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  • Writer's picturecoswaycbt

Past Experiences Don't Have to Haunt Us: The Linen Cupboard Metaphor.

A woman lies on her bed covering her face, her head is surrounded by photographs to represent difficult memories


Sometimes we may find that memories of distressing experiences can linger and, in doing so, continue causing us distress long after the original event is over.

There is a helpful metaphor that can help us to understand what is going on when this happens and help us to start dealing with these memories so that they no longer bring as much distress and upset to us.


The Linen Cupboard Metaphor

Imagine a cluttered linen cupboard – according to this metaphor it represents our minds, and all the linen inside represents the memories of our past experiences.

These experiences will be a mixed bag of the positive (affording us pleasant memories), the negative (affording us unpleasant memories), and others that are just neutral with no real emotional association at all.

The ways in which the memories are stored inside the linen cupboard are important.

If everything is nicely folded up and organised for easy access, then when you open the doors nothing much happens.

But what if you’ve stuffed the linen in there quickly in a jumbled mess – there’s a big tangle of things stuffed into the space, so when the doors open some of that stuff it can come tumbling out on its own.

An extremely untidy linen cupboard with linens spilling out across the floor

If there’s a lot stuffed in there and the doors are bulging, then it probably won’t take very much for the doors to fly open and everything fall out.

When we experience traumatic and challenging situations, we may not process the memories properly and it can be kind of like stuffing the linen in the cupboard without folding it up nicely first.

Then whenever we have a reminder of the event the metaphorical doors fly open and we can experience intrusive memories along with a flood of overwhelming emotions – sometimes we can even experience intense flashbacks that pull us back to the event in question.

The instinct is for us to just try to stuff it all back into the metaphorical cupboard and quickly jam the doors shut as securely as possibly, but this can keep us trapped in an unending cycle of the doors springing open unexpectedly and use desperately trying to keep them closed.


Why Does the Linen Cupboard Matter?

The linen cupboard metaphor helps us to understand the importance of dealing with the experiences that have been stored in a messy, jumbled up way.

Just like the linen cupboard risks piles of forgotten linens bursting out of the doors, our minds can unleash unexpected bursts of emotions and memories when our difficult past experiences are stuffed down and unaddressed.

A linen cupboard that has been partially tidied but an untidy pile of linen remains on the floor

By slowly and carefully taking things out of the cupboard, examining each one before

folding it up neatly and putting it back in the right place we can work on tidying up the cupboard so that the doors don’t randomly spring open to unleash an avalanche of linen.

Similarly, if we carefully unpack the difficult memories and process them, rather than quickly stuffing everything back into the metaphorical cupboard, then it can help them to find their proper place in an orderly manner.

They will still be there of course and they will still be painful when you revisit them, but they won’t come tumbling out so often in the uninvited manner that they have been doing.


Taking Control: How to Use the Linen Cupboard Metaphor

It’s all very well having a metaphor to understand something, but how do we tame the problem of those metaphorical cupboard doors springing open at the slightest of touches, allowing all the distressing stuff to rush to the forefront of your mind?

It is important to be gentle with yourself and not try to rush the process – it isn’t going to be easy to unpack and untangle everything.

Initially, the thought of addressing the difficult memories and so purposely bringing up a degree of distress will feel scary.

Your mind will likely tell you stories that this is going to make you feel worse, not better.

But listening to those stories that your mind gives you are what has kept you stuck in this cycle for so long, breaking free of the cycle requires doing something differently.

It also requires bravery and courage, so it is important not to push yourself too hard and to prepare yourself with skills to help you manage any strong emotions that may join you.

A ladder with labels on the rungs saying 'Breathe' 'in' 'Breathe' 'Out' leading to the word 'Mindfulness' at the top of the ladder

Starting out with mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or relaxation exercises will help you to start developing those skills and equip you to face feelings that could otherwise be too overwhelming and be a barrier to progress.

I am a huge believer of the power of the written word; when we write things it helps us to process them in a different way to when we are just thinking about them.

You could start by writing out the bare bones of the memory, just recording the facts of the event, but then move on to reflecting on the thoughts and feelings that you have about the details of the event.

A person writing in a journal

If you are having nightmares you could perhaps keep a dream journal to record the details of what happened – particularly if the dreams seem nonsensical or mixed up and difficult to decipher; often our sleep mind speaks to us through metaphor.

Talking through something that has happened is also another powerful way of processing something and, like with the writing, we will be processing it differently to when we just keep it all in our minds going round and round.

Often just speaking to another person about what has happened, without them even making any contribution, can help things to shift a little and enable you to start reorganising things in your mind, but the other person may also be able to help you as they may have fresh perspectives on what happened.

If you’re really struggling and suspect, for example, that you may have a post-traumatic stress response, then talking things through with a therapist or counsellor will provide you with valuable support.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the goal isn’t to erase these difficult memories from your mind (although that will seem like a very attractive prospect), but it is about understanding them and, through the development of healthy coping mechanisms, giving them a place in your emotional landscape that isn’t going to keep interrupting your daily life.

It is going to take effort and, as I mentioned above, bravery but just like organising that linen cupboard, it can be incredibly freeing to finally organise all that noise in your head.


Moving Forward: Let Go of the Past and Embrace the Present

As I have alluded to above, when we are willing to unpack and understand our past experiences we can start to unburden ourselves from the emotional load that they weigh on to us.

When we process the past in combination with developing mindfulness skills we can start to live more fully in the present moment, rather than our mind time-travelling us into a past where we have no control or influence and contributing to us feeling burdened with emotional baggage.

When we confront and process our past we move outside of our comfort zone.

It’s challenging but allows us to grow, develop and become more resilient.

Imagine that your metaphorical linen cupboard is now organised – you’ve untangled everything and assigned it to its proper place.

The memories are still there, and you can call them up on demand, but they are no longer intruding uninvited into your ‘here & now’.

A hand holding a polaroid photograph of a neon sign that says 'and breathe'

What would that be like? Would it feel like you are finally able to take a deep breath after holding it for a very long time?

By imagining what it would be like when you are able to focus all your energy on living a fulfilling life without the uninvited memories showing up, it can help you to develop and foster a willingness to go through this challenging process of confronting and processing these difficult memories.

Just as doing physical exercise building your muscles and makes you stronger, working on your emotional wellbeing helps you to become more resilient and stronger so that you can deal with future challenges in a healthier way.

So not only are you helping yourself overcome the difficulties associated with whatever happened in the past, but you are better equipping yourself for managing the bumps in the road that will inevitably be part of your journey into the future.



Although it may seem daunting at first, processing your past experiences properly will empower you to take control of the narrative – the difficult memories are always going to be a part of you, but the big difference is that they will no longer have control over you.

Remember that you don’t have to tackle everything at once, just start small with one memory or emotion at a time; a small consistent effort will be much more effective in the long term to help you transform your metaphorical linen cupboard from a source of chaos into a calm and organised space.

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