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Toxic Childhood? 6 Ways to Declutter Your Thinking and Spring Forward to Healing

I’m a great believer in taking advantage of the energy that comes with a change of season, especially if you’ve been feeling stuck or listless, as so many people do in the dark of winter. If you’ve embarked on the long journey of healing from childhood, it may sometimes feel as though you’re making zero progress so psyching yourself up to put in a new effort can make a huge difference but you have to do it right. Just as our physical closets tend to end up the repository of clothes we no longer wear, so too our emotional closets are often stuffed with behaviors and thoughts we should have worked harder to discard ages ago but we didn’t just know how.

These tips are drawn from my books Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook.

  1. Declutter your literal space first

Yes, choose a specific area to work on, and start figuring how what you still want and/or need, and what’s just sitting there courtesy of inertia. Don’t try to do everything at once because you’ll probably just give up; if you weren’t someone who accumulates clutter, you wouldn’t need this exercise. Doing some real-world cluttering won’t just make your physical space more appealing but it’ll make you feel in control. Feeling empowered is a good thing when we turn to tackle old-ingrained emotional responses and behaviors.

  1. Don’t try to do too much; focus instead

As in decluttering, over-reaching and being overly optimistic aren’t helpful when you’re tackling something that’s previously been out of reach. People who attain their goals tend to be realistic; in fact, the more pie-in-the-sky optimistic you are about what you can and can’t do, the likelier it is that you will fail. Don’t set lots of goals; set one or two specific ones, such as trying to be less sensitive to the possibility of rejection or working on tamping down self-criticism and blame as an automatic response. You’re not going to be able to change all the behaviors you learned in childhood that have become obstacles in adulthood at once; pick and choose just a few and use strategies to defeat them.

  1. Use journaling as a tool to increase awareness

We all tend to think that our behaviors are “just who we are,” instead of reflections of what we learned growing up. The best way to see the self that’s buried under layers of experience is working with a gifted therapist but studies show that we can also drag unconscious behaviors into the light by asking ourselves questions and writing down our answers. This takes a bit of discipline to do on your own but let me give you an example you can adapt.

Let’s say that you’re tackling sensitivity to rejection. Ask and answer the following questions, using cool processing. (“Cool processing” is described at length in my books, including Daughter Detox.). Research shows that recalling what you felt actually sets you back; you must recall why you felt it. The “hot” process of recall—combined with journaling—will just flood you with emotional pain so, please, don’t do it.

Let’s say you are working on rejection sensitivity. Ask and answer the following questions using cool processing and pretending as you’re taking the point of view of a third party:

  • What was the trigger for my reaction?
  • In hindsight, was I reacting appropriately?
  • Why did I react as I did? Was I reacting to old scenarios or in the present?
  • How could I have handled this better? What can I learn from it?
  1. Learn from the steps back and failures

Rather than beat yourself up for reverting to old patterns—blaming yourself, figuring that you’re a lost cause, or that everything your mother and others said about you was true—try taking a cold and calculated look at the last time you felt lousy about how you behaved or performed. If you melt down into self-criticism— “it’s who I am and it’s hopeless—you will always be stuck. The following exercise is adapted from one in The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook.

  • Describe a setback as objectively as you can. Just the facts, please, to echo an ancient television show.
  • How well did you do? Give yourself a grade from 1-5 using a third-party perspective.
  • Do not recall the specific emotions you felt. Instead, focus on why you felt as you did. (For example, “I felt lousy because I wasn’t sure I had put my all into it.” Or “I am disappointed because I just didn’t anticipate the setbacks and I know I should have.” Or “I reverted to my old position of blaming myself when things went wrong and that is what made it so painful. I basically did it to myself.”
  • How do you plan to regroup?
  • What did you learn that will be valuable going forward?
  1. Spend some time looking in the mirror

No matter what we look like objectively, many unloved daughters express their lack of true self-esteem through dissatisfaction with their looks and their bodies. Some of this may be a legacy from childhood experiences—being told you’re ugly, fat, or ungainly— but it’s certainly exacerbated by a culture that is fixated on stereotypes and standards of beauty that are pretty much unattainable except for a handful of people…. So put on Your Big Girl Pants and Your Conscious Awareness Cape and take a hard look. Look at yourself smiling, and see yourself as a stranger might. No, this is not a test of photogenic teeth or a wrinkle or blemish count but a look-see at how inviting and open you look. Next time, take it a step further and dare to name the things you like about how you look. Remember, this isn’t an inventory of likes versus dislikes but just a moment of positive appreciation.

The bottom line is that you have to unlearn what you were told about yourself and learn to trust your eyes.

  1. Do some real gardening

I no longer have a backyard but I have a terrace and indoor plants and while land is better, everyone can garden. And while being a gardener is my fav way of writing about emotional and psychological growth and while gardening metaphors work best when you are talking about uprooting old behaviors, growing something can change your mindset too.  If you already have plants, you know what I am talking about but if you don’t, start with something pretty indestructible such as a philodendron or pothos. You can also grow your own vine with an organic sweet potato; put it in a glass of water, pointy end down, with four toothpicks one- third of the way down. The top ends up suspended above the water. Put in a sunny window, change the water every three or four days, and soon you’ll have sprouts and, later, a vine.

I honestly think that becoming attentive to growth in other forms helps us see our emotional growth more clearly.

Happy Spring!



Photograph by Michal Jarmulak. Copyright free.

These ideas are drawn from two copyrighted books: Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life (Copyright© 2017 by Peg Streep) and The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook (Copyright © 2018 by Peg Streep) Copyright © 2020 by Peg Streep

Toxic Childhood? 6 Ways to Declutter Your Thinking and Spring Forward to Healing

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2020). Toxic Childhood? 6 Ways to Declutter Your Thinking and Spring Forward to Healing. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Mar 2020
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