging:
In my recent post, Spring Forward, I described fear as a dream thief. Worry is Fear’s first cousin. Worry is always oriented toward the future. In fact, on some level we believe that through our worrying we can actually prevent certain events from happening and control our future. I am not suggesting passivity or inaction as the cure. We do have the ability to make choices—but we can only make those choices with the best information and guidance we have at the time. Worry pushes our thinking into absolutes and prevents us from seeing clearly. When we begin thinking in black and white, there is very little room for creativity or problem solving.
Guilt and ruminating over past mistakes/choices
Guilt keeps us in the past, usually with accusations about what we should or shouldn’t have done. After awhile, guilt can take up residence as a result of having impossibly high standards (yours or someone else’s). This cycle ultimately leads to despair. It is not realistic to say that you’ll forget what happened, but it is possible to release the past in order to live in the present.
Our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world can profoundly affect what we say about ourselves, others and our circumstances. These belief systems originate from many experiences we accumulate over our lifetime. Distorted belief systems can also emerge as a result of traumatic experiences or chronic rejection.
How do we get out of this loop?
It starts with a conscious choice to change. Behavior change originates with our thinking. Gaining control of your thoughts is an ongoing, daily process.
Track your thoughts.
Watch the words that come out of your mouth (I’m positive that readers with spouses will have a potential volunteer to help). How often do you find yourself saying words like, “can’t,” “always,” “must,” or “never?” These are absolutes that keep us stuck.
Tell yourself to Stop!
The next time a worry comes to mind, or you verbalize it out loud, tell yourself to Stop! Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. One example of a positive thought is a reminder of what you do have instead of what you lack. This is not just about money, but also your skills, talents, abilities, friends, family, and supporters.
Remember you past and grow from it.
Remind yourself of how you coped or came out of a particular situation in the past. You can expect that at times you will slip back into old patterns. This is normal—those patterns have been growing for years. Worry and guilt in particular are stubborn emotions. When you catch yourself in an old pattern, ask yourself, “How’s my self-talk?” If you find yourself immersed in anxiety, divide your worries into 2 categories: those you can control and those you cannot.
What would change in your life if you actively chose not to think about the worries over which you have no control?
The Stone Foundation is a community of counseling professionals who are committed to helping you live your best life. If we can assist you as you begin to remove the mental clutter from your mind, please contact us at 410.296.2004 or visit www.thestonefoundation.com. Please know that this article deals with a very serious matter and is intended for general, educational purposes only. This article, and others like it, should not and are not meant to take the place of professional counseling services or medical care.
Elicia McIntyre, a licensed clinical social worker, and graduate of Smith College School for Social Work, has 15 years’ experience providing counseling to adults, children and families in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. She has helped clients navigate life transitions, depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties. Elicia helps couples increase emotional intimacy, and foster healthy connections among family members. She has spent the past 3 years traveling nationally and overseas, providing education and intervention to military service members and their families on communication, stress management and building healthy relationships.