Emotional Control: A Key to Strengthening Your Decluttering Journey

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Blog/Executing Tasks/Emotional Control: A Key to Strengthening Your Decluttering Journey

Emotional control, or self-regulation, is your ability to manage your emotions so you can direct your behavior, complete tasks, and achieve goals. Remember the other day how you told yourself that you didn’t feel like folding the laundry or doing some other tasks because you find it boring or tedious? Well, your procrastination was wrapped in emotional regulation.

Emotional dysregulation can look like anger, anxiety, unhappiness, negativity, and even a hesitation in speaking your mind because you’re afraid your suggestions will be rejected.

Self-regulation is an executive function, one of the skills your brain uses to execute tasks and get things done. For some people, emotional control is a strong skill. For others, it’s a weak skill. And for some of us, it might depend upon the task before us.

But, because it is a skill, that means that it is one you can strengthen.

Why Your Brain May Not Care for Your Goals

Emotions begin in the part of the brain called the amygdala. It takes sensory information and determines if there are any threats to our survival in our surroundings. When the threat could have been a saber-toothed tiger, our amygdala setting off a fight-or-flight reactions was useful.

When the threat is your boss asking if you’re done with a report that you’ve only just started … or your spouse rolling their eyes because you’re running around the house trying to find everything you need for the day, the flood of hormones from your fear reaction leaves you feeling wiped out.

But the amygdala connects to the hippocampus, where experiential memories are stored. This part of the brain helps the amygdala better understand incoming stimuli.

If you’re standing in your garage, looking at everything that needs to get done, wondering where to start, what to do with all this stuff, and how long this is going to take, then you can feel overwhelmed as your amygdala tells you, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Let’s get out of here!” (Yes, as a kid, I loved watching the reruns of the cheesy sci-fi television show, Lost in Space).

Graphic of the Affirmations for Emotional Control Guide.

You Don’t Have to Do the Task to Relieve the Tension

The moment you decide to put off your garage-decluttering project, the negative feelings recede because you’re no longer thinking about the project you’ve decided is too scary to take on. Yay, the panic is gone! But you’re still unable to park your car in the garage.

Emotional control resides in the prefrontal cortex, which rationally halts the fight-or-flight response and calms the amygdala so it knows the project you want to take on is not a life-threatening situation and it will shut off the alarm.

Strengthening our self-regulation skill helps us calm down and stay in control. If your parents or guardians didn’t manage their emotions well, those experiences have a lot to do with how you control your emotional responses now.

That said, emotional control is a skill that can be strengthened with consistent and intentional practice.

How Emotional Control Is Important When You’re Organizing Your Home

Decluttering is an emotional experience. You are sorting through things that used to be important to you or that you wished had been more important to you and now you’re considering getting rid of them. You may even be sorting through things that had once belonged to a loved one.

When you struggle to regulate your emotions, you may become so overwhelmed that you either decide you need to avoid sorting through your possessions until you’re “ready” or you overreact and toss things without any consideration.

Neither of those situations is ideal. The only people I’ve ever heard from who truly regretted getting rid of things were those who reacted instead of rationalized. They may have felt pressured to decide and they interpreted their hesitation as a weakness.

This doesn’t mean that decluttering needs to be an emotionless experience. But if you are unable to calm yourself when your emotions run high, you’ll be unable to make decisions that you’ll be happy with.
And, by the way, the information in this article applies to any goals that you have, not just decluttering and organizing your home.

Using Self-Talk to Gain Control of Your Emotions

As you may guess, self-talk involves talking to yourself by telling yourself instructions, affirmations, and positive appraisals of what you’ve accomplished.

For example, “Take a deep breath and just open the closet door.” “I am in control of how I respond to a situation.” “It’s a relief to get rid of those cocktail dresses that I haven’t worn in over twenty years. And it’s great that I didn’t dwell on thoughts of my ex-husband when I remembered the types of events I used to wear those dresses to.”

According to the authors of Smart But Scattered, self-talk decreases activity in the amygdala (the alarm) and increases activity in the frontal lobes (calm and control). Talking to yourself helps you to gain emotional control in your brain and in your behaviors.

You can use self-talk with any of the following suggestions.

Graphic for the free guide, Affirmations for Emotional Control.

Create an Environment Conducive to Calm

To change your behavior, you want to first be aware of the situations that leave you feeling out of control. The more specific you can be, the easier it can be to see what you can modify at home or at work.

This isn’t about faking a response to something or someone that upsets you. Instead, your goal is to gradually dial back your emotions, so you feel better about yourself. If your emotional response frightens you or others, or diminishes your life, seek professional help.

When you realize what situations set off poor regulation, consider if you can avoid the situation. So maybe large, loud crowds leave you anxious or quiet spaces have you feeling antsy. Can you avoid … or limit the number of times you will be in these conditions? Or can you create a way to give yourself regular break before you feel out of control?

Move More Often

Regular physical exercise increases the neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphins. This means that you’ll feel calmer at other times of day as well. Going for a walk, or even stepping in place, can improve both your physical energy and your feelings of well-being even when you aren’t exercising.

You can also give yourself movement breaks while you’re decluttering, and you feel your emotions ramping up. I know, clutter-clearing is already physical work, so be gentle on yourself. Go into another room, get a drink of water, stretch, step outside, take a 10-minute walk if that feels appropriate.

Change the Task to One You Have Control Over

There will always be situations that can feel out of our control. However, finding a way to modify our response can allow us to feel less helpless or defensive. For example,

  • Take three to five deep breaths.
  • Tell the person you are frustrated with that you are too angry to speak to them at the moment without saying something inappropriate.
  • Ask for a moment to compose yourself or to think about what you want to say. 
  • Do a superhero Power Pose for two minutes before going into situations where you feel uncertain. (Look for Amy Cuddy and Power Pose if you aren’t certain what this is. Apparently, the posture boosts your confidence.)
  • Notice language that makes you feel helpless. For example, saying “I have to” instead of “I choose to” can leave you feeling stuck. Saying things like, “I have to,” “I can’t,” and “I don’t have a choice,” may be such a habit that you aren’t even aware this is your mindset. However, when you set the intention to be more aware of your language, you’ll begin to catch yourself saying those phrases. 

And by positive comments, you don’t have to go for phrases that feel unrealistic or fake for you. Telling yourself, “Well, that wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be,” could be your baby step. Practice replacing the negative phrases running through your head with more positive comments. (Remember, you’re developing a skill. I’ve found that I could have a litany of nasty things running through my head for a while before I’d catch myself.)

Notice language that makes you feel helpless. For example, saying “I have to” instead of “I choose to” can leave you feeling stuck. Saying things like, “I have to,” “I can’t,” and “I don’t have a choice,” may be such a habit that you aren’t even aware this is your mindset. However, when you set the intention to be more aware of your language, you’ll begin to catch yourself saying those phrases.

How to Improve Your Self-Regulation through Everyday Practice

  • Identify a specific daily activity where you struggle. Your goal is improvement, which is judged by your rating of your reaction (explained elsewhere in this blogpost).
  • Go for an easy-ish win by selecting a situation in which you’d like to improve your emotional control, but that isn’t a high-stress situation (like staying in control when you’re around your boss, parents, or in-laws). As you see incremental success with other situations, you’ll be able to go into “hotter” conditions with more confidence to your ability to be calm, confident, and in control.
  • Make a specific plan for how you’d prefer to act in common situations. For example, If (this happens), then (I’ll respond this way). Or, When ________ happens, I will __________. This will give you an opportunity to come up with coping strategies for situations you know you’ll encounter when you aren’t in the emotions of the moment.
  • You may even want to write out a script of what you’ll say so you can practice it with others and get their feedback on the effectiveness of your plan.
  • Write a sentence or two each day to review an experience from your day and rating your reaction on your five-point scale, you can track improvements in your behavior. And if you see that a strategy isn’t working, you’ll be able to tweak it.
  • You can also use affirmations and other forms of self-talk to support the changes you want to create.
  • Try to stick to some part of your plan. Remember, you are learning a skill. You wouldn’t expect to sit at a piano with no practice and play a complicated piece of classical music; you shouldn’t expect to develop an executive function skill overnight.

Remember, though, the more often you practice, the more quickly you will strengthen this skill. And remember to reward yourself when you remember to use your If…then plan, write a sentence or two reviewing your day, or review your average score for a week, with a mini celebration.

These can be a phrase (“good job!), an image (fireworks), or a physical action (a thumbs-up) to acknowledge your successful step.

When you reach your goal or a significant milestone of progress (raising your score from a 2 to a 3, for example), you might plan to give yourself a larger reward, dinner out with a friend, time to read a new book, or something meaningful for you.

Choosing to declutter or keep possessions like clothing can be affected by your emotional control.

Reflect on and Review Your Day

At the end of the day, reflect on what went well that day. Slightly better than expected also counts … don’t expect perfections. You don’t have to shine a rosy glow on the day, but you also don’t have to emphasize the negative. (And if you lean toward the negative, don’t feel that you’re doomed … humans have a built-in negativity bias because remembering encountered dangers or when things go wrong helps you learn what to avoid the next time.)

So, as you review the day, you can look for incidents such as, “I stopped myself when I was in the middle of piling on mental criticisms for forgetting to stop at the grocery store. I took a deep breath and came up with something else for dinner that everyone ate without complaint.”

Write down these brief assessments in a notebook. A sentence or two is fine, this doesn’t have to be a diary entry. You can review this collection after a few weeks to see how you are improving.

And by “improving” I don’t mean perfect (what does that mean anyway?). Instead, consider what you are learning about your reactions and what works to change them in a way that meets your goals for emotional control.

If you find a strategy that works in one situation, consider if you can use it or adapt it in another situation you are working to approach with more control.

Download your copy of Emotional Control Affirmations and get a printable weekly worksheet for listing your review of the day as well as your score on your five-point scale.

Rate Your Behavior to Improve Your Self-Regulation

How can you tell if your behavior is improving? Even your interpretation of your behavior of the day can change depending on the mood you’re in when you review your reflections of past days!

Create a five-point scale upon which you can rate your responses for the day. For example, if you struggle to assert yourself, a score of 1 could equal, I didn’t speak up at all; a 3 could be, I said something afterwards; and a 5 could equal speaking up (appropriately) during an incident.

Create your five-point scale based on your common reactions and moving toward how you would like to respond. The emotion you are working on will determine those responses.

Write down this scale so you can more objectively rate your reaction to an encounter. And, yes, if there are times you want to give yourself a fraction of a point, you can. At the end of a week, add up your scores and divide by the number of days to determine your average.

(If you’re particularly visual, you may want to create a simple graph so you can see your improvement over the weeks.)

This way, your goal for the following week could be to raise your score by a fraction of a point. Before setting your goal for how you want to respond in a particular situation, create a baseline by scoring yourself for three or four days (without trying to change your reactions). The baseline will help you see if the intentional changes you are making to your behavior are providing benefits.

You can also create a goal of improvement by trying to improve your score by x points over x weeks’ time. When you download the free Emotional Control Affirmations Guide, you’ll get a template for creating your five-point scale and a chart to track your weekly average score over a month.

This chart helps you see your assessment of your progress in a way you might not be able to do if you were simply mulling over your thoughts.

Get Others on Your Side

Remember that your emotions also affect others. Can you get some of these people to help you work on your goal for being calmer and in more control? You want someone who is willing to be supportive of your attempts without expecting you to change overnight.

Explain what skill you are working on and what specific action you’ll take. So, you aren’t trying to change your entire personality, but work on strengthening your skill in a specific situation.

For example, if at get togethers you know you talk too much and dominate the conversation, ignoring cues that others have something to say, you may ask someone there to send you a nonverbal signal to let you know how you are doing. (Perhaps a subtle thumbs up or down or they tap their finger over their lips as a reminder for you wrap up what you’re saying.)

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

The goal of meditation isn’t to wipe your mind clear of thoughts. Instead, when a thought arises during meditation, you are able to acknowledge it and then return to following your breath. The idea is that you’ll always have thoughts, and you can choose how you’ll respond to them.

Will you allow yourself to get wound up? Or will you note the thought while realizing you don’t have to respond to it?

If you don’t currently meditate, practicing for even one minute a day will bring improvements to your wellbeing.

You can focus on thinking “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale. Or recite “one” as you breathe in and “two” as you breathe out. When your thoughts wander, return to paying attention to your breath the moment you’ve noticed you’re running through your to-do list. You don’t need to include commentary on your thoughts.

7 Ways to Improve Your Self-Regulation

  • Identify specific situations that you struggle with and then create a plan for how you want to react.
  • Begin practicing your emotional control in “simpler” situations rather than one that you know will provide the greatest challenges.
  • Use self-talk, like affirmations, instructions, and positive talk, to improve your general sense of well-being. Download the free pdf guide to Affirmations for Emotional Control.
  • Practice meditation as a way to learn that you can have a thought without reacting to it.
  • Review each day and note your appraisal of a situation that went well (or better than you’d normally expect.
  • Score each day and then take the average for the week so you have a metric to judge your progress.
  • Cheer your actions (no matter how small) throughout the day and consider incentives to acknowledge meeting goals and milestones.
Maintaining emotional control while decluttering allows you to get things done.
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Hi, I'm Susan McCarthy

Professional Organizer

After years of organizing ... and wondering why I was never organized ... I realized I needed to declutter. But that wasn't the entire solution. I also needed habits so I could stay organized. Wondering why the clutter keeps returning? Let me show you how to become organized. 

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