Are you overdue an emotional spring clean?

01 July 2021

Just as our drawers, desks and cupboards can become disordered or jumbled with mess, so too can our emotional lives. Perhaps our thoughts have become cluttered with worries or littered with sources of stress and frustration that we could do with letting go of - if only we had a moment to stop and think about the emotional luggage we're carrying around.

Often it takes some kind of personal crisis to force us to take stock of the factors contributing to our emotional wellbeing and sense of self. However, by consciously reflecting on everything in our emotional kit bag before things get too much, we can identify not only what we need to let go, but also what we want to take its place.

Only by proactively managing our mental health in ways like this, can we hope to start addressing the underlying issues now causing one in six of us to suffer stress-related depression or anxiety issues at any one time.

Six ways to emotionally spring clean

1. Take stock

As with any good spring clean, the first step is to consider what's already there. Scan your life to identify what you like and don't like. Make a list of the things you're grateful for to identify what you want to keep. Then list what's making you feel sad, angry or frustrated. To help, you can use a visual aid, such as a 'Life Pie'. To do this, draw a large circle and divide this pie into slices based on the time you spend on different areas of your life (such as work, friends, children, fun, romance, spirituality and exercise). Next, look at which areas take up most of your time. Is this how you want it to be? Finally, mark each area out of 10, in terms of satisfaction. Which areas scored less than 7? Why? What needs to change? What could be better?

2. Be still

Personal insights don't come about while you're in the thick of things or rushing around. If you feel flat and don't know what needs to change, the first thing you need to do is slow down and give yourself the time and space needed for proper reflection. Many people avoid giving themselves this space, for example by working much later than they need to every night, ramping up their social life or immersing themselves in passive activities like watching television, to avoid thinking about things that are making them sad or anxious. However, it's only by allowing yourself to be still and feel the pain of a challenging situation that you become motivated to do something about it. Practising mindfulness, meditation, yoga, going on a relaxing holiday or simply going for regular walks and connecting with nature can all help to give you the time and space needed to reconnect with yourself and start listening to your inner voice, the part of you that always knows best.

3. Know your recipe

Everyone's got a recipe for personal success, specifying how much and how intensely they want to work, how much time they want to spend playing with their kids, how regularly they need to exercise, connect with others, relax or recharge by themselves. Other ingredients, such as regularly attending their place of worship or travelling to new places, might also need to be added to the mix depending on each individual. Some people know what their recipe for happiness is, but struggle to stick to it when work or life gets busy and things fall by the wayside. Others still need to do more reflecting on what is and isn't working for them until they can better understand their emotional needs and what needs to change to meet them. Either way, an emotional spring clean is an excellent opportunity to think about the ingredients your personal wellbeing personally depends upon, so that you can bring these to the fore and let go of those things that are proving detrimental to this.

4. Let go

Just as it's tempting to cling onto some outdated clothes that, even though we know we'll never wear them again, it's also easy to remain attached to emotionally draining people, issues and habits. Many people carry around other people's worries, burdening themselves with issues that don't really belong to them. Others indulge in maladaptive behaviours, such as obsessively checking email after work or using technology until late at night, when they know this adversely affects their sleep patterns and harms their physical and mental health. A significant number of people are afraid to end relationships that have become emotionally or even physically abusive, with a staggering one in four women and one in six men affected by domestic violence during their adult lives. Another useful exercise is to view your life as a rucksack and mentally take everything out of the bag then only put back in the things you really want to keep in your life. What burdens or distractions do you no longer want to carry around?

5. Take small steps

In order to bring about any kind of real or lasting change, it's essential to set small realistic goals, instead of trying to transform everything overnight. A helpful visual aid is to draw a large circle with a goal in it, then lots of smaller circles around that for each of the sub-goals that need to happen to achieve the goal. Draw yet more sub-goals around the smaller circles if needed. Instead of trying to achieve everything at once, select one or two things you can realistically achieving within the next week to get started. At the same time, try to anticipate obstacles and think about how you might support yourself to overcome these obstacles, or get the support needed to complete each sub-goal. Determined individuals succeed, not because they expect everything to go perfectly, but because they anticipate obstacles and plan ways of overcoming them. If they fall down, instead of beating themselves up, they get up, brush themselves down and think about what they're going to do differently next time. To succeed at making a significant change, you have to be determined, and that requires giving yourself permission to fail now and again.

6. Get emotional support

Although it can be useful to enlist the support of family and friends when trying to proactively boost your emotional wellbeing, quite often we don't realise how much their inner voice is being influenced by others: teachers, parents, friends, managers, both from the current time and the past. Instead of always looking towards others who might mean well but be overly tempted into telling you what they would do, or what they think you should do, it can be useful to talk to someone independent and objective, such as a counsellor through the Employee Assistance Programme/Health and Wellbeing helpline. Rather than dishing out advice, as a friend might be tempted to do, the focus will instead be on helping you to work out for yourself what's right for you by helping you to think about your unique 'recipe for happiness' (see point 3). As well as what small steps you can take to move closer towards this before the next call, with encouragement and the emotional support needed for you to achieve this.

Managers - how you can help your employees to spring clean

Issues outside work can and do impact on the ability of employees to perform or even attend work. By encouraging them to emotionally spring clean, and equipping them with a process and the support required to do this, you can help them to identify and address issues they can do something about, before this starts to have an adverse affect on their wellbeing.

Of course, not all issues can be easily or immediately resolved, for example in the case that caring for an elderly relative is taking a huge personal toll on an employee's wellbeing. However, even then, by encouraging them to give themselves time and space to consider their situation, and by providing the independent support required to really think about what's right for them personally, you will still be able to help them identify small steps they can take to improve how they're feeling. This might be as simple as asking a sibling to help out more, enlisting a cleaner to reduce the overall domestic burden at home or using the EAP to access emotional support and find out what government-funded care or respite options might be available to them.

By running workshops to help employees learn how to emotionally spring clean their personal lives, you can also teach them a valuable process that can also be applied to their working lives. Helping them identify the impact that maladaptive habits, such as working through lunch, a blame culture or an uncooperative or disorganised colleague is having on their wellbeing. By teaching them how to think about how they want to feel at work, and ways of setting positive small goals towards achieving this, you can help them to proactively manage their emotional health in ways that will reduce absence and boost productivity.

As part of this process, it's essential that managers go through the same learning and are taught how to listen to and support employees, rather than dismissing their concerns or any ideas they might have about how small steps they want to take to improve their wellbeing at work.

Only by encouraging managers and employees to proactively manage their mental health in this way can we hope to start addressing the fact that one in six employees are now suffering from stress related depression or anxiety problems at any one time (ONS 2009).

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the third party who provides the WPA Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)/Health and Wellbeing Helpline.

Please note: The EAP/Health and Wellbeing Helpline is not available to family member(s) under 16 years of age. It is optional on Precision Corporate Healthcare and our large corporate schemes so please check your WPA literature carefully to see if you have this benefit.