If I only take things into my house and never take things out, my house will get cluttered. I have to sort through my stuff—decide what to keep, what to pitch, and what to give away.
My emotions work the same way. If I only take emotions in and never process them, my mind gets cluttered.
It took me years to pinpoint how my emotional hoarding impacted my mental and physical health. I wasn’t able to see the clutter in my mind, so I didn’t do anything about it. At the same time, I wondered why I was overstimulated and tired at the same time—why life felt like way too much even when my surroundings were still.
Now, when I make time to process, I give my brain a chance to relax, which allows my body to relax too. I have more energy as a result, so I’m less irritable and judgmental. I also think more clearly.
If it helps, here’s the model I use for processing my emotions:
Emotional processing = Events → Memories → Reflection
Every day, I experience a ton of events. I brush my teeth. I make breakfast. I see on Instagram that my ex got married. I work. I eat. I talk to my brother. I watch a show. I do the dishes. I go to bed.
I pay attention to some of these events—mostly the ones that stimulate me emotionally. Those are the events I log as memories. I categorize them. Seeing my ex get married is strange. Talking to my brother is pleasant.
Being present enough to create these memories is important, but it’s not enough for me. Once the memory is created, if it is meaningful, I still need to reflect on it. I do this by asking myself questions like, “How did I feel about this memory, and why did I feel that way? What did that experience mean to me, and why do I think it meant that? What can I learn from my emotional reactions to these things?”
If I really had a convo with my brother, here’s how I might reflect on that:
I talked to my brother this afternoon. He made me smile by impersonating our grandma. It was special. My brother is one of the few people who knew grandma like I did. It means a lot to me to share important memories with someone who understands them the same way I do. It brings me a sense of peace to know that somebody I love so much, someone I grew up with, is still there for me and always will be.
If I really found out my ex got married, here’s how I might reflect on that:
This morning, I saw that my ex was recently married. I was happy and sad all at the same time. Happy because she deserves a life partner who brings joy and love to her life and it looks like she has that. Sad because I spent a lot of my life with her—we used to talk every day, every hour—and now we don’t know one another at all. It’s more of a loss thing than a jealousy thing. I was so close to someone, they are still alive, and now I have no relationship with them. I guess it’s scary. It provokes this fear of being alone, and I don’t want to be alone. I don’t exist well that way. The whole thing makes me really grateful for the relationships I still have—the ones that continue to grow.
Boom! Emotional processing = Events → Memories → Reflection
Frequently Asked Questions
I believe chronic stress contributes to chronic illness, so I discuss this topic often. Here are some questions that come up:
- What happens if I don’t make time to do this?
- How often should I do it?
- How will I know which of my memories require processing?
- Is writing the only way to emotionally process?
What happens if I don’t make time to do this? That depends. If your unprocessed emotions are chronically stressing you out, they are simultaneously stressing out your body (great book on that here). So it’s not a question of what happens if you don’t emotionally process, it’s a question of whether your mind and body need you to. You may know the answer. If you aren’t sure, talk to a counselor, therapist, or doctor who recognizes that mental health and physical health are entwined.
How often should I do this? You know how they say the best exercise regimen is the one you will do? Same idea here. Processing once a month for fifteen minutes is better than not at all. Writing a few sentences of reflection every few days is great too. Be less concerned with finding the perfect regimen and more concerned with starting and experimenting. Ideally, you will experience enough cycles of reflection to feel its merits. This will help you find inner motivation to reflect regularly.
How will I know which of my memories require processing? Everybody is different, but I can tell you how I do it. I look for and process the particularly good memories in my life so I can appreciate them more fully. I also look for and process any consistent worries or fears I am having, so I can better understand them. In the moment, reflecting on the positive stuff is fun and reflecting on the negative stuff is not. But in both cases, I feel better afterward.
Is writing the only way to emotionally process? Nope! Some people talk into the voice recorder on their phones while they drive into work or do the dishes, some talk to friends and family, some talk to therapists. It’s the behavior that matters, not the medium.
When I make time to process my emotions, I get to look my memories in the eye and reflect on them. When I do so, I sort and order my mind to minimize clutter and get in touch with myself—who I was, who I am, how I’ve reacted to things in the past, how I react to things now, and why? At the same time, by giving my mind a chance to rest, I also give my body a chance to rest.
I welcome your thoughts.
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