Cleaning Your Emotional Closet

Tuesday, August 20 2019

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine hit a wall with therapy. He’d gone to about five sessions, was feeling discouraged and uncertain, and was considering stopping altogether. As a strong believer in therapy, and as someone who knows how overwhelming it can be to get started, I empathize. So I shared a metaphor with him that seemed to help, and maybe it will help you or someone you know as well.

The closet in my bedroom is almost always in some degree of disarray and clutter. It’s where my partner and I throw things when we’re cleaning in a hurry. It’s where our daughter likes to hide things like toys and shoes and laundry. It’s where all the things that don’t have a home elsewhere in our house go. I try to keep the door closed and ignore the mounting chaos in there, but every now and then, I get a burst of energy and it’s time to clean.

Cleaning, for me, means taking every last thing out of the closet and pitching it into a pile of chaotic miscellany outside the door. Then, at an impossibly slow and careful pace, I pick through every individual item to evaluate its place in my home. Some things get donated, some get thrown away. Others find their rightful home elsewhere in the house. Only a few chosen things make it back into the closet, are folded or hung or placed on a shelf with care. While there is a moment of triumph to be had here, I know that if I don’t maintain this newfound organization, the closet will inevitably descend into chaos again.

I’m telling you about this extremely strange routine because I’ve found that going to therapy feels a lot like cleaning my closet.

When you start therapy, it’s usually because you’re thinking about decluttering and reorganizing your brain. You’re thinking about sorting through it and disposing of the things you no longer need to hold onto, and about finding a place for the things you value and want to keep.

First, you have to dump out the contents of your brain so you can see what’s in there. It feels good at first, like tangible progress, even if it’s messy.

But, then comes the much harder and more painful work of sorting through all of those things. There’s stuff in there that brings up very emotional memories, things forgotten. There are things in there you didn’t even know you had, and you wonder, “Where did this come from?” Other things don’t even belong to you, but you’ve been holding onto them anyway. There’s garbage and priceless, beautiful things. Broken things, dirty things, old things. Things that feel like home.

This part of the process can feel so, so long. It drags on, and you forget why you started doing it in the first place. You’ve put some stuff in the pile to throw away, but now you’re looking at those things, and you’re just not sure. They were part of you for so long; should you just hold onto them, even though you are pretty certain they aren’t worth keeping? Something in you knows you will miss them. Part of you worries that you won’t know what to do without them. After such an arduous process of sorting through all of your stuff, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to quit.

I worry that a lot of people who start therapy stop going after a few sessions, because it does get painful, it is often difficult, and, sometimes, it can feel like a slog. Disrupting the thought patterns and unhelpful habits you’ve developed over time is like that. It makes you question yourself, and sometimes you wonder if you’ll even recognize yourself on the other side. It’s a lot of work coupled with a lot of intentional maintenance. It is really tough.

But I know this: when I struggle through to the end of sorting through all my mountains of stuff, and when I place that final thing in its place in the closet, I feel so good. I feel accomplished. I feel like all the work I did, all the pain, the aggravation, the tedium, led to this result that I can be truly proud of. It is worth it, every second of it.

When you start therapy, think of it like cleaning your closet in the strangest way possible. Throw all the things on the ground, do the work to sort through them, find a place for what is vital and fulfilling. After all that, look back on what you’ve accomplished. You did the hard thing and you are so much better for it.

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