Illustration by Lauren Tamaki
Every few years when I was growing up, my mom took on a major overhaul of the house. Once she began, nothing could stop her. She would methodically rummage through the accumulation and clutter, and—with help from me and my six siblings—transform the house from near chaos to something closer to order. What I remember most about spring cleaning was what I saw in my mom when it was over: She oozed joy, accomplishment and sheer gratification. What if we could do the same thing internally, and go at the inner closet that holds everything we don’t know how to deal with (and that looms larger the longer it sits unattended). Clean the garage? We’re on it! Clean ourselves? Not so much. Yes, it’s a tall order to look at what we try so hard to avoid, especially because it’s clutter we only feel and don’t see. There aren’t three simple, universal tips to get to this closet.
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The one thing that can get us there is the decision to actually deal with it. The more we avoid it, the further we get from what we so badly want—less worry, less questioning and less feeling we’ve fallen short. Maybe the next time something we’ve stored up inside begins to rise, rather than push it back down, we could just stop, acknowledge it—and use it as a sign to start clearing. A few years ago, I went at my own mental closet full-on and ended up writing a book about my teenage pregnancy, which I’d kept secret for almost 30 years. I know firsthand the impact of facing the things we put off—and how we can feel afterward.
When your closet is overflowing, you can sit down and write it all out so you can take stock of it, or you can share your stored stuff with someone you trust. Before writing my book, I sat down with my best friend and told her my pregnancy story. It blew her mind, and hearing my own words spoken aloud blew mine. Saying it to another human being was my first step toward dealing with my truth. A promise to ourselves to face the things inside is a beginning. Even if we start small—say, finding something that qualifies more as a nuisance than a deep-seeded issue—let’s clear it. Then move on to bigger items.
After I wrote my book, I went in for a little leftover ex-husband rage clearance. Tired of feeling angry, I wrote a letter to my ex, recounting every morsel of how I felt about how he’d behaved and treated me and my children. I left out nothing. I channeled all the rage and pain in a way that surprised even me. Pages and pages later, I printed it, read it…and then threw it away.
It didn’t erase what I’d lived, but it marked the moment I would no longer let his impact take up space in the places I needed for other things.
Cleaning up on the inside amounts to telling ourselves the truth about our feelings in a way that creates a sense of order. Whether facing facts, ending something or apologizing to someone, it brings that all-empowering awareness of knowing what is there and where things are.
Just like my mom, when I go at my house in a major way I get the “nothing can knock me down” feeling that comes when all my bras are folded and the ornaments are in the plastic bin marked Christmas, not Halloween. Imagine the same thing on the inside—with a hundred times the impact because it’s lasting and it rearranges our feelings to help us become a little better at being who we are.
About our expert
Single mom of three Liz Pryor is an author, speaker and advice expert who tells it like it is. Her books include What Did I Do Wrong? and Look at You Now. Her writings, talks, and advice can be found at lizpryor.com.