Childhood is such a dangerous, sensitive time. “The best time of your life” was probably not. “You don’t have any responsibility” may have been filled with lessons you have trouble unlearning as an adult: that life isn’t fair, that people say one thing and do another, that what your parents said was not what they did themselves. Or worse, that what they said was exactly what they did–live lives filled with fear, anger, lack, and mistrust.
Or maybe your parents were loving, giving, happy people who nurtured you and helped you grow into a happy, self-aware adult who is content, centered and grounded. And maybe you still have feelings of guilt or have a sneaking suspicion you don’t deserve all that happiness.
As we move into jobs, relationships, teams, and organizations, we often see our childhood slights being played out again and again. We walk into a meeting just knowing that we will be picked on and blamed. And we aren’t surprised when it happens.
Is it possible we’ve become emotional hoarders? Not collectors of physical debris left from a life of lack and fear, but emotional hoarders, holding onto every slight, every suspicion, every offense, sure that we are in the cross-hairs of every office ploy, every relationship rejection, every insult. Emotional hoarders become so sure that their life is one of “not enough” and “someone wants to take what I have, know, want, or care about” that they see the slights around every corner. Proof doesn’t require much; to a hammer, every spot looks like a nail head.
The tales emotional hoarders tell are proof of their victimhood. The people they attract are ones who will agree with them. Ones who will want their friends to see life as an impossible climb against insurmountable odds. Nothing will every go right.
If this sounds familiar, how do you turn it around? Any suggestion here is not going to fit you. You will immediately find a reason that the suggestion won’t work. You know how the hoarders on the TV shows behave–that pile of old newspapers represents security, so don’t take it away.
A life-long habit is not easy to give up. We are comfortable with our fears and our boogie-men, the monsters have to be under the bed or else we are wrong. Silly. Not worth comforting.
Start simply. Stop looking at the slights, insults, and fears. Stop polishing the hurts, honing the pain into a smooth, slicing edge. Instead, work hard to see something positive. Something someone did that was kind. Do something kind for someone else. Because you can, not because you want thanks. Then write it down.
Keep a small, thin notebook for things that worked well. Even if they go wrong later. Write down things that work, that went better than you thought. If that’s too much, finish the following sentence: “Today, this went better than it could have__________.” Start small. “Lunch wasn’t horrible.” “My boss was sick and didn’t come to work.” “Not every light was red on the way home.”
After a week, phrase your sentences in positives rather than negatives. “I liked my lunch.” “I had a friendly conversation.” “There were a lot of green lights on the way home.” Replacing negatives with positives is a small step that helps re-frame how you see your life.
You will have to work hard to replace your emotional wounds with small emotional band-aids. And it will seem silly at first. Keep doing it. Slowly, you will begin to see your life in a more positive way. It won’t change your life overnight, but it took you a long time to get to where you are now, too. Give it a try. You have nothing to lose.
—Quinn McDonald is a life and creativity coach who helps emotional hoarders and people who want to re-invent themselves.