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Emotional Spring Cleaning

How to engage in “internal house cleaning” to prepare for new growth.

Ahh, we are into May, and I can feel spring all around me. Fragrant blossoms are on the fruit trees, and the first roses are popping. This time of renewal is frequently used to engage in “spring cleaning,” putting away our winter clothing. Getting rid of the clutter, to make space for the new. But what about the clutter in our heads and bodies that gets in the way of the new? This can also be a time to clean your “internal house” and create space for emotional renewal.

The Den Meditation
Source: The Den Meditation

Just as we accumulate clutter, we also accumulate emotional baggage: hurts, frustrations, and other feelings that sit just beneath the surface of our awareness. Our unconscious effort to keep these feelings from awareness can interfere with our aliveness. In addition, and without warning, something happening in your environment can touch on this pool of feelings, and you have an explosion or perhaps a dark mood that comes over you, or maybe you just don’t feel as warm toward someone in your life. You wonder about the cause of this discontent, without realizing it’s unfinished business that is to blame.

Anytime you experience a reaction that is out of proportion to the situation that you are responding to, it’s a good indication that you just stumbled into unfinished emotional business. And when you start to go into a bad mood, this too can be instigated by unresolved issues or feelings getting triggered.

For myself, I notice this in strange ways. For example, when I find myself fighting inanimate objects, that’s my clue. It happened the other day when I was trying to untangle some wire. The wire was not cooperating. It wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do—become untangled. I noticed myself getting more and more angry. With each escalation of my emotions, I indiscriminately pulled harder on the wire. Even when I realized the wire was getting more knotted, I continued with this unrealistic approach. Then I awoke to the moment. I was arguing and getting angry with this wire that wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. I was using it as an excuse for getting out or releasing my anger. It immediately motivated me to uncover what I was really angry about.

Interestingly, and at the same time, I realized that I enjoyed the emotional release. It felt good to get that energy and tension out of my body. But I still recognized this as a problem—carrying this tension in the first place and being susceptible to getting triggered was not serving me.

In that moment of clarity, I began to ask myself where the anger was coming from. The anger was real, but it wasn’t about the wire. That was just the trigger. The search proved “fruitful,” and I began identifying areas of my anger. Some were personal, like the result of a disappointing interaction with a friend. Some were situational, like frustration with a company I was dealing with. And some were more global, recognizing how upset I was at the level of public discourse and the evidence all-around of injustice. So, I was carrying feelings about a number of issues—some small and some large.

When we ignore or are unaware of these emotions sitting below the surface, we run the risk that they will get triggered at inappropriate times or toward undeserving people. Even when this doesn’t happen, holding in feelings can deaden us to the experience of joy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be concerned about hurting the feelings of the wire I was grappling with. But I’m glad that my upset wasn’t inappropriately directed toward an innocent friend or acquaintance or family member.

Once I realized what was going on, I knew I couldn’t simply move on without addressing my unfinished business. I knew from personal experience, as well as in my work with clients, that those same feelings would keep interfering in my life until I addressed and resolved them. So, I went through my list of “grievances” one by one: I thought about my upset with an interaction with an acquaintance and decided I could let it go without needing a confrontation (although sometimes I do find I have to say something to the other person or write about my feelings in a letter that I then tear up). My frustration with a company I did business with was resolved by deciding to express my anger by not using that company anymore. When it came to my upset regarding public discourse and injustice, I was motivated to send financial support to a couple of very effective social justice organizations, send a letter to my congressman, and step up my non-profit organizational work. In other words, I channeled my anger in positive directions.

Having identified the sources of my feelings and then resolving them one by one, I was able to take the last step in my process: acceptance and letting go. I accepted—meaning accepting the reality of what happened, not that I liked what happened—and then said to myself, “You expressed your feelings, accepted what happened, and took some actions, now it’s time to let go. Wasting further emotional energy on these matters would only hurt and distract you. That energy can be put to better use.” I then exhaled and let go of those pieces of my unfinished business.

And this is the ultimate goal—to let go of unnecessary emotional baggage that can only distract me and you from being more fully present. Just like “spring cleaning” and getting rid of material clutter, it’s important to be current with your emotions, always on the lookout for distracting feelings or feelings that get in the way of close relationships. Remember, you can get angry or sad all you want, but if you don’t make the appropriate connection to what the feelings are about, they will come around again and again.

Try this exercise

Here is an exercise you can engage in to identify and work through unfinished emotional business: Think of people you are close with, one at a time. Imagine each of them in the room sitting opposite you. Take a moment to truly imagine them sitting with you and experience your connection and notice your feelings. Give yourself a few minutes to do this. Notice if you feel like moving toward or moving slightly away from the person. Notice if you feel any resistance or feeling “on guard.” What do you want to say? As you go through this process, is there anything you feel like you need to say and haven’t said?

This technique, if you give it some patience, will help you identify emotional unfinished business. You can address this directly with the person, or if that’s too scary, you can have the dialogue right there with the imaginary representation of that person. Since what needs to be finished and released are the feelings you are carrying, it doesn’t really matter if the other person is present or actually hears what you have to say. After all, this is something you can even do with someone no longer in your life. If you take the time to try this approach, please consider making a comment or giving feedback.

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