I’ve been teaching decluttering for nearly 15 years now, and as I’ve worked with literally hundreds of thousands of people–and gone through a lot of growth and introspection–I’ve learned a powerful lesson:
The “stuff” we are trying to organize, whether it’s physical, digital, or mental, isn’t typically the problem…it’s a symptom of the problem.
Today I want to tackle a little piece of this by telling you a story of my own struggles, the week of somewhat-painful therapy I went through in early December, and what has happened as a result.
This is a really personal post, and while it isn’t easy to write all this down and share it with the world, if you’re suffering right now, I want to help you know there’s hope.
I shared some heart-to-heart podcasts and opened up about some of my worries late last year–one of those podcasts was called 7 “Rules” I Need to Replace (linked at the end of this post).
In a nutshell, I was feeling worried about some things, stuck in a couple of key areas, emotionally spread thin, and physically weak–particularly when it came to balancing self-care, family needs, community service, and the details here at LearnDoBecome.
I thought the problem was “other people” or “the challenges in front of me”–just like someone who looks at their messy room might assume the problem is “the people who give them things” or the clutter itself.
And because I can’t (but expected myself to) please everyone and immediately solve every challenge, my body went into a pretty intense stress response.
I won’t share all the details here, but I had lots of rashes, fatigue, middle-of-the-night worries, and near-constant tension in my body. It was like I was on guard for most of each day–uptight and worried that if I slowed down, I would let everybody down. My schedule was packed, I had to stop exercising in order to conserve my energy, and I was moving at a pace that was totally unsustainable.
My health struggles went from mid-September until about 3 weeks ago, and because I literally spent months trying to figure it out, I’m hopeful that what I share today can help you get results faster.
I also want to be clear that everything in my life wasn’t terrible. There were lots of really happy moments, a fun family vacation, exciting conferences, meaningful projects, and plenty of beautiful days. It’s just that, behind the scenes, my body was dragging, and, while I was in the middle of it, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
I share this because you may think your life is “fine” right now–or even “great.” But if you are secretly living in “fight or flight” and feeling like any second you’re going to tip over the edge, I want to encourage you to take those feelings seriously and really get to the root of what’s going on.
I am genuinely calm, relaxed, and happy right now, and getting to this point wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I kept thinking, “Oh, I’m sure this will get better soon. It’s just a busy phase of life.” But it was really hurting me. Your situation may be way worse than mine, so I’m not assuming I know everything, but I really hope I can at least point you in a good direction.
The Week of Somewhat-Painful Therapy
A few years ago, I met with a TEAM-CBT therapist (stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–the TEAM method, created by Dr. David Burns) to do some “emotional decluttering.” I talked about it in my podcast here.
I mainly wanted to talk through some mindset issues that were weighing me down at the time, and the session was incredibly helpful. In fact, I didn’t even feel like I needed a follow-up because the therapy was so successful.
However, during this recent challenge when I couldn’t get my rashes to go away and couldn’t calm my nervous system, the best thing I could think of was to meet with my coach/therapist again. I had one appointment on a Monday in early December, and then I had one more on Friday of that same week, and between the two appointments, I probably spent 10 hours doing my homework. I’m going to outline it for you as simply and as clearly as I can here.
TEAM-CBT, founded by Dr. David Burns, stands for Testing, Empathy, Agenda-Setting, and Methods as a four-part process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
For the Testing part, I did a mood log before my therapy session (you can find them online or in the book When Panic Attacks). Basically, you pick a specific moment in time when you are suffering, and then you identify which feelings you’re having (from a list), how much you feel them (0-100%), and what thoughts you’re having that cause you to feel those feelings.
I basically let my therapist know that I was hiring him to help me stop having rashes, and I explained that I was feeling mostly anxious and frustrated.
During the Empathy part, he did a LOT of listening. I didn’t realize how may thoughts I had inside that didn’t have “a place to go.” This is one of the main reasons I appreciate therapists. Sometimes we just need to talk . 🙂 And he didn’t try to “fix me” right away. Instead, he validated my feelings and emphasized the good in me that was causing them.
Then we started a fresh mood log, and he asked me to really think about one moment when the anxiety was the worst. We went through the feelings and thoughts I’d had at the time, and then we did the BEST part, which is called The Positive Reframe.
Essentially, we look at each thought and ask, “What does this thought show that is awesome about me?”
I know…it feels weird at first because when you’re feeling anxious, angry, lonely, etc., you don’t feel awesome.
But we came up with 20-30 different pieces of evidence that showed how my negative thoughts and feelings showed that I care about people, I want to show up for others, I want to protect people from being manipulated, I’m willing to serve and sacrifice my own well-being to be helpful, etc.
When we looked at all those good things my pain represented, he asked the “magic button question”, which essentially says, “If we could push a magic button and make all your pain go away, would you do it?”
Naturally, I wanted to say YES, but given all the good represented by that pain, I didn’t want to push it. Instead, he asked about the “Magic Dial.” What if we could dial down the pain–so there’s enough left to honor my values, but not so much that my body suffers. I, of course, agreed to that, so we set goals (that’s the “Agenda Setting”) to decrease my negative feelings into the sustainable range.
At that point, our time was up, so he gave me homework to finish that pattern with all of my emotions and then start identifying the distortions (also from a list) and then start creating the positive thoughts that could replace the negative ones. He also gave me a quiz on my self-defeating beliefs.
When I left the call on Monday, I assumed the homework would take me an hour, and we planned to meet again on Friday.
What happened over the next few days, however, was some of the hardest emotional work I’ve ever done.
Needing some quiet, uninterrupted time to think, and not being able to sleep well because of all the emotions, I started working in the basement in the middle of the night—between 2 and 4am.
I took my laptop downstairs and did my homework the first night, but once I “solved” the feelings around the initial event that had upset me, I realized THAT wasn’t really the problem.
So I started another mood log with a new event/situation I’d been in that felt even more painful, and I wrote down the emotions, the thoughts, the positive reframe, the distortions, and the new thoughts, and I cried hard during the whole process.
Once I finished that one, I realized there was an even deeper issue, so I started another mood log, cried the whole way through it, and then found one more even deeper level.
I think the reason for my tears was because I felt so much shame—like I should have known how to handle these things and I was “a bad person” for feeling upset or not articulating my emotions and perspectives for so long.
But they were also tears of relief—because as I did the positive reframes—and then as I identified the distortions—it helped me to see that whenever I blame myself or blame someone else or have “all-or-nothing” thinking, I feel REAL pain, but it’s distorted pain.
I didn’t know how freeing that would be. It is that process that helps me to see that whenever I’m struggling, that shows something really good about me and my values—but the pain that goes along with it doesn’t need to be permanent. There’s another way to look at it that still says, “Yes, that was not a good thing,” but it also says, “You don’t have to carry this pain in order to prove that this wasn’t a good thing.”
The other tool that was WAY more powerful than I expected was the self-defeating beliefs quiz.
It features 23 “SDBs”, with four questions under each one.
Here’s an example: of one where I got a “perfect score” (not in a great way…):
MAGICAL THINKING – How much do you relate to the following? (0-4)
- My worry protects me and those I love.
- If I’m not anxious, something bad could happen.
- It is important I worry so things work out okay.
- My worry, anxiety, and/or concern prevents bad things from happening
As I’m reading these now, I don’t believe those at all (part of my homework was to do a mood log for each of my self-defeating beliefs—including the positive reframe, the distortions, and the new way to think about each one), but at the time, I got a 4 on every single part.
The quiz was seriously an eye-opener. I realized how much I struggle with things like people-pleasing, emotional perfectionism, and anger phobia. But until I took the quiz, I couldn’t see that there was another option. I kept thinking, “Are there really people who don’t believe these things?” It was like a light turned on.
Eric was an amazing support through this whole thing. Although I attended the online sessions and did the homework on my own, Eric was my champion through the whole thing. Each morning, he’d listen as I summarized my middle-of-the-night homework sessions, and as I opened up and told him about the thoughts and feelings I’d been discovering, he listened and encouraged me. It made such a difference.
When I showed up for my Friday therapy session, I felt like a different person. I had ALL my mood logs to show as my completed homework, but this time, I didn’t need to talk and cry. I wanted to dive in and ask for help on some of the specific thoughts I couldn’t counteract on my own.
But this time, I knew they represented good things, and I knew they were distorted, so my questions went something like, “What would I do with this one so it doesn’t cause me to feel so sad?”
We also went through a variety of tools that taught me things like “how to look forward to arguments.” That one was a game-changer for me because one of my core self-defeating beliefs has been that it is unbearable to have anyone mad at me. Imagine what that belief does to a person…
Instead, I learned how to articulate my feelings in a way that leaves the other person feeling better, as well. Something like, “You know, this is hard for me to say because I care about you so much, and I can see how hard you’re working at this, but I’m starting to feel a bit angry. And because I want to be close to you, I think it’s important for me to share my feelings. I genuinely want to understand your perspective more fully. Can we discuss this further? Could you let me know if there’s something I’m not seeing yet?”
I don’t know if that exact language would work for you, but just having words to articulate what I feel has been so helpful. I’ve used this twice, and it’s like magic!
I’ll close for now, but to summarize the lessons I learned:
- The struggles in our lives represent the good in us.
- There’s nothing wrong with us…we’ve simply created beliefs that we think will keep us safe.
- If we’re willing to open our hearts and “do the work,” we can find relief.
***Also, I asked my therapist/coach to be our first GUEST SPEAKER inside ARISE in March, and he is coming! If you would like to join us, please come into the membership! I seriously can’t wait.
Books: (The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)