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Declutter Your Psyche

A guide to cleaning out your emotional closet.

How to Declutter Your Psyche
Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

My favorite thing about March — an otherwise bleak, hawkish month — is ritualistically purging my closet, and also my psyche. Being a psychologist and overall brooding type, I like to think of spring as a time to reset emotionally, shedding the hibernating months like snake skin. I find this time of year to be reinvigorating, a chance to take a pulse on my social, emotional, and psychological lives; it's the time of year I get reconnected to old friends, revamp successful habits, and (yes) turn down invitations to events I'm not excited about.

Here are ideas for some cerebral spring cleaning of your own:

Clear out old numbers in your phone
Listen. "Joey Red Shirt" and "Yasmine LES" are likely not going to play prominent roles in your life. For a long time, I kept random numbers saved in my phone, like emotional souvenirs. But then I deleted one and was hooked. It felt so good; yes, I was saying no to a version of myself that was going to follow up on a spontaneous connection, but also I was clearing up psychic space for newcomers — first and last name included.

Do a social-media declutter
Numerous studies highlight the adverse effects of social-media use, but I think it's more helpful to think of it as bad social-media use. Like anything, if we can develop a more alert, mindful relationship to social media, it can enhance our relationships and keep us engaged. Go through your social-media accounts meticulously. Unfollow people whose lives — filtered or not — make you feel bad about yourself. Try to compartmentalize when you use social media. Instead of mindlessly flicking through feeds during every spare moment, commit to it like you would to another activity. (Don't do this to guilt yourself about the time you spend on your phone but rather to better understand and clarify your relationship to it.)

I have a little pact with myself that involves checking Facebook at specific times, for a few minutes, without doing anything else simultaneously. I've found logging out of all social-media accounts useful as well; that way, I have to make a conscious decision to engage with the medium. At the same time, also interrogate how social media might be a way to stimulate any budding interests, e.g., if you're trying to cook more, follow culinary Instagram accounts for inspiration.

Get in touch with people you miss
Take stock of the people in your life and how you feel after you've spent time with them. If there's a friend who consistently makes you feel insecure or anxious, consider reevaluating your closeness. That doesn't mean cutting them out, but perhaps their place on your priority lineup needs to be reshuffled. By the same token, ask yourself if there's anyone you miss. Many adult friendships peter out because of circumstance, not incompatibility. Our college friends move away; people have babies and/or high-powered jobs. If there's someone whose presence you genuinely miss, reach out to them. I've made a list of the top three people I want to rekindle contact with and plan on sending texts weekly just to check in. Even a quick text can reawaken a relationship. People like to hear they're being thought of.

Lighten your calendar
Look through your planner or Google calendar with a critical eye, asking yourself if you're dreading any commitments. Of course, the reality is that some of these will be financial, work, or domestic necessities, but there is a deeply felt Puritan work ethic in American society that espouses hard work and discipline, which is to say, doing things even when you don't want to. This attitude is unavoidable in certain spheres of our lives — employment, school, parenting — so gauge where it's not. Having said that, if there's something you've been talking about for ages (Spanish lessons, volunteering to teach citizenship classes), it might be time to swap things out. If it's financially and logistically practical, hold yourself accountable; I'm planning to sign up for American Sign Language classes with a friend and paying upfront to cement the commitment.

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Give some emotions more airtime
We're all programmed to be more comfortable with certain emotions than others. A fusion of family ethos, cultural ideals, gender norms and socializing, and genetic coding determines which emotional palette we gravitate toward. That means that we're fluent in certain emotions and tongue-tied in others.

I come from a family that communicates in lively bickering and verbal/external displays of love; it's harder for me to communicate displeasure or more serious grievances when it comes to relationships. Ask yourself which emotions you feel most adept at and which are most difficult for you to express. Then practice those emotions the same way you'd practice a language or instrument. If you usually suppress anger, make a point of telling a close friend or partner the next time they frustrate you. (It usually helps to practice on people we're closest with.) If you find yourself avoiding sadness, let yourself sit with it. I know how uncomfortable that process can be, but try to remember that no emotion is "better" than the other; they all serve the same function — sending us memos about our internal homeostasis and sustaining interpersonal relationships.

Cut down on toxicity
Yes, this means phasing out that catty friend or avoiding certain news outlets. But it's more profound than that. Toxicity can mean anything from negativity to gaslighting to microaggressions. I think of this as the Audre Lorde Approach to Self-Care. "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence," she wrote, "it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." Curtailing toxicity is as necessary as staying hydrated — you might not feel its effects as immediately as a skipped meal, but it will add up. But when we talk about toxicity, this includes your own: Minimize your partaking in gossip. Apologize for something you've done.

Buy or make yourself a reminder
The hardest part of change is maintenance. See if there's something you can do (or get) to remind yourself of any spring-cleaning goals. It could be a keychain or a tattoo or even your phone's wallpaper. Above my desk, I've framed a watercolor rendition of a Michelangelo quote to a student of his: "Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time." It helps me remember that my loyalty to writing is more than a passing resolution; it's a way of existing. Also, it's pretty solid advice.

Pay attention to what is working
It's natural to focus on what needs to be changed or tweaked. But that can overlook ways in which you're already thriving — take stock of what you want to keep doing. Find ways to reinforce your positive and successful habits. I've also found it wildly helpful to keep a running list of "tiny gratitudes." It's been over a year and a half, and when I started out, the list centered on more consequential things like being financially stable or my marriage, but since then I've filled it with smaller things, often easily unnoticed (e.g., "For the sunset on the J train" and "For the Beirut song coming on in Duane Reade"). Reinforce yourself for things that are going well; this will embolden you to take the emotional risks necessary for new changes.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn.