A few weeks ago, we talked about the first part of training your brain to declutter: interrupting the circuit that associates letting go of clutter with sadness, anger or other feelings and creating a new circuit for letting things go. You can read it here.
This week we get to look at the acquiring side of clutter problems and how to train your brain to help stop acquiring. This cycle might begin with feeling bored, lonely, or sad. Over time, your brain has learned that these feelings can be addressed by getting something. Maybe by a trip to the thrift store, or logging on to eBay, or even rescuing an item someone has put in the trash. You make the choice to buy, or take, and you instantly feel better! It’s almost magical…for a while. But this process doesn’t work for long. Those bad feelings come back. Of course, your brain has had lots of practice with what to do next, so you’re off to do some more shopping. It’s a cycle nearly all clutterers experience.
The cycle can also catch you when you’re already out doing the acquiring you need to do. You may be shopping with a set list. And then you see a really good deal on something you might use in the future. Your brain decides that not having that item could cause pain. So you pick up a few even though you probably have some at home. This is familiar territory because you have a circuit already set up that associates getting things with feeling good. It doesn’t change when you don’t need the item. There’s still that initial positive feeling from getting something regardless of how many you already have.
There’s good news about this circuit!!! Your brain is not stuck in this cycle! Even though you’ve been practicing this acquiring circuit since you were a child, the amazing ability of your brain to change, adapt, and create new circuits means that you can stop the unhelpful cycle and make a new cycle. And when you learn to acquire less without it being terribly painful, you will see much more progress in your decluttering. No more bringing things in as fast (or faster) than you are taking things out. And no more attempts to feel better with activities that derail your success.
Your first step is to become aware of the cycle. When you want to get more things, take a minute to tell yourself that this is part of a cycle that is no longer helpful. And make a statement that this cycle is not what you want. (*Note: In all of this there is NO guilt. Acquiring lots of things was an attempt to meet a genuine need in your life. Respect that you were doing the best with the information you had at the time. And then take a step forward.)
Once you’ve identified the cycle in action and decided you don’t want it, you need a more effective substitute for the emotional need that triggered the cycle in the first place. This step will require some willpower. You are working to undo a firmly entrenched habit here, so be kind to yourself as you work through it.
Sometimes it will be enough to have a true statement you can use to challenge the habit of getting things to meet a need. You can tell yourself ‘Buying this will not make me feel better for very long.’ And make your feet walk away. For some this will be all you need. For others it will be very difficult. Give it a try anyways! You are going to have moments where you pleasantly surprise yourself by doing things you weren’t aware you could do (or thought were impossible)!
At other times you will need solutions that address the root of the problem which is the pain/sadness/boredom/unmet needs. You get to create a customized plan, just for you, about how to meet those needs without acquiring things. As you know, my favorite approach to bad feelings is to repeat the phrase “I love myself’ with meaning and intention. The reason I push it so much is because it has made such a difference in my own life. We can be the kindest, most loving, most helpful people, but if we don’t love ourselves, we will always feel like we’re not good enough. Loving yourself is maybe THE key to addressing overwhelming clutter.
There are other things you can do about bad feelings. I encourage you to do them alongside loving yourself. Hey, this is one place where more is definitely better! Love yourself lots, and take all the solutions you can get for changing bad feelings. Here are a few more things you can do:
-Tell your brain to ‘Stop’ when bad feelings come. Honest, this one helps! It reminds you that you have choices and power over your thoughts.
-Replace unhelpful thoughts with helpful thoughts. These thoughts can be affirmations, good memories, dreams and goals, a song or poem…the list is pretty long!
-Get outside and take a 10-minute walk (while thinking good thoughts of course!)
-Find something in nature to completely focus on for a few minutes. Whether this is your cat, a flower, a sparrow hopping around in your backyard, or a cloud in the sky, focusing on nature is a great way to calm your brain and soothe your soul.
This process of meeting unmet needs without acquiring is really important for long-term success. You are completely stopping the cycle where you acquire things to try and meet your needs, AND you are meeting your needs! As a result, you feel happier, more fulfilled, and you have less stuff cluttering your life.
Let’s recap: You can change the cycle of acquiring. The first step is being aware when it starts. The second step is telling yourself the cycle does not help anymore. The third step is using other strategies to meet the needs that triggered the cycle. And the fourth step is practice, practice, practice. Which is great because clutterers and hoarders have lots of chances to change this cycle every day!
This is a positive, forward-thinking process. It doesn’t matter if you get it right on the first try or the 30th try. It doesn’t matter if you do great at changing the cycle one day, and not so great the next day. Every time you succeed at awareness, stopping the cycle, and trying new ways to meet your needs, you are training your brain to help you meet your goals!