Suggestions that we peer into our subconscious and sort out some of the junk cluttering up our interior life tend to evoke similar responses, although, of course, it's not only men who bluff and deny or women who avoid. The bluffers sound something like this: "Sure I overeat a bit, but it's one of the few pleasures I've got left". Or, "If I lose my temper on the road it's because there are some really stupid drivers around. They make me so mad." The sensitive come up with things like: "Oh, silly me, I'm always doing things like that". Or, "I know it's my fault, but there's nothing I can do about it."
But, traditionally, there is always that satisfying moment in the movie when the bluffer is forced to acknowledge that there is something odd going on, while the sensitive one inevitably does venture down the cellar steps to discover the mummified corpse. Psychotherapists would have you believe that to get your own house functioning in a sane and healthy way a lengthy stay in the attic with the ghosts of mummy and daddy, plus your own inner child, is essential.
But the evidence seems to suggests that much of our more self-defeating behaviour can be dealt with more pragmatically - the psychological equivalent of letting the sunlight in and putting flowers on the table. Let's suppose that if you are temperamentally a bluffer, you have been forced to admit that you may be just a tiny bit responsible for being late for everything, or that if you are an avoider,. you already believe that your diet of Mars Bars is all your fault, but now you would like to stop eating them rather than just feeling bad about it.
A good place to start is with self-confidence. All sorts of problems can be traced back to not feeling very good about yourself. To exorcise your internal demons, you'll need a few simple tools - a time and a place each day where you won't be disturbed for about 40 minutes, a pencil and paper, and a commitment to stick at it for a fortnight. Begin by making a list of all the things you think are wrong with you. Be ruthless. Write down every dissatisfied little niggle. We almost all have a secret litany of how awful and hopeless we are - a legacy of well- meaning teachers and parents trying to shape our behaviour. Every time things start to go wrong, we automatically set it running. Often that alone is enough to trigger all sorts of destructive behaviour that should be junked - comfort eating, getting drunk, having sex with anyone who offers.
By writing a list you're making your self-criticism public. Once it is on paper you can start to challenge it, because although you have always assumed it's true, it isn't. Your internal critic is a brilliant counsel for the prosecution, implying the worst on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence, so hire them for the defence. "This is a good way to deal with minor problems and dissatisfactions," says Dr Paul Salkovskis, research clinical psychologist at Oxford University. Notice giveaway words such as "always" and "never". You may screw up occasionally, we all do, but the likelihood is that, often, you do very well. Begin to draw up a positive list. Now, two things can happen. You'll notice when you run yourself down and be able to call a halt. You'll also be able to reverse the procedure by picking one of the points from your positive list and putting the same energy and belief into saying that to yourself. It is just as true and instead of making you feel bad it will offer you the possibility of change.
Sometimes the mental junk we need to get rid of are the daily habits that keep us doing things we don't really want to do. A valuable form of spring cleaning can be to dust off fantasies you put away because you were too timid, too busy, too lazy. Take up the pen and paper again, relax and let your imagination wander. To give it a boost, ask yourself, if you could do anything how would you live and work? "Now begin to plan," suggests Gillian Butler, co-author of Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. Write "I love" at the top of a sheet and, drawing on those dreams, write as many things beneath it as you can. Then group those into categories, such as Sports and Leisure, Work, Social. See how close each one comes to what you are actually doing. You'll have to find your own balance between fantasy - painting bowerbirds in New Guinea - and reality - you have four children in school - but there are bound to be changes you can make to give yourself a better match. Set a goal for each group, draw up a series of tasks that lead to each goal and pin them up on a board. Check each week how close you are to realising them and modify if necessary.
If you are really serious about clearing both mummy and daddy out of the attic (or at least discovering what they are doing up there) and changing some unhelpful habits and behaviours, one of the most straightforward and effective ways is self-hypnosis. As I write this, it is quarter to one in the morning and I should be flagging badly, but two hours ago I hypnotised myself with the suggestion that I would feel alert and active until I finished this piece, so I'm happy to carry on.
Self-hypnosis is a way of making sure that all those resolutions about getting up earlier, cutting back on smoking or spending more time relaxing get done. It is also an excellent tool for exploring exactly what are the long forgotten fears that underlie, say, your fear of flying. After a weekend with an experienced teacher, you could be successfully suggesting to yourself that you don't scar or feel any pain from cuts or burns, as well as programming yourself to open that cellar door this minute.
FIVE TOP TIPS FOR SPRING-CLEANING YOUR PSYCHE
1 I'M TOO SCARED TO OPEN THE CAN AND, ANYWAY, THERE ARE NO WORMS
Before you can dejunk your mind, you have to identify your type: are you a bluffer who denies you have a problem, or are you all too aware of your shortcomings but too frightened to do anything about it?
2 THERAPY IN THE COMFORT AND PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN MIND
The solution to self-destructive behaviour isn't necessarily in-depth psychoanalysis. Seek out DIY remedies for bad habits.
3 I HATE ME, I HATE ME, I HATE ME
Low self-esteem is very often at the root of our problems. Follow our guide to turning the tables on your bullying superego.
4 EVERYBODY HAS A DREAM, HOWEVER PATHETIC
If you feel trapped and powerless, make a list of the things you want to do and strategies for making your dream come true. Pin it up and keep referring to it.
5 A TRANCE IN A MILLION
Self-hypnosis is a little understood but invaluable aid to mental health. Book yourself into a weekend course.
BEATING YOUR NEGATIVE THINKING PATTERNS
When we are depressed we tend to think in the self-defeating,
negative patterns outlined below. By being aware of them, we can begin to challenge them.
Always predicting the worst. "Nobody will want me. I'll never work again."
Because something has happened once, it will always happen. "I always blow it. I can never do it."
Making negative events more important than they should be. "This is the end. I'll never do it."
4 IGNORING THE POSITIVE
When something good happens it's downplayed or passed over: "It was just luck." When you are complimented you dismiss it: "What this old thing? It came from an Oxfam shop."
5 MIND READING
Assume you know what others are thinking. "They don't really want me."
6 TAKING THINGS PERSONALLY
"They saw me coming. Even the waiter despises me."