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. There are 3 types of mental clutter that are particularly damaging:
Worry: 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.
Ruminating over past mistakes/choices: Guilt keeps us in the past, usually with accusations about what we should or shouldn’t have done. After a while, 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.
Negative self-talk: 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.
So 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.
- The next time a worry comes to mind, or you verbalize it out loud, tell yourself to stop and replace that thought with a positive one. 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.
- It is also helpful to replace worrisome thoughts with reminders 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? Join us on Facebook to continue this conversation.
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. She has spent the past 3 years traveling nationally and overseas, providing education and intervention to military service members and their families.
This article is intended for general education purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling or medical care. If you are interested in seeking professional counseling, please call The Stone Foundation at 410-296-2004 or visit our website for more information.