This is the first segment in a three-part series on Tidying Up Emotions
Spring is here and tips on spring-cleaning are popping up everywhere. While getting organized and streamlined for the new season makes sense in our exterior lives, for an Emotional Detective, mindlessly boxing up or tossing out the odd, forgotten or unused stuff in our interior closets is a terrible waste of good material. And it's counter-productive. Before clearing out any emotions, you have to first survey your old mess. So I propose you start with a spring un-cleaning: a deep exploration and sorting of your buried “stuff.”
If we could just rewind a video of our life and re-examine our earlier influences, family, culture and individual experiences, it would be much easier to understand how our messy feelings and reactions got formed.
Sadly, that’s not possible; but you can build a timeline, anchored by moments or events in your life that were significant to you. Constucting a personal timeline with some commentary (click for a free timeline tool) can help you examine what has been laid down in your emotional past.
1970 Born in LA Healthy
1975 Parents Divorce Threw-up, but said nothing
1977 Appendectomy Scared, sad
1982 First Kiss Excited, happy, confident
1988 College Excited, scared, curious
1993 Hired by Newspaper Overwhelmed, determined
1996 Married Excited, hopeful, nervous
1997 Promotion at work Proud, excited, confidant
1999 Stillborn Child Sad, scared, hopeless
2001 First Child So happy, scared,
2007 Mom Died Sad, scared, alone
Why is it important to dig through the past when you are really most concerned about the present? The reason is simple: your emotional past is etched into your memory -- even if you don’t remember it correctly, or at all. Unconscious memories persist in people like data in a hard drive. Even when we can’t readily access them, emotional memories linger inside us and effect our perceptions, experience and behavior.
Imagine opening your emotional “closet,” and pulling out and trying on things that have been hidden or saved for years and years.
Make a timeline including major physical, social, and intellectual experiences in the order in which they occurred. If you don't want to do this online, you can draw it on paper (rolled paper from an adding machine works well).
- Your accomplishments and achievements (athletic, academic, interpersonal, or artistic)
- Painful changes (losses, traumas, major conflicts, moves, developmental delays, health problems and other struggles)
- Intense moments of closeness, aloneness, betrayal or conflict
- Solitary moments of revelation, joy or pain
- Significant landmarks for you and your family (births, deaths, divorces, crises or key events)
Now that you have selected which events to include, add a brief comment about how you think you felt at the time of each event. Finally, look for photos from the time period of the events you choose (you can add these to your timeline online). Or draw some pictures that seem right to you. Add any details or notes to your timeline that seem important (emotions, scents, tactile memories, odd details).
Looking honestly at your past emotional experiences can be painful, but it's a great way to get ready for what is to come: interpreting what you’ve chosen, reconsidering old narratives around these events, thinking about the characters and roles they played, considering new ways to see the past (next week's post).
In other words, get ready to try things on and see what still fits, and what you’ve outgrown.