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Spring Cleaning for the Soul: Tidying Up Our Personal Closet

In a recent psychodrama workshop I asked participants to visualize cleaning out their personal closet. One woman opened her imaginary closet door and began rummaging through make-believe clutter. When I asked what she was looking for she told me her self-esteem was buried somewhere in the back.

Every time we avoid dealing with something we chip away at our self-esteem. We might feel relieved in the short run when we put something off, but our self-esteem takes a hit over time. This is because part of our psyche knows we are avoiding our responsibility, and that usually adds wear and tear to the soul.

When we deal directly with things, even the unpleasant items, we typically feel better. But more often than not we toss things in the back of our mind to avoid them, and tell ourselves we’ll get to them later. Later never comes, and when too much builds up we become like the woman in the workshop, and our self-esteem gets lost.

Like a favorite closet, your mind needs to be cleaned up and reorganized every once in a while. Information you thought you could use or deal with, or that that seemed important and helpful at one time has become disorganized clutter, keeping you from finding what you want and need. Over time ideas, memories, and concerns accumulate because they seem worthy of our attention. As we accrue experiences the original value, importance, or interest often changes, and the closet of our mind gets a little overwhelming.

Sorting all this through is the first order of business. When we are serious about cleaning our personal closet we need to take everything out so we can toss what isn’t useful, reorganize things based on how often we will have to access them, and store the precious stuff in a safe place. You might think you know what you have in your closet, but there are also probably a few surprises waiting for you. This is a four-step process, and step one is to take everything out of the closet. Yep, you read it right: everything.

  1. Cleaning out the psyche means making a list of all the things you have been thinking about doing, wanting to do, or need to take care of. This is no place for cowards. This list is designed to be as complete as possible. Get all the things on your mind out of the closet so you can see what you are dealing with. Don’t worry that you have the report you’ve got to do for work next to cleaning out the refrigerator, just write down the list as it comes to you. Make the list in any fashion you like. If a computer is your thing, start a file called “Closet Cleaning” and go to it. If you like the feel of a pen and paper, use that. The psyche doesn’t care if you use the latest in technology or a crayon – just get it out of your mind and onto a list.

    The second part of step one is to arrange the list into categories. These might be labeled “Work” or “Things to do around the house” or “Calls I have to make.” Whatever your categories, sort the things on your list into groupings that make sense to you. If there are items that don’t fit neatly into the clusters you have made, create a spillover group called “Miscellaneous” or “Etc.” and list them there.

  2. Assign an action word to each task that describes what you are going to do. Instead of “Fred” it would be “Call Fred” or “Email Fred” or “Pick up Fred” or “Mail Fred’s Letter.” The idea is to note what action you need to do to get the task done. Wash car, trim bushes, write application letter, clean bathroom, and buy stamps aligns the right task with the right action. If you wanted to pick out shoes or find a hat there would be a separate area in your closet with a different type of search associated with your exploration. By assigning categories and designating actions you are lining up shoes and putting hats on hooks so you can get at them more easily in your personal closet.
  3. Prioritize each section with numbers 1, 2, and 3 so you know what needs to be done in which order in each category. This way you will know exactly where to go first. Many folks waste time trying to decide what to do when they have a few moments to tackle something. A ranking of your priorities with an assigned action allows you to get things done more efficiently. Once you complete the third thing on any of your lists you simply go on to identify the next thee things to do. Of course, as you get things done and add things to your list the order can change, but identifying the first three events to be tackled will keep you focused.
  4. Create a “Virtual Vault” for your personal positive experiences. This is the safe place in your closet for all the good, wonderful, happy experiences that need to be preserved in case of a calamity. To activate these recollections, write down three of the most positive experiences in your life with as much detail as you can. Describe everything you can remember: the date, the location, the people involved, and the feelings. Be vivid and write a paragraph for each memory you wish to preserve.

    The latest on happiness research indicates that one of the best ways to combat feelings of depression has to do with reflecting on real past positive experiences as a way of activating strong positive emotions. In doing this you dwell on the actual positive experiences that have happened in your life rather than on what you may not have control over in the moment. The list of things to do and the order of actions you need to take will give a sense of accomplishment. When the woes of life get to you, recalling the positive experiences will help buffer your feelings.

So let’s review: The four-step process involves making a list of Categories, assigning an Action for each task, Ranking the order, and then highlighting your Positive Experiences. This makes the steps easy to remember because of the phrase carpe diem: seize the day, or in this case seize the closet.

I do a complete list, which means I clean out my personal closet, every week—usually on a Monday morning. There is a lot of carry-over from the week before, and during the week I add things, but I can also see how much is getting accomplished. Staying on top of the list doesn’t take very long, and I check it each day. As the three things in one category get done I number the next three and go on from there. I keep the positive experiences in a journal that is always nearby, and when I can, I add to that list. That almost always puts a smile on my face.

The woman at the psychodrama workshop eventually sorted through a number of things she hadn’t been dealing with and made a plan for acting on them in order of importance. The curious thing about this was how relieved she was, and how happy she looked just by making a plan. The very fact she had come to the workshop was the beginning of dealing with her avoidance, so she naturally felt better right away.

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The act of making and categorizing the lists, as well as assigning actions and priorities, will inform your psyche that you are no longer avoiding these issues, and, just like the woman in the workshop, you may feel better for just deciding it is time to clean the closet.

Spring Cleaning for the Soul: Tidying Up Our Personal Closet

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Spring Cleaning for the Soul: Tidying Up Our Personal Closet. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.