I came across a news story from Las Vegas, Nevada several weeks ago that was quite stunning and sobering. As husband Bill James told authorities this last month, he woke up from a nap back in April and couldn’t find his wife anywhere. He assumed that she had wandered away. She had recently had a mini-stroke that left her disoriented, and he worried that she had suffered another. So authorities launched a massive hunt for the woman, using sniffer dogs and even helicopters equipped with infrared to search the desert. Husband Bill even set up a Facebook page to promote the search and offered a $10,000 reward.
According to the report, four months later, on August 28 the search came to a terrifying macabre ending when the husband spotted her feet sticking out from the pile of junk that filled the room in their house from floor to ceiling. She had been buried beneath a mountain of garbage and clutter in her own home. The collected clothes, trash and knicknacks in this woman’s house was so extensive that the police sniffer dogs had searched the home without finding her corpse.
“For our dogs to go through that house and not find something should be indicative of the tremendous environmental challenges they faced,” police spokesman Bill Cassell said.
Apparently, according to family friends, Billie Jean was a compulsive hoarder, with a passion for shopping for trinkets and clothes. One friend said that Billie Jean referred to the room where she was found as “her rabbit hole.” Sari Connolly, a friend of’ Billie Jean’s, said she had become so obsessive in her hoarding that she kept people out of her home, even refusing to let them use the bathroom. The police spokeman told the Associated Press that the house had only small amounts of clear space so that people could get around, and that the home was filled with strong odors from animals, garbage and food. So who would think that her body would be decomposing right in her own home, a victim of her cluttered life.
Apparently, this isn’t the first time this kind of terrifying story has taken place. This last May, an aging Chicago couple was trapped for two weeks after being buried in their belongings. When they were rescued, they were found to have rat bites on their bodies. In 1947, police found a body inside a Manhattan row house. Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer had filled the house with possessions, including a Model T chassis, 14 pianos and more than 25,000 books. Both brothers were found dead among the clutter.
Imagine dying underneath your own clutter – losing your life in every possible way, even before physical extinction.
I’m reminded how important it is to regularly evaluate our lives and de-clutter when necessary. Have you ever considered what kind of “clutter” you might have in your life, “junk” you might be hanging on to that is in reality extinguishing your life little by little?
Perhaps it’s emotional clutter. Resentment. Guilt. Shame. Insecurity. Anxiety. Lack of confidence. Sense of failure. Anger. Addiction to conflict. The more I go through my own personal journey, and the more I work with people, the more I realize how easy it is for us to hang on to this clutter – to simply let ourselves live with these feelings or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs – to refuse to do the hard work of processing these emotions and resolving them in effective ways.
An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, who commented on Billie Jean’s tragic story, observed that people often hoard because they find it impossible to make decisions, organize themselves or focus on immediate tasks. In other words, they have the inability or lack of internal strength to address the current chaos in their lives. And ironically, all the things they end up accumulating provide a twisted kind of comfort while they’re being gradually smothered to death by them.
By hanging on to our emotional clutter, we become “slaves” to our automatic reflexes, those brain functions involving conditioned feelings and thoughts (most of which, according to experts, revolve around fear, our instinctual response to perceived danger, our ego’s sense of threat). And we all know that often our instinctual fear reactions are not based on reality – they’re only ego survival tactics. Often when we choose to face our emotional fear, we end up discovering that there wasn’t any basis to that fear or that we had the necessary strength to push through that fear-producing experience into the light of emotional freedom.
But many of us live our lives on auto-pilot, allowing these emotional clutterings to control us and corral us in self-defeating ways. And unless we de-clutter, we end up losing life bit by bit, suffocating under the load of our junk. And unfortunately, the gradual decomposition of our own lives emits a painful stench to those around us, too.
Decluttering Our Emotional Clutter
So what does it look like to declutter? What are proactive ways to declutter? Here are a few ways experts emphasize.
1. Identify your clutter. What are the negative emotions or thoughts or limiting beliefs that you are hanging on to? Are they serving you well? That is, are they helping you live a life of freedom, moving you forward toward the kind of person you want to be? Are your relationships filled with joy and hope and warmth as much as possible? Be honest with yourself. Is there a more healthy and effective way for you to live?
2. Harness your attention. According to brain experts, our natural, instinctual, first response to life tends to be fear. This is because our brains were designed to instantly activate under threat for our survival – the fight or flight response central to the amygdala, the small front part of the brain. But no longer having to live with the threat of extinction by dinosaurs or bears or lions, that instinctual brain response gets redirected toward less obvious threats – like threats to our ego survival, our sense of esteem and self-confidence – fear of being rejected or ridiculed or failure.
The problem is that we tend to allow our brains (by choosing to simply “float along”) to keep stimulating our fear response when we don’t need to, causing our whole physiological system to live in a high state of stress. And this constant distress damages both our minds and our bodies. No wonder it’s simply easy hoarding stuff – keep everything external to distract us from our internal chaos.
Here’s the way Dr. Pillay, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and brain expert, in his latest book Life Unlocked, describes the powerful way out:
“Fixing your attention stops the frontal cortex from randomly provoking the amygdala. The frontal cortex is like an electrode that can buzz the amygdala, but if we occupy it with other thoughts [positive, hopeful, honest thoughts], it will not randomly shoot current toward the amygdala. If your attention is scattered and chaotic, though, the frontal electrode will randomly activate the amygdala and cause fear. Harnessing attention allows the amygdala to react to other high-impact positive and negative emotions, and in the absence of fear, even negative emotions can feel less unpleasant. Similarly, fear can make even positive emotions feel overwrought or too activated, and we often come to regret these states of forced happiness. Thus attentional depth is critical to overcoming fear. One way to develop this depth is by using the power of intention.” (p. 66)
What are you giving your attention to? Dr. Pillay is showing us that unless we intentionally direct our attention to dealing with our destructive emotions and limiting beliefs, and unless we work to resolve and let go of those feelings and thoughts, and then apply our attention to the positive outcomes and hoped for states of empowering feelings and being, we will continue to be overcome with fear. We will destroy ourselves from that fear. And we will then do whatever it takes to distract us from that debilitating fear – by hoarding or medicating or dying.
3. Choose to become a minimalist. Once you harness your attention on what needs to change and on what you want to change to, you can summon the courage to let the “clutter” go. And here’s the power of it: decluttering inspires more decluttering.
Blogger Joshua Becker described the dynamics of his physical cluttering and decluttering this way:
“Clutter attracts clutter. It just takes one piece of junk mail, one article of clothing left on a chair, or one receipt not filed properly to get the clutter momentum started. What I have found over the last three weeks is that the opposite is also true. When a surface is left clean, that one piece of clutter seems out of place and calls you to put it away. Since I minimalized my office and removed all the clutter, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one piece of paper sitting on my desk – and so I put it away. Since I minimalized my wardrobe, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one shirt laying on the floor – and so I throw it down to the laundry. Since we minimalized the living room, I can’t stand the idea of leaving my shoes in the corner or a book on the table – and so I put them where they go right away.”
The power of attention placed on both confronting and changing (decluttering) is exponential and transformative. Our higher brain centers are called into action and stimulated, the amygdala fear center is deactivated, and the nerve pathways toward powerful action are electrified. Positive motor skills kick in. And we begin to live the life of freedom, forward momentum, and transformation we want.
Ambrose Redmoon once wrote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
Billie Jean, hoarding stuff in her house, never learned that truth. And finally succumbed to her clutter. A tragic lesson to the rest of us to declutter and learn how to really live life.
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