One of the most pervasive and hardest hurdles for trauma survivors to climb over during the healing process is the damage done to the concept of self. Trauma changes how we view ourselves. In fact, trauma commonly makes it difficult to even recognize ourselves in the mirror. Words can come out of our mouths and we can do and say things that we would have thought we would have never said or done. I’ve heard countless of survivors beat themselves up for the disconnect they feel inside themselves. “I don’t know why I did that” or “why did I say that?” is something I hear almost daily. Many survivors, even years after the healing process has begun, constantly feel frustrated with themselves for behaving in a way that the trauma has influenced them to behave.
Marie Kondo, the star of the Netflix show Tidying Up and founder of the KonMari tidying method, is no stranger to the concept of mindfulness. Her western clients look at her with confusion and a little bit of intrigue as she meditates in each house to “greet the space.” As bamboozled as many of her American followers are by her habit of being mindful, it’s almost impossible to watch the show and not use her methods to tidy your entire home. I, myself, have taken three trips to the thrift store this week to drop off the items that “didn’t spark joy.”
The KonMari Method has gained such popularity, in my opinion, due to the fact that it doesn’t push too hard. Having grown up watching popular shows on TLC about cleaning up spaces, professional organizers would often leave their clients in tears, making the hard decisions to throw away things that they no longer need. However, the KonMari Method of tidying up your spaces doesn’t require you to force yourself to do anything. You hold each item and you ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”; and if it does you keep it, and if it doesn’t you can toss it out. Obviously, things you need an use regularly are no-brainers, but other items are sorted out by whether or not they spark joy. For sentimental people like myself, the second question came in handy as a suspicious amount of things I never use were sparking joy: “Do I see this in my life moving forward?”
Throwing away such things can bring up a lot of guilt for many of us; therefore, Kondo recommends “thanking” items that have served you but that aren’t going to be a part of your life moving forward. It wasn’t long into my tidying process that I realized how many things I could now toss away that weren’t serving me after I was mindful to show gratitude towards those items. My house has never been more tidy, and I didn’t have to force myself to do anything I wasn’t ready to do.
Now, when it comes to our thoughts, things would be much more straight-forward if we could just not think thoughts that don’t bring us joy. Everyone does or says things they regret or don’t completely understand, whether we’ve endured severe trauma or not. However, many of us feel alone. The process of healing and sorting through our own minds is just that: a process. The same way that holding the contents of my junk drawer and asking if they bring joy or are going to be in my life moving forward is arduous and often boring and frustrating, so is evaluating our own thoughts. However, Marie Kondo-ing your life isn’t limited to going through the contents of your house. Mindfulness is applicable anywhere in our lives, and we can use similar methods of sorting through or thoughts as we do for our homes.
1.) Listen to your thoughts
The concept of mindfulness encourages the notion that thoughts are like clouds, and that we can watch them and observe them as they go by without getting lost in them. Have you ever heard yourself think something cruel and think “jeez, I need to chill”? We’ve all been there. The idea here is to listen to what we’re thinking to ourselves, and try to not judge those thoughts for being there. Yes, perhaps chilling would be a good idea, but we’re not trying to punish ourselves for thinking our thoughts. Instead, try to listen passively to what you’re thinking, acknowledge those thoughts, and don’t ascribe anything “good” or “bad” to them. Guilt won’t fundamentally keep us from thinking thoughts we would rather not think, so instead, just try to watch and practice giving yourself grace and understanding.
Our thoughts fuel us and are the starting place for everything we do, whether those behaviors have positive impacts on our lives or not. See if you can identify (not judge) thoughts that trigger a sort of mental spiral. For me, I know that these thoughts have become problematic when I hear myself think them and my heart feels like it drops like a yoyo. That’s a thought I know that I need to consider more in-depth, and start the second step.
2.) Trace them back
Just think, there was once a time when you learned everything for the very first time. Nobody pops out of the womb with an understanding of anything, so there was always a time where a thought popped into our head for the first time and it’s been repeated in different forms ever since. When you’ve identified a thought that feels heavy, it’s often accompanied by further thoughts and beliefs that we may not have completely considered.
A good example is when you catch yourself thinking thoughts like “all my friends hate me.” This is a thought that, though I don’t know what your friendships are like, is likely untrue. But it probably isn’t all on your friends for giving you impression that they hate you; it probably has something to do with what you think of yourself. So, when you stop and try to trace that thought back into your mind, maybe the thought underneath “all my friends hate me” is something like “I’m unloveable.” Now, this is where many of us cringe because we can think this kind of thought on two different levels. On the one hand, we know it’s not true; we know that we are capable of being loved. However, on the other hand, it feels true.
Now, try to trace it back a little further; why does it feel true even if we know it isn’t? Sometimes it can take days, weeks, or even months of searching for the root of a thought like this, but once we find it something inside of us clicks into place. Don’t pressure yourself into rushing to answers for your questions. It’s okay to not know right away; and remember, we’re not forcing anything.
Perhaps the origin of a thought like “I am unlovable” is buried pretty deeply into our childhoods, and it can be hazy to go back that far. But, it’s okay to think broadly. For example, perhaps no one ever told you you were unlovable, but you tried your hardest to please your parents, and it never felt like enough. Perhaps you got better grades, were better at sports, excelled in your lessons and did everything you were told to do, but for some reason your parents always celebrated your sibling's accomplishments more. Perhaps, you gleaned from this the thought that you are the problem, and that you can do everything right and you will never be as loved as your sibling. Perhaps you came to believe that you could never expect to be loved and appreciated because you were the problem.
3.) Ask “Does this still serve me?”
You might think, “What? These thoughts have never served me,” which may be true, but for the most part, thoughts, even the ugly ones, were necessary and helpful at some point. If I watched my sibling get all the attention that I wanted, and watched my parents pass me and my accomplishments over to celebrate theirs, believing that I was unlovable is what kept the family together. Perhaps you needed to believe that you were the problem because you relied on your parents and couldn’t hate them for ignoring you, and perhaps you needed to blame yourself because it kept you from blaming your family while you were too young to leave a toxic situation.
So, this thought did serve you. This thought, as ugly and hard as it is to acknowledge, was at one point necessary. You may wish that you never had to wrestle with why you didn’t feel lovable, and you may feel angry (perhaps for the first time) that you were required to find some way to mentally compensate for your parents’ lack of balance. It’s okay to feel whatever comes up in these moments of realization. However, also recognize that the thought did serve you.
Is it still serving you? Is it still important for you to believe that you’re unlovable so that you can function? Most likely not. Thoughts like these, though they were necessary at some point, now cause you more harm than good. It’s putting a wedge between you and your relationships and limiting the amount of love that you accept from the people in your life. Thoughts, though they can help us when we need them, stop being useful, and they clutter our minds like the sweater we’ve had since we were 14 clutters our closets.
4.) Thank the thought for being there when you needed it
I want to be sure to state that it’s okay to be angry when you’ve identified the origins of your thoughts. It can be hard not to be. However, thoughts like “I am unlovable” often have saved us from a much worse alternative. It’s okay to be angry at what made a thought like this necessary, but it’s also important to look at how pure the origins of the thought were. The chances are that you adapted to a way that of thinking that has now become harmful, but that served you well for the time it was necessary. Our forms of self-hatred are often attempts to protect others, whether we realize that or not, and that’s awesome. Consider how kind and brave the origins of your thought were, and reflect on what adopting such a way of thinking says about you - that you were willing to hurt yourself to save others.
The way Kondo would recommend thanking a pair of sweatpants that we wore continuously for five years and have since been sitting in our dresser unused for ten years, we can thank a thought that served us well when we needed it that has since become detrimental to our relationships. Thank the thought for being there when you needed it, and thank yourself for adapting to a hard environment. Recognize what the process has taught you about you, and perhaps now you can let go of a thought that has caused you and your relationships damage.
It would be great if we could throw out a thought as easily as we throw out a pair of sweatpants, but the truth is that you’ll likely have throw the thought out over and over again. That’s okay! Once you reach the point where you’re ready to acknowledge a hard thought, thank it and move on; the pathway has been laid, and you can travel on that pathway from thought to gratitude every time the thought pops into your head. It gets easier each time, and one day you’ll travel along that pathway without having to think about it.
Mindfulness in our spaces and in our minds takes practice, but the beauty is that nothing is ever forced. You don’t have to beat yourself up for thinking your friends don’t like you; on the contrary, you can trace that thought back to its origins and find a renewed sense of gratitude towards yourself. It’s easy to be angry with ourselves and to get frustrated with why we think such “unreasonable” thoughts. But let me be the first to tell you that you are not alone. Living a human life is about adapting. We form thoughts and beliefs about ourselves because we adapt, and we adapt so well that sometimes we end up holding onto the ways we adapted long after it’s necessary to do so. Perhaps you’re adapting now in ways that won’t benefit you in 10 years, and that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. We accumulate things we don’t need in the same way we accumulate thoughts, and the same way we go through our closets to clean out our clothes that we’ve worn out, we can go through our minds and abandon thoughts that are no longer helpful. We can learn and we can unlearn, treating our minds with as much respect and gratitude as we can treat our homes.