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Clutter Busting Your Life
Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others
By Brooks Palmer
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Brooks Palmer
All rights reserved.
THE CLUTTER OF FALSE ARMOR
I came to my client's front door and was greeted by a small piece of paper covering the glass. The words on it read, "Occupants are home and are armed." The word armed had been heavily underlined with a pen. I thought, "It's the antiwelcome mat. I think he wants to be left alone." It's a good thing I don't take these things personally.
I rang the buzzer. From behind the door I heard a defensive, "Who is it?" I said, "It's Brooks, the clutter-busting guy." I heard the clicks of four door locks opening. The door cracked opened slightly, and a man's face peered out. I nodded and said hi, and he opened the door the rest of the way. The man was in his late fifties and dressed in black and had a tough-guy, don't-mess-with-me air. He reminded me of Charles Bronson in Death Wish. I shook his hand, and for a moment I could see fear and sadness in his eyes beneath his rough veneer. I remember thinking that it felt as if his inner core was filled with tears.
My client invited me in. It was difficult to get past the stacks of paper and boxes obscuring the entrance. The space was dark. Some light from a dim bulb at the end of the hallway revealed the pathways he had carved for himself out of the clutter. They were mazes. The musty smell of mold in the air made it difficult to breathe. He boasted that I was only the third person he had let into his house in the past twelve years.
Then he gave me a tour of the house. I couldn't see the extent of the clutter on each floor because the walls of clutter were a couple of feet taller than me. Bungee cords held them back so they wouldn't collapse. I feared the cords would break and the mounds of stuff would topple and kill us both. My client showed me where he slept — on a soiled comforter lying in one of the pathways. The place felt haunted.
There was no empty space. There was no feeling of life in the place. He said in his rough-and-gruff, matter-of-fact voice that every night for the past six months he had lain in bed and put a shotgun in his mouth. But for some reason, he couldn't get himself to pull the trigger.
It was the first time I felt overwhelmed in a job. I didn't know how I could help this client. Then tears began to fill his eyes. He tried clearing his throat to stop the emotions that were erupting. He said in a soft, cracking voice, "I can't take the pain of this anymore. I feel so ashamed that I'm living this way." That was the opening, the crack letting in the light. His pretend wall of toughness had tumbled, revealing his fragility.
I was suddenly inspired. I grabbed a trash bag and waded into the clutter. I said, "Let's start here!" He looked stunned. I pulled out an empty soda bottle. I said, "What about this? Do you need this, or can we let it go?" He didn't know what to say. He was filled with so much inertia that it was hard for him to think. Somehow he managed to say, "I guess I can let it go."
As we worked he told me he used to live clutter-free. He had few possessions, and he liked living with open space. He used to be very social. He worked at a top-level creative job that he loved. His colleagues there felt like his family. But twelve years ago he was fired in an abrupt and unkind manner. My client was deeply hurt, and he reacted defensively by shutting himself off from the world. He filled his home with needless things to insulate himself from the world. But he could never feel safe enough.
After a few hours of working together, I asked him, "How about the sign on your front door, the one that says, 'Occupants are home and are armed'? Can we let it go?"
He went dark and tough again, and his vulnerability vanished. He said, "No, that sign stays! I need to protect myself. No one's ever tried to break in because that's up there!"
I gently told him that the sign wasn't protecting him from the one person who was causing him the greatest pain and misery — himself. He made himself live in squalor. Every night he put a shotgun barrel in his mouth and threatened his life. He terrorized himself. The sign wasn't stopping him.
Tears flooded his eyes, and he cried for a while, his whole body shaking. It felt as if shackles were breaking off his body. This man felt the need to protect himself from being hurt with an aura of violence and power. But the things he was using to protect himself hadn't made him safer; they had hurt him. He saw that he couldn't rely on them anymore, and the mighty power of his heart came to his defense. My client went downstairs and took down the sign. When he came back up, the color had returned to his face. I could feel his true presence shining through. It reminded me of the movie The Exorcist, when the demon leaves the little girl and she's healthy again.
We spent the next few months dismantling the clutter fortress in his home. As we worked side by side, I could see his inspiration grow as he came home to his heart.
Having dropped his severe protective stance, he reconnected with a girlfriend from thirty years ago, and they became a couple again. He spent evenings and weekends with her, and they relished their time together. By dropping his false armor, he restored his connection with himself, and he became open to connecting with others.
When this remarkable client finished clutter busting, he sold his home and rented a small cottage from some long-lost friends. Now he sees them daily and often has dinner with them. He also took up painting and has been showing his art in galleries in Los Angeles. My client also got a job helping people out of unfortunate and desperate situations. I still keep in contact with him. It seems he found that the only safe and satisfying way to live is being open to his beautiful, innate sensitivity, without the interference of clutter.
The Beauty of Being Sensitive
The dominant factor of all your experiences is your relationship with yourself. When you have a strong connection with your open, sensitive self, you tend to move with the flow of events. You derive greater personal satisfaction from your life. You feel a thriving curiosity about the way things are. You experience greater clarity, seeing things as they are in front of you.
When the clutter in your life cuts you off from experiencing this basic relationship, when the connection with yourself is weak, you can experience anguish over different aspects of your life. You can experience great worry and fear about possible future events. Your relationships with others are often chaotic. You misinterpret what's happening and make decisions that cause you even more grief.
For more than ten years, I've seen hundreds of people let go of the clutter of false armor they once desperately hung on to in order to feel safe. They replaced living in fear with embracing the beauty of an openly sensitive life.
When I speak of sensitivity, I don't mean this in a negative way. Being sensitive is often equated with being weak. "If I'm open to feeling too much, I can get hurt." I like to use the word sensitivity more positively. Being sensitive means being aware of ourselves and our environment. We know what we feel. We sense when something feels good, and we know when something hurts. When we are open, we respond in a way that nourishes and protects us. When we deny that, when we cover that up, we are living in numbness. We can't respond positively if we're not aware of what's going on. In a certain sense, we're not protected, even though we think we are.
Naturally, we want to protect ourselves. Some protective measures are useful and make a positive difference in our lives. And then there's clutter. My client tried to protect himself by hiding behind a tough persona and behind walls of stuff. These pseudo-protective devices make us feel safe, but maintaining this armor comes at a cost. We get lost in our efforts to preserve our false armor and don't see that it in fact hurts us. It keeps us from the joyful connections we most want, and it disrupts the creativity and flexibility we need to live a happy, connected life.
By clutter busting, we identify which of the things in our homes and lives are hurting us so we can let go of them and start feeling connected with ourselves again. When we remove these impediments to connection, we experience joy.
Openness to Intuition
A natural strength comes from being open. We feel the hum of life itself, regardless of whether or not we like what is going on in our lives. When we're open, we naturally tap into our intelligence and intuition.
Like a lot of people, for many years before I went to college I was kind of clueless. I walked around in a trance of anger. On some level I felt the anger served me because it felt like protection; it kept people away. But because it kept people away, my anger was my clutter. I was missing out on the joy of connection with others.
But when I went to college, I started meditating. I would sit by myself, close my eyes, and watch what happened inside me. Sometimes I would sense the presence of things. I experienced a quiet and powerful energy that was everywhere, including in me. As a lovely by-product I became more aware of my emotions.
The new openness I was feeling in college was starting to improve my intuition, which helped saved my ass on a number of occasions. I experienced my intuition after I decided to pledge a fraternity. The frat brothers told me that at some point they would kidnap all the pledge brothers and take us out to the woods in the middle of nowhere and leave us with just a quarter.
One day the fraternity called a special pledge brother meeting, and that morning I decided to put a twenty-dollar bill in my shoe. I went to the house and was immediately jumped on and tied up by the brothers. They took my wallet and cash, but they didn't check my shoes. Rather than tensing up and fighting, I relaxed because I had a feeling that everything would be okay. It felt right to go along with what was happening.
The fraternity brothers loaded five of us pledge brothers into cars. They drove us an hour away to the woods of Maryland. They let us out, untied us, gave us a quarter, and left in a hurry. My fellow pledges were panicked. I told them not to worry. I took off my shoe and showed them the twenty-dollar bill. We walked for fifteen minutes and came to an isolated McDonald's. Outside was a parked cab. The cabbie was inside, smoking a joint and eating a Big Mac. When I asked him if he could give us a ride to Washington, DC, he agreed. He drove us back, going ninety miles an hour, sometimes down one-way streets the wrong way. I was fascinated by how the universe was unfolding this very odd situation.
When we got back to the frat house and went inside, no one was there. We waited, and half an hour later the brothers returned and were stunned to find us sitting there. Openness to my intuition had taken care of all.
When we stop hiding behind the clutter of manufactured might, we become aware of and move with, rather than fighting, the flow of life. I don't mean that esoterically. Clues and answers are naturally built into everyday life. They are kindly placed there to help. When we disregard this assistance, we can't help but screw up. We need all the help we can get. By clutter busting, we gain access to our own built-in support.
One of my clients had lived amid the multitudes of musty boxes of stuff in her garage for years. It felt as if she'd been hiding behind all these things, and now that the shell was being removed, she was scared. In fact, living behind things for so long had only made her more fearful and shaky. She was like a person who never exercised because she was scared of being injured, so her body had atrophied and became fragile, almost brittle.
As we sorted through and removed her junk, box by box, I gently encouraged her. I told my client that she looked as though she was coming back to life, that there was light in her face and eyes. I told her that there's strength in being open and delicate. We're so used to thinking that vitality lies in displays of power, but in truth our tenderness and basic sensitivity possess a much greater strength. One clutter-busting workshop participant kept telling me that she felt like she wasn't doing enough. She said, "I want to be supereffective, with a laser focus." The thing is, she was already accomplishing a lot.
I told her that when she said she wanted laser focus, she looked really tired. It was as if her body was holding up a sign that said, "Please stop, I'm exhausted!" It was wearing her out. This way of living was itself clutter because it wasn't giving her the peace of mind she hoped it would.
Hearing this caused her to stop in her tracks. A part of her recognized what she was doing. She took a breath, and the hyperdrive part of her switched off. She relaxed and reconnected to herself. She looked like a whole person.
It's a great thing to learn and grow, but if we do it compulsively, only to make us feel powerful enough to avoid failing or being hurt, we will exhaust ourselves because we will always fail. We can never be powerful enough to avoid that.
The Today show recently had their female hosts appear on the air without any makeup. They seemed uncomfortable without their usual layers of face paint and mascara. But they also seemed interesting and real. There was a light coming through their faces that was attractive, and I felt I could connect with them.
When we hide behind the guise of a strong persona, we may feel powerful, but it's a pretension. Deep down, we know it's a show of might that keeps others at bay. It's just not as innately satisfying as simply being ourselves, matter-of-factly and without fear. You are amazing when you are your unencumbered natural self, without trying to hide your faults and hurts. A real person is much more alluring than someone pretending to have it all together.
The Clutter of Control
The clutter of control occurs when we think someone should change, or we want them to do something for our benefit, even if it's not for theirs — for instance, when we want them to get rid of something we don't like but that they value.
When we try to control another person, we are seeing them as an object. They are no longer a person with feelings but a thing to manipulate. We are familiar with using things as tools to get work done, and sometimes we treat others the same way. If we can cajole, bully, or entice others into doing the things we want them to do, we assume our life will be improved. But these efforts tend to backfire. The impulse behind controlling is often our fear of being hurt by someone, so we subtly and sometimes not so subtly push them for our own protection. This manipulation does not respect or honor the other person, so it undercuts our connection with them.
By nature, people resist manipulation; we all resent attempts to control us. We don't like others judging us and telling us we need to be better people. This is why even if we succeed in manipulating someone else, we tend to feel frustrated, since the other person ends up resenting us, and the distance between us grows.
The same dynamic applies to us. Sometimes we try to force ourselves to be and act a particular way, believing it will help us. This compulsive drive to dominate ourselves can be too harsh. We judge ourselves and hurt our connection with ourselves. We might think this is necessary medicine, but it's clutter because it ends up making us miserable.
I once worked with a client who complained a lot about her weight. When she found pictures of herself, she would say, "I look like a pig," or, "I don't know how I got to be so big! What's wrong with me?" or, "Oh, God, I hate these pictures of myself. I'm so fat." She said she wanted to lose weight and was deeply disappointed that she couldn't. In a disapproving tone, she said she felt that she should be doing better. Her eyes were glazed, and her voice was quiet and sorrowful. She sounded dejected and hopeless. She worried out loud about how she appeared to her friends and family.
I told her that no one notices the things we think are problems. We think people see the things that we think are wrong with our lives. But they don't. Chances are they are busy worrying about how others think of them. We are the only ones who see these things as a problem. Sometimes we shame ourselves with relentless criticism as a way to control our behavior.
Some part of her assumed this criticism was necessary as a way to help her lose weight. But it did nothing to help her. Kicking herself in the ass had left her weak and unable to take good care of herself. I said, "I think this critical part of you would be more useful working as a parts inspector on a car assembly line. Then it can find faults all day long and get paid for it."
She laughed. She stopped talking about her weight and started to be more positive. She said, "You know, I think mostly I want to feel more healthy. That would make me happy."
Recognizing our controlling behavior, no matter where it's directed, makes it hard to continue in it. Suddenly, we see that it's not working — and that there's another choice.
Excerpted from Clutter Busting Your Life by Brooks Palmer. Copyright © 2012 Brooks Palmer. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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