What’s to be done about emotional clutter?

Photo: Jeremy Cai

As you consider that question, you may be wondering what I mean by “emotional clutter.” When I think about clutter of any kind, I think of a mess — a jumble that is confusing and complicated and filled with things that can be eliminated in order to create calm and order. In the emotional realm, clutter is similar. A mess of emotions includes many that are needlessly complex and often undesirable. Messes like that typically grow without awareness.  

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I have been thinking a lot about how we can simplify our cluttered lives. I recently wrote about starting with a focus on you (read The gift of simplifying here). I also urged you to consider the importance of decluttering your environment — and had tips to help you tackle that clutter (read Just say “no” here). 

Something important tied those two concepts together: saying “no.”

Learning what to say “no” to, and saying it with comfort (and without guilt!) is a key skill to build to simplify your life.

Today, I am thinking about another dimension of decluttering that will help you to simplify a hectic life — emotional decluttering. We often overlook the impact of emotional clutter in our lives, which builds when we don’t pay attention to it, and when we don’t consciously say “no” to tame it. 

Why is it important to do emotional decluttering?

In much the same way that a cluttered physical environment contributes to making us feel overwhelmed, we are often in a swirl of emotional clutter. And when we let that clutter fester and grow, it adds enormous stress to daily life. Emotional clutter distracts us, distresses us, and drains our energy. We pay a high price when our energy is sapped.

So, the question arises: What can we do to declutter a life plagued by emotional mess? Try this exercise and see what happens: 

Make a list of ENERGY DRAINERS

Start with a clean sheet of paper. Think about what you may be putting up with, and start listing what comes to mind. Consider what you put up with in both your personal life and at work. What do you tolerate, even grudgingly, that creates resentment, frustration, or anger?

Next, think about things you’ve taken on or accepted that drag you down emotionally and/or energetically. Your list can include people or situations in your life. This may take some careful thought, because we often take things on or accept things that drain us emotionally without being aware of, or acknowledging, the negative consequences.

Look at your list. Consider that these things often drain your energy for positive activities, and that they can impact your thinking in negative ways. Give some thought to that impact. Consider how long the things on your list have been influencing your life and the consequences of bearing the ongoing emotional clutter.

You may or may not choose to actively do anything about the things on your list now, and that’s fine. Simply becoming aware of them and articulating them will make you more alert to where they interfere and will also build awareness about their impact. With that new awareness, you may naturally start to address, or eliminate, or resolve them. 

And, you may decide that you are ready to make deliberate changes — ready to say “no” to the emotional clutter that is sapping your energy. If you are ready to take action, start by choosing an item or two on your list that you feel most comfortable addressing. Take small steps, and continue as you feel ready to address more of the troubling items on your list.

As I have often said, it’s okay to ask for help


Just the way there are some household and office decluttering challenges that are best tackled with the help of a professional organizer, there can be challenges clearing emotional clutter that feel daunting to take on alone. It may be easier for you to say “no” to the excess “stuff” in your environment than to making changes in the realm of emotional clutter, where habits are often deeply entrenched.

Coaching can be valuable if you are ready to make a commitment to shifting the mindsets that hamper you, so that you can stop saying “yes” when you truly want to say “no.” It will provide support and guidance for you to set healthy boundaries of many kinds in your life, so that you can live without emotional clutter — and live big.

What I’m learning from my body

I had surgery in late July. While not “serious”, this was a much bigger deal than anything I’d experienced before (the procedure entailed four hours of general anesthesia). Happily, I spent only one night in the hospital. I am enormously grateful for the excellent care I received and that everything went well. I am now past the half-way mark of the predicted six weeks of recovery, and I am happy that the healing process has been going smoothly.

As I reflect on my day-to-day experiences in these weeks I find that I am in awe of the physical body and how it heals when you give it rest and respect. I had intentionally wrapped up lots of work beforehand so that I could focus on healing, and that has proved to be a great decision — and one that has eliminated stress from my life. That said, I am learning a lot about myself and things about the mind and body that I took for granted before this episode.

Like many of us in the modern world, my work is based largely in my head. I think, I plan, I write, I coach in deep conversations — most of the time while sitting at a desk. When I walk or do yoga (something I am really missing now!) and when I paint in the studio or sculpt, I am engaged physically. And, I used to think that those were the times that required most of my energy. After all, when you are sitting, well, you are sitting!

Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few weeks. The walks I have taken (as prescribed by my doctors) have been a breeze compared to the fatigue I have experienced doing the little work I have put in in my office. Whether I am taking care of small administrative matters that cannot wait, or coaching the few clients I have continued to see during my “medical leave”, it’s the mental work that has taken a toll on my energy. The focus, concentration, attention and careful listening in a conversation are much more tiring than going up and down stairs or walking outside for 30 or 40 minutes.

I realize that I must honor and respect the energy I have — and use it wisely. I must expend my energy with awareness. I have to acknowledge and plan for the impact that doing “head-based” work will have on my well-being. I have to have balance and ample rest.

And, I realize that even when my energy levels are back to normal in the fall, I will have an opportunity to keep this awareness about my energy in my mind. I will be able to honor the hard work of mental focus, and appreciate the gifts that physical activity offer me. I will aim for balance, knowing that the opportunity to use the body more brings great rewards. I want to have physical strength and the pleasures of using my body, even as I love the intellectual parts of my life. And, I predict that creativity will flourish with these conditions in place.

As the summer winds down, and we move out of a “vacation” mindset and gear up for more intense work, school, and social activities, I hope you will think about and honor your energy. When you use your energy with awareness, you can truly create a rich and balanced life, one day at a time. Many of us are so excited about our big ambitions that we overload ourselves and struggle. Realizing that we can actually do more by slowing down, focusing on our priorities, and bringing awareness to the way we expend our energy can be a game-changer.

How do you find ways to balance the mental and physical, to honor and respect your energy and to seeing the rewards of this approach to living?

I received a lovely small coloring book as a gift and discovered that this is a special way to be creative that I had not appreciated before. Watching the pages come alive with color has been a delight.

I received a lovely small coloring book as a gift and discovered that this is a special way to be creative that I had not appreciated before. Watching the pages come alive with color has been a delight.