This is interesting.
I need some id and password information. I just lost my job, so now my husband needs to apply for Medicare and to do that he needs to open a social security account. I froze our credit reporting accounts after the Equifax breach in September. Creating a Social Security account online requires an unfrozen Experian account. Now, we could just drive to the Social Security office. But we prefer just doing things online. So I need the id and password information that will allow me to unfreeze our Experian accounts. But I don’t remember where I put it, since I did this three months ago.
That is the opening scene in today’s blog. Middle-aged post-traumatic woman who just lost her job sits in the recliner in her living room shouting “Where are those papers!?”
A voice calmly replies, “Why don’t you just spend a couple of hours cleaning, tidying, and organizing, and see if the papers show up? There is no oppressive deadline here, everything is really ok.” That makes sense to the woman, and after some sniffling and shuffling and looking at the news headlines one more time, she stands up and starts sorting through the mail that has accumulated on the couch, putting each item in the appropriate place.
Suddenly a whooosh of dark wind that blows through the room. The woman continues to pick up items and put them away. But she can tell something is wrong. All of this mess and clutter, it is ATTACKING her. The out of place items are whispering to one another, scheming some nefarious plot to wholly sabotage the woman’s life, inside and out.
Director: “WTF? Inanimate objects attack? What is this? Bad SciFi Horror? I thought we were doing a feel good story about self-awareness and self-empowerment.”
Scriptwriter: “Self-awareness and self-empowerment do not always feel good. It was a literary device. The woman felt uneasy, she felt fear, she had the foreboding sense that something very very bad was going to happen. She did not really think that the objects in her house were conspiring against her. But they might as well have been, because emotionally that is what it felt like, and that feeling was related to the clutter. There was a clear connection between clutter and foreboding.”
That is where I cut, and sat down to make notes. I have known for years that the clutter in the house bothers me, and it always felt like the only solution to that was to get the house clean. But when you are dealing with a couple of post-traumatic hoarders, a clean house does not seem to even be in reach. So I have been living in clutter purgatory for years, waiting for the personal growth and development to kick in enough that we could have a clean house. Get well, clean up the house, all good, feel better.
But something different happened today. The sense of discomfort over the clutter morphed from a vague ache into an outright experience of being attacked. And I don’t think the feelings changed any – I think I succeeded at rolling back the layers of neurological obfuscation and was able to get to a more direct version of the experience, an experience that has been there all along. When the discomfort from the clutter was a vague ache, I was able to tell myself that that is normal. People generally feel more comfortable and uplifted by clear, clean space than by cluttered space, so my specific distress was a completely normal and organic response to my environment.
But feeling attacked by clutter is not normal. I’m excited by this experience! If the way this clutter affects me is not normal and organic, that means that I can reprogram myself, and the distress will go away and be replaced by something more benign, like a sense of inconvenience and a preference to have things be different. And then I will feel better, even with the mess, PLUS odds are pretty good that I would then have more equanimity and resource to alter my imprints about stuff and be able to develop habits that reduce the clutter by a lot.
Somatic Experiencing theory includes the concept of Over-coupling, which is when two distinct things get linked together in one’s mind, as if they always go together. For Pavlov’s dogs, the sound of a bell and the availability of food were over coupled. Here is an article that explains over-coupling.
I’m thinking that somehow I have the experience of clutter in my home over-coupled with the perception of threat. Certainly my childhood home was perennially messy and was also the location of many psychological upsets. I don’t remember it all clearly. But both of my parents were depressed and I know that from a very young age I felt afraid when my mom got angry. So probably dating back to my young childhood, I created this strong association between household clutter and the threat of psychological attack. And now that this association has come to the surface, I can work with it using Somatic Experiencing resources.
The starting place for that work is this simple observation:
“I am noticing that I am feeling attacked when I perceive this clutter around me. At the same time, I am clearly cognitively aware that these objects are not attacking me. The reality is that all of this clutter, while inconvenient and perhaps annoying, is completely benign. The reality is that I am safe, secure, and supported, and that I am not under attack.”
That observation does not make it all go away in one fell swoop. But the key to undoing this programming is the pendulation between the actual neuroception (perception by the nervous system, whether real or not) of this threat of attack, alternated and contrasted with the actual real time experience of safety, support, inner resources, and pleasure, all of which contrast the perceived reality of threat. My present reality proves that the threat is not real, and through the gentle facilitation of experiencing both realities more or less simultaneously, that proof can be registered by my nervous system, and my hippocampus can file the paperwork that says that this particular experience of danger is something that happened in the past and that was completed in the past and is now over and done.