Emotional Clutter
February 10, 2021

Emotional clutter. Have you heard of this before? Probably not, I hadn’t before I started this work and I was struggling to find a term for the emotional memories we collect throughout our lives. The memories that we store in the recesses of our brains that are there to be brought to the surface at the most inconvenient or embarrassing times. The amount of emotional clutter or the size of the memories you have will limit your ability to deal with emotional stress. That breaking point is when you turn to food for comfort.

Picking the scab

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” I bet you heard this before. Said with bravado and perhaps sticking your tongue out to emphasise the verbal punch. But it’s bullshit isn’t it? Break my bones and they heal and no longer hurts but literal decades can pass and the words that cut you deep are still painful. Like a scab that you can’t leave alone, every time you pick at the emotional memory scab you bleed like you did the first time. You can probably remember a lot of times where someone’s words hurt you deeply especially children and teenagers. Without any filter, things are often said without any thought about the consequences. I am probably guilty of it myself in my childhood and teenage years.

What a collection you have!

As we go through life we are constantly collecting negative emotional memories and keeping them like precious diamonds. They’re always there in the display case, ready to be brought out and polished good as new over and over. Every time we take them out they cut just the same and we bleed just the same as we did at the first cut. It’s sadistic isn’t it? Why do we do that? Why pick the emotional scab? Like running your tongue over a painful mouth ulcer, you just can’t help it! The reason is actually very simple. It’s not nice but it’s simple and this is good news. When you know why this happens you will find it easier to stop gathering these emotional memories and let go of the ones that you already have. 

Bad Stuff

Back when we were living in caves we were constantly on the lookout for danger. Back then it was dangerous just to get up in the morning. So our brain evolved to constantly scan for anything that might harm or eat us – basically a radar for Bad Stuff. Obviously we aren’t in mortal danger quite so much any more but that primitive part of our brains is still scanning for bad stuff 24/7. That is why you don’t sleep well in a new place, it’s unknown and therefore may have hidden danger so you might sleep but it won’t be as deep as it would be in familiar surroundings. 

When Bad Stuff happens our brain takes a note of it and stores it away in your long term memory bank so that you will always remember to avoid that particular Bad Stuff. Conversely when something positive happens it literally goes in one side and out the other into the ether. It doesn’t need to be stored because it’s not Bad Stuff. This is called negativity bias.

Why you remember the bad stuff so well

Here is a great example of negativity bias.  You have a day out with your Mom.  You have a great time together.  You have brunch, go for pedis, do a bit of shopping, or whatever activity you enjoy doing together.  You are laughing, catching up on news, gossiping about a neighbour and then your Mom says something critical of you.  Guess what you will remember more easily than the entire day of laughs together? Yep your brain will store away this day as a negative experience based on that one little comment. Fun eh?

You probably have a drawer in your head full of all the things people have said to you or about you, or have done to you in your past. Maybe it’s bigger than a drawer, maybe it’s a whole house full. It doesn’t matter how much of these emotional memories you have, it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality. The ones that still cut you deep and elicit an emotional response when you think about them. They are the ones that come back to you when you’re trying to drift off to sleep or when you’re asked to put yourself outside your comfort zone.

Death by book report … not dramatic, real death …

I remember in secondary school we had to give a book report to the class. I was completely unprepared (no I hadn’t read the book!) so when I stood in front of the class to talk about the book my report was flimsy and I was scared that I was going to get into trouble with the teacher. As I stood at the top of the class with all of the faces looking up at me I began to panic. All of the negative emotional memories of people saying hurtful about me came screaming back to me “you’re stupid, you’re so fat, you’re such a loser”. A panic attack set in and not only could I not finish the report, I couldn’t answer any of the teacher’s questions. Humiliated, I ran out of the classroom to sniggers my classmates. 

That memory used to come back to me any time I had to speak in front of a group of people. I have, over the years, turned down quite a few opportunities to speak publicly or as part of a panel because I knew that my body would go straight into flight, fight or freeze and I wouldn’t be able to speak. Just thinking about it used to set my heart racing and my palms would start to sweat. I am very confident going live in front of thousands of people online but in front of real people and I wouldn’t be able to do it. This is a great example of how emotional clutter holds you back.

Emotional Clutter holds you back

Not only does it hold you back, it limits the amount of emotional stress you can handle. In the Emotional Eating Solution program we learn about the emotional reserve tank. This is the emotional stress you can handle every day. If your emotional reserve tank is full of these negative emotional memories, your limit is quite close to the top so as soon as something stressful or emotionally negative happens you tip over the top of the tank. It’s at this point that you emotionally eat because it’s all too overwhelming to deal with. It doesn’t have to be a big life upset or something really serious. It could be something as innocuous as spilling your coffee or a snide comment by a colleague. It doesn’t seem like much but like a drip of water, eventually it breaks the boulder.

This is why you find yourself in the fridge eating the cheese out of the packet or eating a share size bag of sweets. It might not be immediately obvious why you’re eating and you might just tell yourself that you’re being greedy or weak willed but there is always something more behind the almost frantic need to eat something. Yes sometimes we make the conscious decision to finish the packet but that is different to what we are talking about here. Emotional eating doesn’t happen in your brain. You don’t think about it, you don’t make the decision when it comes from emotional overwhelm. There will be times when you feel sad and reach knowingly for the chocolate but again that is a different thing to unconscious emotional eating because of overwhelm. 

Emotional Overwhelm

When we eat because of emotional overwhelm we are trying to avoid dealing with the feelings. It’s like a bottleneck of emotions, it just takes one more to get everything stuck and the pressure starts to build. You know the feeling I’m sure. The slight panicky, squeezy feeling in your stomach or chest that makes you want to run and hide in a wardrobe rather than feeling them. Emotional eating is the equivalent of hiding in the wardrobe. It doesn’t make you feel any better, in fact it can add to the anxiety and the bad feelings. The effect is short and sweet, literally.

Just put it down girlfriend

It’s exhausting carrying all of the emotional clutter. I don’t really like to call it baggage. I prefer to think of it as clutter because we have all had physical clutter somewhere (wardrobe, desk, the drawer of doom) and have experienced the sigh of satisfaction when you finally get around to sorting it out. Clearing your emotional clutter is possible, it’s literally what I teach in the Emotional Eating Solution. 

You might not feel ready to join the program to deal with the old emotional clutter but here is the good news. You can stop accumulating emotional clutter. This is a tool you can implement immediately and benefit. Most of the emotional clutter we have comes from other people. Sometimes it’s experiences as a child, how we were treated by parents, siblings or other family members. It can be from “friends”, enemies or seemingly sweet work colleagues who secretly hate you and make snide comments that go over other’s heads but you get the double meaning!

How to not care what people say about you

Here is the thing that you might not have heard before. You can listen to the things people say about you and not be bothered by it. Yes, not be bothered in the slightest. I call it energetic teflon. Teflon is the magic coating that is put on pots and pans to stop the food from sticking to it. Now imagine having an invisible coat of energetic teflon so that no matter what is said about you and to you just slides right off into a puddle of nothing on the floor. Learning to have energetic teflon when you are being disrespected or your boundaries pushed is a superpower. 

Being in the public eye I get a lot of feedback. The overwhelming majority of it is supportive and positive. There are some, of course, that are negative or just plain mean. But here is where the power of emotional teflon comes in. When I get a negative comment or something personal (usually about the fact that I am a weight loss coach who is still fat …) it just slides off of me. I have no emotional reaction to it. Ok that is a lie sometimes they make me laugh because of how outrageous they are. Besides myrth, there is no other emotion attached to it.

The first step to a bomb proof emotional teflon coating is by understanding that what people say about you or to you is totally about them and nothing to do with you at all. It is the same thing we say about trolls on the internet. They are deeply wounded and hurting individuals that are lashing out from behind the keyboard to make themselves feel better. It’s the same thing for people who say mean things to you or about you. They might be family or friends and, of course, you would expect better from them but once you realise that it is 100% about them and their issues you can start to build that emotional teflon coating. 

People see greatness in you

People see a reflection of themselves in others. If they think you are more successful in some way – richer, thinner, funnier, more charismatic, more popular (yes even adults can care about popularity) they see themselves as less. It doesn’t really matter to you what it is that they are reacting to because it is never about you, unless you’re being rude, it’s always about them. Don’t try to diminish yourself for people like this, no matter what they say to you. Understanding this simple distinction will give you the bullet proof emotional teflon coating of your dreams. Nobody will be able to say anything to make you doubt yourself because you know that it’s not coming from a place of love or friendship. Unless it is and then you can do more self reflection! 

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