Over the years, I’ve heard my friends’ and family’s plans for cleaning out their houses and their closets. I’ve heard about their plans to donate or throw away material things that they’ve grown out of or that are no longer of use to them. I’ve heard them try to make space for new things and declutter their lives. (I recognize and acknowledge that this is a privileged position to be in, which is a whole other issue that I will not be addressing in this article because I am not going to talk about said material things).
It appears that Spring Cleaning season is upon us.
This attitude and language around spring cleaning has forced me to wonder why we do not declutter our emotional lives in the same way we declutter our spaces. This year, I’ve faced this problem in a simultaneously painful and crucially important way. I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now: why is it that we’re so quick to identify the material objects we’ve grown out of and, often, so slow to identify the same for our relationships and emotions?
In the same way that we grow out of clothing, we also grow out of relationships. While that’s a difficult notion to digest, the reality is undeniable. We recognize that physical things are taking up unnecessary room in our physical spaces, but many of us find it much harder to recognize when emotional or relational things are taking up room in our mental spaces.
To be fair, we can physically see material items taking up our closet space, but we cannot physically see the things and relationships taking up our mental space. I can tell immediately when a sweater is too small for me or is ruined beyond repair, but I hold so tightly to my relationships, even when I know they’re doing me – and likely the other person – more harm than good. I also think that, at least for me personally, I am so worried that the pain of loss will outweigh the damage that relationship is causing me. After all, throwing out a sweater will not cause me the same emotional grief that losing a relationship will. But choosing to stay in a harmful friendship or relationship out of fear of the aftermath is not fair.
And let’s be clear: there is a difference between a harmful relationship and a healthy relationship that is having issues. I could take the time to detail many of the distinctions between the two, but at the end of the day, I think we can all tell the difference – we just often don’t want to admit it to ourselves.
What I’m talking about is harmful relationships, both platonic and romantic. I’m talking about relationships that are toxic, deprecating, and unhealthy. Relationships where you can love a person so much, but you still know that it is not good for you. I’ve been faced with that this year and it’s been a heartbreaking experience to say the least. Knowing that you can love someone so much and also knowing that the relationship is damaged from both sides beyond repair is miserable.
I held so tightly to someone while we were both hurting so badly because of each other, and I pretended like that was okay. I pretended like we had not both let this relationship take up massive amounts of space in both our lives instead of doing what was best just out of fear of the pain the aftermath would cause. I was and continue to be deeply and (seemingly) irreversibly hurt by this person. I know they would say the same of me.
All of this to say, letting go is really hard. Growing out of relationships or admitting that a relationship is doing more harm than good is really hard. But it is allowed, and it happens. And it is immensely important to preserve and maintain your emotional well-being and, for both sides, to speak up when damage is being done.
In order to “declutter” our lives, we must first recognize that we are dynamic characters and that sometimes the best way to love others and to love ourselves is to let go. Sometimes, holding on is more harmful.
When we do make this space, there is so much room for growth and so much room for joy. Since I started cleaning my emotional life, I have felt so much more fulfilled. I have the time and energy to spend with people who fill me up and who are there to support me. I have the time to make pasta with the people I love and laugh when one of my friends constantly forgets to put on oven mitts when picking up our cast iron pan. I have the time to spend not feeling exhausted and instead feeling loved and energized by the people I surround myself with. And I would not have the time for this if I was spending all my energy toiling over unhealthy friendships and relationships.
In order to make space for what is to come, we must first identify what is taking up unwarranted space. When we are spring cleaning our physical spaces, we must also remember the importance of decluttering our mental spaces.
By Bella Townsend
UC Berkeley student, poetry enthusiast and firm believer in Taco Tuesday.