“Put it in a box” said my therapist. It was not the first time she’d said it. She wanted me to imagine containing the thing that was distressing me so it wouldn’t accompany me to work after our appointment.
But it would. My anxieties followed me everywhere, like angry ghosts with unfinished business. I didn’t know how to contain them.
My therapist explained:
“Close your eyes. Now imagine a box, any box. And put whatever you want contained in the box… Now close it and put it away.”
I imagined a hat box in a floral pattern on it. After placing my anxieties inside, I saw myself standing on my tippy toes to place it back on the imaginary top shelf in the imaginary closet. I was awaiting a sense of closure when thick neon green slime oozed out and down sides, descending on the floral pattern like a scene from a campy horror movie. I felt sick.
Two things were immediately clear: my anxiety would not be contained and my unconscious has a taste for melodrama.
Over the following weeks, my therapist and I tried a trunk that fastened shut, then one that locked, and then we upgraded to a storage unit with a dead bolt. But the slime was unstoppable, oozing through every barrier. We were losing the arms race. What was left? Did I need an entire imaginary gated community to contain my anguish?
I told my therapist to give up on the visualization.
For many survivors, part of the experience of developmental trauma was knowing that abuse could happen at any moment. Like the slime, it could not be contained.
Trauma and dysphoria are similarly intrusive.
As a result, some survivors don’t learn to compartmentalize, which is “the ability, even if just for a moment, to put away the things that hurt us, so we can gain some perspective on how to deal with them” (source).
This was the skill I was supposed to be learning in therapy, but the challenge I was up against felt slippery and amorphous.
Marie Kondo likes boxes as much as my therapist.
She is an organizing consultant and icon who has publicized her tidying methodology—called the KonMari method—in several books and a TV show. Her methods include (most famously) holding everything you own in your hands and determining whether it sparks joy, putting things stored in cabinets in smaller open boxes to sort them, and folding clothes so they stand on their side.
These are quirky highlights of her technique, but a deeper philosophy underlies it: Marie Kondo believes objects are sentient and they cannot feel at rest until they are organized with care; humans also do not feel at rest until their belongings are at ease.
Caption: This video illustrates Kondo’s animistic worldview.
Although I initially viewed her reverence for objects as silly, I realized while learning her methodology that my own existing tidiness is driven by a need to feel at rest, and I had failed to consider this in my approach to own feelings. Just as I would feel anxious and uncomfortable to shove a mess into a closet, all helter skelter, I had been feeling uncomfortable shoving my feelings away, unresolved, into the boxes my therapist had me imagine into existence. Hence the slime.
Like the objects in Marie Kondo’s world, my ghosts of anxiety are also seeking resolution. Like clutter, they tug at me because they have not been sorted or laid to rest. There is a wisdom to their insistence. Aware of this, I engage with them, thinking in anxious circles, desperately seeking resolution or containment.
Marie Kondo organizes with reverence and love, laying items next to each other so they fit together in small boxes.
Perhaps even if I could not resolve the problems sparking the emotions—because trauma and dysphoria are not always easily resolvable—I could put them away with care, rather than get stuck in cycles of anxious thinking.
I began to visualize treating my troubles like I treat my real-life objects in my real-life house when I am able to arrive at a sense of ease. I imagined sorting and arranging my anxieties carefully in a neat white bin, labeling it with washi tape, and setting it on my shelf.
And so, treated with respect, the slime left me, compartmentalized at last. The box didn’t even need a lid.