Add as bookmark

Junk is the Enemy

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 93 - October 2003

"We spent all day sorting out stuff which Mother doesn't want any more," said a friend of mine the other day. "At least she said she didn't. Would you believe it? In the night she crept out to the boxes waiting to be collected, and took back most of the stuff. What can you do?" Not a lot with a strong-minded woman in her eighties. But the hanging-on v. letting-go conflict operates powerfully among younger age groups, too, and can cause real problems.

Junk is one of the nasty by-products of living in a consumer society, whether it comes in the mail or piles up on the doorstep, and, unless one deals with it swiftly and ruthlessly, it tends to multiply in mysterious ways. But there is a nobler category of junk – personal belongings that were once desired and useful, that became redundant long ago, but for a multitude of reasons (see below) have stayed put, seemingly for ever. They clog up scarce space in the house; the clothing articles among them go out of fashion, almost audibly, month after month. It would be marvellous to have a few empty shelves, cupboards and drawers, and yet why do people – including myself – allow this? Well, there is that largely false excuse that " it may come in handy one day". As a rule it doesn't, unless it's a forgotten heirloom in the attic which then fetches a five-figure sum at an auction. This, unfortunately, is rarely the case. There is also an ancestral instinct – oddly surviving in this age of disposables – the instinct to put something aside for that mythical rainy day that never comes. I suppose it's the same instinct that causes our demented neighbourhood squirrel to bury conkers in our gardens and then forget about them, so that horse chestnut saplings shoot up all over the place.

But there is also a deeper reason for hoarding redundant stuff: it's tangible proof of our past. Not literally, like a diary, not in images, like a photo album, but by association. I used to think that women were particularly guilty of keeping no longer wearable evening sandals, hats they wouldn't be seen dead in, and deeply awful folksy bags bought on a Greek holiday years ago, for each one evoked memories and confirmed their reality. Yet men, too, have their attachments to ancient blazers and battered briefcases, even if presumably their memories are of a less sentimental nature. What it boils down to, I expect, is an unconscious attempt to build a kind of scaffolding around our all too fleeting everydays, and to keep alive the past by hanging on to its debris. A great friend of mine told me the other day that she had three large holdalls full of old letters, holiday postcards, old theatre programmes – complete with ticket stubs – and bills of all kinds. "Why not chuck them out?" I asked, knowing that her tiny flat was bursting at the seams. "Because I'll want to look at them when I'm an old lady," she replied. True, many of the letters from her ex-husband were pretty nasty and would upset her all over again, she added, but throwing them away might leave a big hole in her life story.

Her willingness to re-live old anger and grief many years after the event leads us straight to the core of the problem. Let me spell it out: the worst kind of junk is not stored in holdalls, attics or boxes, nor is it visible. I am talking of the psychological junk that most of us pile up and preserve over the years. Old resentments, hurts, ego wounds, emotional wounds, unresolved conflicts, memories of large and tiny defeats, unspoken truths and unexpressed love that has turned sour – the array is enormous. It's one of the perversities of human nature that our negative memories remain so alive and vivid that every time they crop up we re-live at least part of the old painful feelings that trail along with them. For the psyche, time doesn't count and, therefore, doesn't heal, either.

And it's this invisible emotional junk we carry that is the real enemy, narrowing our horizon and overshadowing our relationships. To take just one example, in my emotionally frozen clients, the 'once bitten, twice shy' syndrome invariably springs from some old – often very old – hurt that hasn't been allowed to heal and is carried forth, year after year, without being questioned about its validity. This is the kind of junk that needs to be discarded through long, patient work in therapy, before the frozen emotions can begin to thaw and allow the heart to open up.

It's beyond the scope of this article to explain how this is done; besides, every case is different. But, essentially, it's a matter of agreeing to let go of the old stuff: we are the ones who hang on to it, it has no means to do so. Also, it needs to be recognized that whatever is firmly lodged in the past cannot harm us any more. It was the French artist Poliakoff who once said, "If you seek perfection, don't ask what you have to add, ask what you have to leave out". He had paintings in mind, but the advice applies to our inner life, too.

Maybe perfection is too high an aim. Personally, I would gladly settle for junk-free inner space and a new sense of freedom.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

top of the page