I attended a workshop recently in which the presenter, talking about clients’ thoughts, said, “Content is garbage!” His topic was ways to help clients reduce anxiety, and he said that focusing on the content of a person’s thoughts–the story, the interpretation, the “why”–is counterproductive.
This presenter is well-known for his work with anxiety. He showed an impressive filmed demonstration in which he used his techniques to help a client recognize that her anxiety is controllable. As a counselor, I can see how his approach could be a life-changing breakthrough for some clients.
But there were two problems.
First, this presenter wasn’t speaking to a group of therapists. This was a conference for professionals, mostly organizers and coaches, who work with chronically disorganized and hoarding clients. The few therapists in the room could be expected to recognize the limitations of this approach, particularly with our client population, but those without mental health training were placed at an unfair and potentially harmful disadvantage.
The second problem: Content is not garbage to our clients. In fact, this memorable exclamation carries a heavy emotional charge of its own for our clients who struggle with their attachments to objects. At first, many in this audience thought the presenter was saying that our clients’ belongings are garbage. Once we realized that he meant the content of their thoughts, it was less offensive, but the idea still didn’t sit right with many of us.
We can’t address hoarding or even the relatively simpler problem of chronic disorganization without addressing content–both the cognitions (thoughts) and the emotions attached to the disorganized or hoarded materials. It is ineffective and often harmful to tell a client, “It doesn’t matter why you’ve kept it, you just have to get rid of it” or “It doesn’t matter why you feel anxious about change; you have to just change.” A person can’t understand her or his own mind without reconciling the “why”; to charge ahead with change that tramples that “why” is nothing more than a forced cleanout.
Content is not garbage–it’s gold. Our challenge is to help clients recognize that the value they perceive in their excess belongings does not reside in the items … it resides within themselves.