Digging Himself Out of His Clutter Grave

I was working with a guy who was feeling depressed about an old relationship. His girlfriend had broken up with him two years ago. They were living together and she moved out. She left some of her things behind. There were some of her books in a box in the closet. A tube of her moisturizer and two bars of her favorite soap were under the bathroom sink. Her mirror was hanging on the wall in the front hallway.

When he showed me her artifacts he seemed so sad. His eyes got teary. His head hung down. His voice got weak. He said, "I want to hang onto her things in case she comes back." There was conviction in his voice. He believed it. I asked him if they were in touch. He said he sends her an email every few months. Sometimes she doesn't write back. Other times she'll write a short email back a few weeks later. I asked if she was seeing anyone. He told me she was living with another guy.

I said the odds of her returning were slim. His living with the expectation that she'll come back to him were causing him great pain. When we try and live in a fantasy, it causes harm to our life as it currently is. I told him that every time he looked in the closet for something, he'd be reminded by her box of books that she left him and she's with someone else. When he passes by her mirror, the wound in his heart gets reopened, and it doesn't get a chance to heal. I said maybe he was keeping her stuff and thinking she'd be coming back as a way of not feeling the pain of the breakup. But it turns out, it was extending the pain, which had to be taking a toll on him.

I thought maybe he was punishing himself for the breakup. Sometimes we learn when we're young that change can come from punishment. It's not an effective tool for change. Punishment often makes people feel badly, which weakens them and doesn't inspire positive change. It makes people live in fear of the punisher.

I was speaking softly with him. But my words were very direct. He was deep in a trance he'd created by living this way. I was hoping the kind directness would wake him up.

He started to feel detached from her stuff. He said, "I guess I can let the mirror go. I don't even like looking in it anyway." I took the mirror down. I asked him how the hallway felt to him without the mirror. He said, "It's a lot nicer. I think I used to feel like I got punched in the gut every time I walked by."

I went with the momentum and asked if he was going to use his ex's soaps and moisturizer. I put them in his hands. He didn't say anything. He tossed them in the trash. Then we went to his closet. I got out his ex's box of books. I asked if we could donate them to the library. He looked sad again. I said, "You could hang onto them and if by the time you are 90 and she hasn't come back..." He laughed. He said, "Yes, let's give them to the library."