Organizing Anxiety

Process This blog entry wrote itself. It started as a whisper during my childhood in a family of collectors. I started organizing at age five and researching why people get buried under their stuff in my twenties

My quest continued throughout my work. All of it, regardless of what I was actually doing, involved homes, families, stuff and conflict. I saw distress, problems and crises. In 2014, I was ready for a solution. I wanted to provide tools that people could use to change their lives. I wrote my workshop and gave it biannually.

The February (2017) workshop was postponed due to the flu. As I recovered, I heard from Parks & Rec that people had asked about the workshop. They tried to sort and clear out clutter. They were stuck and needed the workshop.

The mornings of the previous workshops had been an exercise in anxiety management. The morning of the February workshop was calm and focused. It was as if part of me knew that something was going to happen.

In the “why I’m here” portion, their stories came together and I heard “AHA!”

The participants’ needs drove the workshop, and we discussed and wove the three components together with stories, sharing and neuroscience. We had a dialogue that grew and shifted as the participants digested information and processed their lifetime memories.

Their stories revealed a universal theme. Life happens and events unfold, revealing long-forgotten (or never-understood) secrets and devastating details buried under denial. When we remember and assimilate this information, we discover truths that we’d rather avoid.

We are unable to clear clutter, organize and live well in our homes because we have not faced, accepted and processed grief.

This grief may be ten or thirty years old. Or recent. Grief changes over time. Events layer themselves and weave sturdy stories that we tell ourselves over and over. They define us. We create reasons why we can’t complete projects. Through the years, I have heard people say “I keep things. I just can’t get rid of anything,” and “I always start projects. I lose focus and quit.”

We create habits to accommodate our self-definitions (the me/not-me distinction). These habits are easier than facing grief. We don’t like it. It’s messy. We build cages to contain it. Grief grows and becomes stronger until triggering events (crises) destroy the cages.

When grief escapes, it activates ancient mechanisms: flight, fight or freeze. We run away, we fight or we freeze and do nothing. Many of us get anxious. Anxiety hits with surprising stealth and affects us in many ways: shallow breathing, racing hearts, cold hands and feet, scattered thinking or inability to breath. How anxiety expresses itself depends upon biochemistry and neuroscience.

We talked about anxiety in the workshop. The participants appeared relieved as they shared their struggles and successes. Many of them reported getting goosebumps and feeling a “thunk” in their hearts or stomachs.

I was blown away by their answer to why people get buried under their stuff. It seemed elegant. Simple and straightforward.

But it’s not.

Over the years, I learned that processing grief is scary. And complicated. I learned that resistance was futile. Surrender was the most useful tool I had, along with patience, grit and support.

After so many years of sorting items, I have learned that sorting items brings up grief. And sorting can also help process that grief. The work is powerful and has a therapeutic effect.

I believe that it’s vital to know that whatever feelings come up as we sort our stuff, we are experiencing our feelings and we are not broken. We are experiencing the messy, beautiful, vibrant parts of life and will move through those feelings to emerge on the other side. This realization came to me years ago during a particularly difficult conversation.

I hope that this information was useful. I finally made friends with anxiety and harnessed its strengths. It made me more compassionate and aware. It turned me into a better problem-solver. I am a better person for knowing my anxiety.

Sources: A User’s Guide to the Brain, John J. Ratey, MD, 2001; Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life, Karen Rauch Carter, 2000; On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 2014; Well Designed Life, Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, 2015.

This blog was researched, written and edited by Karen Hallis. She is an organizer and certified professional coach. She uses her attorney skills in her work with clients to help them change their circumstances involving homes, estates and conflict. Call or contact Karen for a complimentary conversation to see if she can help you start, continue or complete your project.