This week’s column is by guest writer, Jenny Ford.
Forget those piles of paper, bulging closets, and kitchen cabinets full of lidless plastic containers. The real stressor in life is not physical clutter, it’s emotional clutter.
Just as the physical clutter can be dealt with by a big one-off effort and a little daily maintenance, the emotional clutter doesn’t need to dominate your space, either.
What is emotional clutter?
Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have lives absolutely jam-packed with dramas? They have piles of needy friends, closets bulging with work crises, and a seemingly endless supply of angst-ridden personal conflicts.
We have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of these dramas are avoidable, or perhaps being blown out of proportion – as evidenced by our use of the term “drama queen”. to describe these people. One of my friends said that he had stopped using the term “drama queen” because it carried the connotation of femaleness, and having a drama-filled life is not a gender-specific trait. He suggested “drama capsule” as an alternative.
For me, I tend to start to categorise a person as a “drama capsule” when the drama they were dealing with at the time I met them has been replaced by several others in turn, with only small gaps or even overlaps between them.
I have distinguished two types, though many people are both at once.
Type 1 drama capsules have unconscious processes which create dramatic situations around them (for example, they are drawn to relationships with addicts or abusers, they abuse credit cards, they overcommit in high-stress jobs, they chronically cheat on their partner/s, or whatever). In those cases, the “drama situations” tend to be those which I would agree were dramatic if they happened to me (for example they wind up in hospital, in court, having panic attacks, with an STD, with their partner leaving them, etc). You could also call this type of person a “drama magnet”.
Type 2 drama capsules are people who can take relatively small bumps in the road and magnify them into prolonged, exhausting, emotional situations. You could perhaps refer to this type of person as a “drama addict”.
For example, I recently saw a situation where poly guy and poly woman got together for an evening, with the prior knowledge and consent of all partners, to explore sexual touch. Due to both individuals’ past histories, all concerned expected this would stop short of actual intercourse. In fact, through some fluke of compatibility, neither person bailed and actual intercourse occurred.
Because the intercourse was unexpected, his girlfriend very upset. She was too devastated to go to work for a couple of days, had to pull out of her uni course for the semester, and couldn’t even discuss the issue with the other woman for a month. In proportion to the triggering event, a fairly extreme emotional response.
The ultimate exhaustion arises when multiple Type 2s get together. Just about anything can be ricocheted around, escalating at every turn, with more and more hurts and upsets to be pandered to, almost indefinitely.
I think that we all have Type 2 tendencies when we are depressed, sick, tired, or otherwise stressed and resource-depleted. We can all over-react to things that would simply wash under the bridge on a better day. I wouldn’t consider someone a Type 2 unless there was a consistent, long-running pattern of it.
How To Declutter
First, look to yourself. Are you abusing drugs or alcohol, are do you have partner who is? Are you running up debts without knowing where the money will come from, or do you have a partner who is? Are you lying to your partner? Are you working (or exercising or anything else) far too many hours a week? Are you winding up in jail, in court, in hospital, or depending on the kindness of friends and relatives on a regular basis? There are organisations to help with each and every one of those drama-generating conditions. Call one. Deal with yourself.
Second, if you’re not generating dramas directly, consider the last three things which produced strong emotional stress for you. Exclude stressors which have happened to you (death of a close associate, unexpected job loss, unplanned pregnancy, moving house, etc). Include those stressors if they happened to someone else but were very emotionally stressful for you, but otherwise focus on emotionally upsetting situations you have had with other people. Write them down. Put dates next to them. If all three happened within the last three months, there is a real possibility that you have a drama addiction.
Grab a self-help book on cognitive behaviour therapy, get some counselling, and/or take up meditation. Keep reminding yourself “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff,” and “It’s All Small Stuff..”
Third, if you don’t seem to fall into either category, ask yourself whether most of the stress in your life comes from supporting your partners through their dramas. Maybe one or more of your partners is a drama capsule.
Assuming you want to maintain the relationship (a drama capsule can be very sweet , supportive and loving between crises, after all), I recommend that you get very, very good at boundaries. Go to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or another codependency support group. Find a good self-help book on behaviour modification, co-dependency and/or boundaries. Stop rewarding your drama addict for being overwhelmed by drama. Start rewarding them for dealing with situations calmly and detachedly.
We all have times when events conspire. We all have times when we are physically run down, or sick, or under-resourced, and we over-react. Cleaning up your emotional space after those times is like cleaning up after a party – a bit of an effort, and then back to normal.
A habit of over-dramatising is like a habit of untidiness – it will take self-discipline and a long period of practice to change your ways.
But the results are worth it.
Jenny Ford has an Honours degree in Psychology and works as a business consultant and executive coach …. by day. In her other life, she is a polyamorous, bisexual community-builder and relationships coach. She has husband, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, three children (though the teenager could count as three all on her own), and two cats. She lives in Sydney, Australia with a subset of the above family members and is currently researching how to bend space and time so she can live with ll the people she loves in all the places they want to live without leaving Sydney. Expressions of appreciation for Jenny should take the form of Lindt chocolate balls. Bonus points if they are the black 60% cocoa ones.
Decluttering Your Emotional Space
© 2007, Jenny Ford
Used by permission, all rights reserved