Spring Cleaning for Your Mind

Originally Published by Polly Campbell on Psychology Today, April 22, 2022/Reviewed by Davia Sills

Key Points

  • Identifying what’s behind your negative feelings can help reveal limiting beliefs.
  • Research shows that our beliefs, thoughts, and expectations can change our perceptions and behavior.
  • Reframing the beliefs that cause distress can help you reinterpret your world.
It snowed in the Oregon Valley three days after I cleaned my golf clubs.

Never can tell what will happen. Though it’s too wet to hit the links, it’s a good time for some spring cleaning.

I’m not ready to clean the cupboards. Too wet to wash the windows.

No, the clutter I need to get rid of first is all in my mind.

Years ago, I did a cleanse. Limited the types of foods I ate for 10 days to release the toxins from my body. And it’s routine to clean out the closets, ridding ourselves of worn clothes that no longer fit—college sweatshirt, I’m looking at you.

But how often do we really examine our thoughts and get rid of the mental clutter that keeps us stuck, the ideas that no longer serve us?

I’m doing that this spring. A little metal detox. Spring cleaning for the mind to encourage more creativity, confidence, and calm. Cleaning out the mental clutter and dropping the beliefs that get in our way also helps us get clear about where we are and what we can do next.

Building better beliefs to support healthy behaviors.

This is all a big deal. Why? Because every feeling, every behavior starts from a thought or a belief. Often we are not even conscious of them, but they shape our lives by igniting intense emotion that contributes to our decisions, behaviors, and the ways we think of ourselves.

We are prone (thank you, evolution) to a negative bias anyhow, more likely to see the bad, the threat, the problem, at least at first—in ourselves, in our circumstances. We can get stuck in that harmful pattern and begin behaving badly in response to those thoughts.

We read about the devastating war in Ukraine, and because long ago, we attached to the belief that we are small and powerless, we don’t believe we can help, so we don’t.

But that festers. We may wind up snapping at those we love, falling into depression, and behaving in ways that make everything worse. Of course, we are not powerless. Ever. And not in a war where the people are being aided through memes and e-commerce sales of merchandise.

Here’s how a negative thought pattern impacted me just a few months ago. I was three weeks post-surgery and still using a cane. That triggered a barrage of bad thoughts. After all, here I am, working hard to recover, spending hours in physical therapy, and I still can’t walk without a cane. I’m not improving. Not getting stronger.

And, naturally, those thoughts, which were not even true, left me feeling down and frustrated. Tired. I didn’t feel like exercising, so I didn’t. And—you can see where this is going—that slowed my recovery and led to greater pain, the very conditions I was worried about to begin with.

It’s time to clear up the mental clutter.

Here’s how you can do it too.

1. Evaluate how you are feeling. What’s working? What feels sad or frustrating or frightening? Take note of your emotions and how they play out.

2. Feel good. Give thanks for those good things. Not everything you believe is bad.

3. Take a look at the frustrations or more negative feelings. What beliefs are behind them? Often, we buy into thoughts that we adopted long before from a teacher or parent, and they aren’t even true. Follow the negative feelings to uncover those bad beliefs.

4. How do you respond to those thoughts? What happens when you think those things? Do they fill you up with good feelings and energy? Are they motivating? Do they push you toward self-acceptance and compassion or toward self-loathinganger, frustration, and judgment? No wrong answer here. We all have pressure points that direct us in both negative and positive directions. Just good to know which way you are headed, so you can change the ones you want.

5. Reframe the thoughts that are bringing you down. Me sulking about how I wasn’t recovering fast enough did not, in fact, help me recover any faster. When I recognized the cane was an aid to help me build strength, not a permanent fixture (as it seemed last year), I began moving more, which actually helped me feel stronger and more optimistic (there’s that mind-body connection again) and that led to physical improvement.

This isn’t about glossing over the difficulty. It’s about noticing that other options and possibilities that also persist. Reframing my situation—looking at the same things in a new way—did not make it easier to use the cane. It did not make me more patient. But it did help me to also recognize the progress and appreciate the improvements I was seeing, and that increased my motivation and good feelings.

When we feel better, we do better.

Research has shown that our beliefs, thoughts, and expectations influence how we perceive the world and, therefore, how we behave in it. In this way, our thoughts can create tangible experiences. If you eat a slice of cake for lunch, and you believe that it ruined your diet, and you expect to gain weight, you are more likely to beat yourself up and throw the diet out the window for the day. That can lead to weight gain.

In other words, if you believe you are a weak person for eating a piece of cake, you are less likely to do the things that will support your overall nutrition and health.

But if you believe that one piece of cake was fun and delicious and won’t ruin your diet or health, you are more likely to choose healthier food at dinner, maybe even exercise, and you certainly will feel a whole lot less stressed.

We get to choose what we think, what we believe. So, this spring, let’s clean out the mental clutter that limits us, the ideas that keep us stuck or leave us feeling bad and reframe them into the beliefs that support our growth and joy, and possibility.