Is mindfulness ever…bad?

Hi Friend,

When I was about 12 years old I begged my Mum to buy me a pair of beige suede runners that I’d been coveting for months and she finally relented (I think there was some quid pro quo involved because she disapproved of their light colour and “unserviceable” fabrication). I was so obsessed I slept with them under my pillow for two nights before I actually wore them outside.

Recently, I ordered some sweet white high-tops and felt that same buzz of excitement when the Aussie Postie handed me the parcel. The rush of delight, the anticipation of the unboxing process (people actually make BIG money out of videoing unboxings), the pristine perfection of unworn footwear. Ahhhh bliss.

My husband gets me, so we chatted about our mutual love of footwear and reminisced about the 80’s a bit until we quickly went down the rabbit hole of collectors and the inevitable link to hoarding. It’s not really a pet topic or anything, trust me… OK, alright I can segue from ANY topic to hoarding and psychology – I’m pretty flexible like that.

In that moment of unboxing everything fell away. I didn’t notice the unfolded washing, the dust bunnies, or the cluttered bench top.

All that mattered in that moment was my new kicks and how they made me feel.

It’s pretty easy to be sucked into the vortex of searching for the perfect – *insert anything here*. Additionally, it’s easy to fall into the habit of hyper focussing on the new and novel when engaging in distracting activities, like online shopping, trash trawling, or bargain hunting, and being unable to resist acquiring a little somethin’ somethin’.

Reflecting on my delight at receiving my sneakers and the single-mindedness I experienced, I starting thinking about mindfulness and hoarding behaviours. Was there a type of mindfulness that might be “bad” like my being mesmerised by my high-tops? Was that focus even considered mindfulness?

My PhD research scratched the surface of mindfulness and hoarding behaviours so I thought I’d take a peek at my findings and see if I could come up with an answer as to whether this extreme covetousness and obsession was a healthy display of “mindfulness”*.

Facets of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Measuring mindfulness can be difficult but a well-validated scale is the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (email me if you’d like a copy) which breaks down the elements in the definition of mindfulness into:

1. Describe - e.g. “I am good at finding the words to describe my feelings.”

2. Observe - e.g. “I notice the smell and aromas around me.”

3. Non-reactivity to inner experiences - e.g. “I watch my feelings without getting carried away by them.”

4. Acting with awareness - e.g. “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.” (this is obviously a reverse score statement.)

5. Non-judging of inner experiences - “I tell myself I shouldn’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.”

When I compared the self-report scores of those with high (approximating clinical) levels of hoarding behaviours with those reporting low hoarding scores, I found (after controlling for general distress), that two of the five facets were significantly different.

Acting with awareness and non-reactivity to inner experiences.

These results reflect my anecdotal experience when working with clients. Some don’t understand how their home suddenly became chaotic, seemingly overnight. Numbing themselves with internet surfing and binging on TV after a long day at work led to this lack of awareness of their environment.

COVID-19 lockdowns over the past few years have made many of us suddenly aware of how we’re living our lives. That awareness has some shame and guilt attached to it.

Others demonstrate an inability to tolerate any form of negative internal experiences like thoughts, feelings, memories. This significantly contributes to their inability to discard possessions. In some cases there is a shutting down of “living” before any negative internal experiences have a chance to occur which is an extreme form of avoidance.

In some cases dissociation can occur in an attempt to be somewhere else entirely, which feeds into a lack of awareness of one’s surrounding. I may have said this before, but we know now that shutting down negative emotions and attempting to “get rid of them” also makes positive emotions such as joy and happiness elusive so we find ourselves existing in the beige zone feeling neither highs nor lows.

What did interest me was a data trend that hinted at a preference or a relative strength of those reporting high hoarding symptoms for the facet of mindful observation. Of course, my study was exploratory and more research is required. However, a focus on the sensory details of objects has been reported anecdotally in the hoarding literature.

“The tactile, and visual elements and a hyper-focus on the uniqueness of objects, with a particular sensitivity to the provenance of possessions may point to a preference for tangible rather than non-tangible aspects of life such as feelings and thoughts.”

Now this sounded like my shoe fetish!

Escaping down a rabbit hole seeking out the perfect exemplar of the next object in a series, or tracking down just the right shade of vermillion mohair to start a new knitting project, or simply researching the very best deal on the ideal holiday is not…

about the stuff…

nor is it mindful.

What makes this behaviour not mindful (unmindful, or is it mindless idk) is the obsessive nature of the pursuit and the attachment we have to achieving a perfect outcome.

I’m just spit-balling here but I think our never ending pursuit of perfection and our attachment to changing the nature of how things are rather than just accepting how they are could be causing our suffering (Buddha would agree).

Seeking the next shiny object is procrastination and a distraction from what really matters. It’s hard to draw a line in the sand and commit to pursuing what’s important to you because it means letting go.

Until next week :)

Jan <3

*This reminded me of the misconception that to be mindful you need to meditate. Whilst the reverse is true (to meditate you need to be mindful) meditation isn’t for everyone. Mindful meditation in Zen, for example, teaches newbies to adjust their body, mind, and breath. Sitting in the lotus position, watching ones mind, and abdominal breathing slowly through the nostrils: Something like this is what you’re imagining right? ;) Well, mindfulness doesn’t have to be like that. It can be something you practice all day every day - without bending yourself into a pretzel on a cushion for hours.

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