Healing Clutter: Trauma and the Tyranny of Aspirational Objects
By aspirational objects, I’m referring to those items you buy with the hopes that you will learn something or do something new – books, Instant Pots, hobby equipment, etc.
A healthy mind can buy something like this, read or use it for awhile (or not at all), and gradually realize it’s not their thing, and let it go.
In a mind with unhealed trauma, aspirational objects can become a trap.
Often our purchase decisions are not because we think we might enjoy a new hobby so much as become a new person. If we are still driven by salvation fantasies, a new book or hobby can become a dream of an entirely new identity, a clean and pure identity, that rids us of our shameful, current identity.
Then, when we lose interest, often because we never were truly interested in it beyond the fantasy, or just because we grow and change like all people do, the object can become proof of our failure.
We invest the object with a projection of our inner critic. We assign it a negative meaning, and then every time we see the object, the same meaning occurs to us. We rehearse the meaning until it feels real and external.
We keep the object around because it’s familiar, comfortable, and because we don’t want to admit defeat. We want to prove it wrong. I’m not a failure. I can still read that book. I’ll make something in that crockpot someday.
But then another voice says we’re a failure for having all this clutter, and we should just Marie-Kondo the lot of it. We can stay stuck in this kind of low-level inner battle for a long time.
It’s a trap:
- If I read the book, I’m forcing myself to read something I’m not all that interested in.
- If I don’t read the book, it’s sitting there taunting me and proving I’m a failure at de-cluttering.
- If I get rid of the book, I failed at the original aspiration. And, I wasted money on a book I didn’t read.
An aspirational identity is a setup for a failure identity.
I came to this realization today as I was taking some books to my local Little Free Library.
The books were:
- An Introduction to NLP (about neuro-linguistic programming)
- The Heroine’s Journey (about feminist Jungian psychology)
- The Renaissance Soul (about having multiple interests and/or jobs)
- Be Heard Now (about transforming your relationship to public speaking)
Since I had a few blocks to walk, I went through each book and asked myself:
What meaning does this book hold for me?
My inner critic started right in on the first one. I was not just a person with a book I didn’t read, I’m now a failed reader-of-books and a failed NLP student. All of the aspirational qualities this book had promised me–being able to understand myself perfectly, being an “outstanding communicator” and able to “influence people”, etc–are now in the toilet! I’ll never be maximally awesome now!
At first I tried to negotiate with the inner critic. The font is really small in this book, and besides, I’ve found other places I’d rather learn NLP, if I ever decide I’m really interested in it again. (It’s always been on the “mildly interesting” pile in my mind).
But I quickly realized that this approach is too limited. Because when I got to the next book, there was a new failed identity. This book told me I was a failed reader-of-books-college-student. (That’s how long I’ve had this particular book!). The meaning was tied directly to my time at college, and all my struggles with my inner critic from that time period.
But interestingly, the meaning of the third book was entirely different. I loved The Renaissance Soul, I read the whole thing, I often recommend it, and I felt joy at the thought of someone else finding it and getting benefit from it. My only twinge of regret with letting it go was in the positive identity I had associated with this book.
Oh wow, I thought. This really is all in my head, isn’t it?
All these books are just a bunch of bound paper with ink on them. It’s not the objects themselves I’m attached to. It’s the meaning I’ve given them.
So, as I contemplated these books and our approaching parting-of-ways, I consciously withdrew the meanings I’d given each of them.
This is just a book. I hope someone gets use out of it.
And then I reminded myself that the inner critic is a symptom of trauma, and the trauma-mind just wants to keep everything the same so it feels safe. It’s comfortable with the same meaning, the same identities, the same clutter, the same misery, the same inner conflict, year after year, because it knows it can survive that.
The trauma-mind is not threatened by unhappiness; it’s threatened by change.
The logic of a traumatized subconscious is simple: whatever hasn’t killed it, it can survive, which is always preferable to the unknown, which might kill it.
Which is why all change should be approached gently, including de-cluttering. Releasing 3-4 books at a time is a do-able pace for me, until I work my way through this particular pattern.
Going slow is OK. You can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge, and I am just not capable of acknowledging all the meaning I’ve invested in 20 years of unread books all in one go. It’s too much.
So, if you are in the process of decluttering, take the time you need to sort through the things you want to let go of, whatever they are. Acknowledge the dream, the aspiration, and any pain you were seeking to be rescued from. Name the inner critic for what it is: a voice of fear that just needs to know it is safe. Be kind to yourself. You are already OK. Life is hard, and you haven’t failed.
If you want to go deeper untangling your relationship with an object, here are some journal prompts to try:
- What does this object mean to me?
- What did I hope to become or accomplish with this object?
- Why is that important to me?
- What does it mean if I let this object go?
- Is there a different meaning I could give to letting it go?
- Is there any message about this object my inner critic keeps repeating?
- What does this message sound like from my past?
- What am I telling myself would change if I let go of this object?
- Am I afraid of this change? How can I make it feel safer, more predictable?
Decluttering can also become an aspirational fantasy.
The way decluttering is often approached in popular media is just giving your inner critic a mountain of fodder to use to demand perfection and attack you for not living up to it.
Even words like “mindfulness” have been turned into a standard of how to live.
Mindfulness, for the record, just means noticing what you are doing or thinking as you are doing and thinking it. It doesn’t mean your house is perfectly clean and you wear hemp pajamas.
You don’t have to approach it like this. It’s your stuff, you can approach it however you want.
I’m learning to notice patterns in the state of mind I have around clutter:
- Crunchy, contracted, “I should be better!”, self-critical, like a scared child
- Grumpy, “who cares”, rebellious, like a misunderstood teenager
- Gentle, kind, understanding, like a compassionate grown-up
Untangling the state of mind I am in and the subtle triggers I have around clutter helps me return to my adult mind, which is the best place to process feelings, meanings, and make decisions. I’m still working through it, but today felt like a breakthrough and I hope this helps you on your journey. 🙂