Photo courtesy of Alexandru Zbrobau
Lately I’ve been thinking about my mental “junk drawer”. The place I put the things I don’t want others to see…things I don’t really want to look at either (but I can’t quite let go of…). I’ve decided it’s a junk drawer because the stuff in there is so closely aligned with the contents of the actual junk drawer in my house. Batteries that need to be recharged…but I can’t find what we’ve done with the charger (that thing I do where I make myself small around some people), keys with no locks (persistent behaviours I want to stop but don’t know how), bits and bobs that will be useful someday…but not today. And not without a lot of inconvenient effort.
The thing to remember about these items is each and every one of them has a story attached to it, just like the physical junk in that one drawer we all have in our homes. It’s easy in the moment to justify why I made myself “small” around someone; I tell myself they wouldn’t have taken lightly any challenge to their thinking, or that it wasn’t worth disrupting them, or…but that is not the story that particular item is telling. If I look at it objectively, setting that example apart from me in an act of observance, it is the story of a lack of confidence in myself. A lack of confidence in my ability to skillfully pose an alternate way forward, or influence another person’s thinking. Author Rebecca Solnit calls these “ambient stories”. An apt description as they are ever-present and influence our way of being in certain situations; sometimes we know we are doing “that thing again” and sometimes we can only see it when looking back.
In Solnit’s words; “Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and become their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.” Her words highlight that we need to pay attention to this mental junk drawer and the stories we tell ourselves when we tuck something away in there, a lot of rationalizing goes into that mental drawer. Lessons from the actual household junk drawer – drawers can only hold so much before they start spilling out their contents, and they always do that at the most inconvenient time. So it is with our mental junk as well. Reaction (rather than response), unwanted tears, passive aggressive behavior, shutting down or a desperate need to “numb out” (with food, TV, alcohol, etc.) are all signs your mental drawer can handle no more junk. What to do? Recognize what is needed; time to look in that drawer with compassion and curiosity, and do some “cleaning”.
Looking at the items we don’t want to see about ourselves, or admitting a context in which we are living (at home or at work) is no longer working for us is emotionally exhausting work, but it is valuable work. Only within the act of bearing witness can we see what is needed to break free of these stories, of the mental junk that otherwise holds us trapped in a repetitive cycle that does nothing for us but cause suffering. Start gently, start by recognizing when you have put something in there, and witness the story it is telling. As Solnit says “It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it is done with passion and independence and guts.” If you’ve ever cleaned out the junk drawer at home you know how deeply satisfying it can be to have room in that drawer, to see all the contents. And much like cleaning out the physical drawer where things will remain (the goal is not an empty “drawer”), you don’t have to act on everything in the mental one either, only enough to give yourself room to breathe.