How are you feeling?

This country used to be famous for its British reserve and its stiff upper lip. Now we take our cues from television characters who scream and slam doors and hotly accuse each other at the slightest provocation. Public displays of rage or sentiment are reckoned as more honest, authentic or ‘human’ than calm and rational courtesy; and we freely broadcast a spattering of emotional reactions to the world on social media, in the convenient shorthand of emoticons.

Emoticons can express what we find difficult or are too inhibited to put into words. In this world of remote communication, where the person you are speaking to is not right there to read your expression, a wink or a smile can convey your meaning more subtly than words. But do emoticons help us to accept how changeable, irrational and complex our emotional weather really is? Or do they reduce complex shades of feeling to a set of clichés and grimaces, the online equivalent of cartoon expletives like ‘Grrrr’, ‘Arrgh!!!’ and ‘??’

In magical tradition, to name something gives you power over it. When you can appreciate your emotional state of mind lucidly enough to label it – “What I am feeling is angry, or sad, or anxious…” – you take command of the stress or upset that a moment before was controlling you. It is immensely helpful to give a child the words to pin down their confusing emotions: “That looks frustrating”, “Are you very disappointed?”, “That was surprising, wasn’t it?” It is immensely helpful to yourself to name your feeling, or cocktail of feelings: “This is only fear talking, this is my critical self having another go at me, this is confidence saying Go for it!” It is helpful to everyone when you learn to communicate your feelings: not as rights, or excuses, or reproaches, but to clarify where you are coming from; to explain your present point of view, without demanding sympathy or compliance.

Your kneejerk reactions are never a reliable guide to what matters. Our emotions do not tell us what is true. They can only tell us what we believe, or hope, or fear at this moment in time. But they give us a rich, rapid and intuitive range of responses to the world and to each other, faster than thinking. To be emotionally aware is to become emotionally resilient. If you know what it feels like to be afraid, defensive or hostile, you can also be more freely grateful, affectionate, compassionate. When you pay attention to your feelings, whether your heart is sinking or singing, you will know the direction of your thoughts. Then you can make decisions and move on, wholeheartedly – with heart and mind together – instead of being blown off track by mysterious and unwanted impulses.

Uncluttering: weeding out the no-mores and the maybe-laters

I prefer the word unclutter to the increasingly common ‘declutter’. An uncluttered space feels spacious and always pleasant to be in. To me, ‘decluttered’ sounds temporary, stripped, less than it was.

You can get such a buzz out of clearing a place to within an inch of its life, that the decluttering gurus often encourage throwing out hard and fast as much as you can in one sustained assault. This may be necessary when time is short, but it is like a rapid diet: you may lose weight fast, but it will soon creep back, and even more than before.

Your excess stuff, like excess weight, is a personal and emotional issue that can be dealt with more gently and effectively. It calls for sympathetic attention and planning in advance. Just as a definition of weeds is that they are the flowers you don’t want in your garden – because they tend to take over and choke the ones you do – clutter is only stuff that is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stuff in the wrong place: The old rule ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ is fundamental. Does every item in your possession have its own convenient, logical place, where you know exactly where to find it? What is the purpose of each room in your house, and is there anything in it which does not serve that purpose?

My mother once designed a treasure hunt for one of my birthday parties. We had to run from room to room, looking for objects that were out of place. A toothbrush in the hall would direct us to the bathroom; a carrot in the bathroom would send us to the kitchen… Each displaced object was a clue that would lead us from one room to another until we found the treasure. Nice idea! It was a disaster. The children found so many items in every room that were out of place that the treasure hunt disintegrated into a shambles.

The right place for anything is where that sort of thing belongs – tools together in their place, clothes in theirs – and (crucially) where you put it back after each use. Where everyone in the family knows to find it, without endless ‘Has anyone seen my car keys…?’ and ‘Where did you put the…?

Stuff at the wrong time: I like the idea that there are two sorts of clutter. There is fear-based clutter, which you are afraid to let go in case you need or regret it later; or that represents memories you cling to, for fear of losing what is special about them. And there is hope-based clutter, which includes all the things you hope to get around to mending/decorating/using one day; or that you hope will be of more value in the future than it is to you now.

The right time for stuff is what you presently love, use, and have space for, at this period in your life.  Clutter is what you have grown out of, does not add shine to your present way of life, that would leave you lighter and freer if it was not there. The right time for stuff is the time you set aside to take hold of it, look at it, experience the emotions it stirs in you, and think through your priorities. Whether you want to sort one drawer or a whole house, take a little time to explore different tips and approaches; find what works for you and where are the sticking points that you may need help with.

Uncluttering need not be a once-for-all, shameful or saddening, overwhelming encounter with your past or your unlived future. Let it rather be a continuous process of rearranging, reassessing, rediscovering, resurrecting, rethinking your life as you go along. You can’t stop old stuff from becoming less relevant, or new stuff from flowing in. A habit of redirecting the clutter as it starts to cluster will enable you to honour the past, make room for the future, and above all live unencumbered in the present.

Further reading:

Dana White, Decluttering at the Speed of Life

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