Clutter comes from somewhere. At some point, a building stands empty. Then occupants move in, and with them, their stuff. Then they carry more stuff in. At a certain point, if more flows in than flows out, the house becomes cluttered. Understanding stuff as an energy current is the first step to eliminating clutter. One in, one out, rather than one in, none out. Or worse: many in, none out.
In a house like a steel trap, almost everything that goes in the door is never coming out again. This includes things that other households would treat as compost, recycling, or trash. The most interesting thing to me about working with clutter and hoarding is that the root cause is different for every household. Completely different personalities, life stories, and emotional atmosphere, yet visually similar results. It's when we get into the reasons behind the clutter that we start figuring out where it came from.
The trap metaphor suggests that someone purposely set out to attract and keep clutter. That's definitely true, and these are the hardest cases to help. People without more advanced financial knowledge can become hooked on the idea that personal belongings store cash value. Watching too much Antiques Road Show, perhaps, or watching too many advertisements in general. Some of our things are bought because we're simply captivated by them and find their presence comforting. More, though, are bought or acquired out of the fantasy that they were a bargain or that they can later be resold. Almost all of my clients have a stash of yard sale stuff or things they were planning to list on eBay. Sadly, some of these are paying steep rents every month on a storage unit so that they can maintain that stash, the one that never goes anywhere or turns into cash.
Cash, not stash!
In a surprising amount of cases, the clutter originally belonged to someone else. When we talk about clutter, we're excluding anything useful, such as vehicles, appliances, furniture, or electronics that are actually being used. What we're talking about are the boxes of grief clutter. The first time I saw grief clutter, it was contained in large moving boxes, stacked to shoulder height, filling the entire living room, dining room, and part of the kitchen. There was only a goat trail free to shuffle sideways between rooms. The owner, a grieving adult daughter of grandmother age, would come home every night and sit on the couch among these boxes. There was exactly enough room to see the TV. Half of the couch had things piled on it. Her parents died and her life effectively ended, too, when she built this cardboard monument to them in her formerly functioning home. I've seen similar cases in which one or more of the adult children move in to the estate and leave it as-is. Parents, imagine your children living this kind of half-life after you go. Heartbreaking, isn't it?
What's in the boxes? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing there would be photo albums in there, which is horrifying because photos do not survive long when stored in cardboard. Paperwork and files that may well be hiding urgent and important information. Mostly, though, it's probably garden-variety housewares. Linens, dishes, bric-a-brac, things that we remember from our childhood kitchens. Nostalgic tablecloths and tea towels. Things that would be much more effective as stores of memory if we put them out and used them the way they were meant to be used. I did that with my grandmother's orange pot holders for several years.
Other cases of houses as clutter traps come from simple anxiety. It's more common in single people. We're afraid to go out after dark and haul out the trash. We don't like driving, or leaving the house at all. We feel overwhelmed by the process of clearing closets, bagging up our excess, and hauling it to a donation center. We aren't great at making decisions and we don't always know what to do. We shut down and seek out distractions rather than make those decisions and take action. Chronic procrastination falls into this group. Given any crux point, we will choose delay and temporary mood repair every time. We'll only do things when we're "in the mood" or when we "feel like it," which means virtually never.
Depression and illness are other reasons. This is one of the saddest reasons a house stays cluttered. I know I'm not alone in being "the kind of person" who would come over and clean for someone who is ill. I have ridden my bike in the rain to bring fresh, homemade soup to a friend who was recuperating from surgery. Caring for the sick is a time-honored tradition of charity and good works. We worry and we want to make sure you're okay. It's hard for most people to reach out and ask for this kind of help, though. We always want to be the givers, not the receivers. Depression seems to rob its victims of the ability to take any kind of positive action at all, and social isolation is the rule of the game.
Probably one of the most common sources of clutter is clutter-blindness. People quit seeing it, or never saw it. A certain percentage of my people, maybe 20%, were raised in a hoarded environment. They never learned any other way to manage a household. Most people do not receive any formal training in how to keep house, sometimes because the parents believe in a dream of childhood innocence that does not include chores, a.k.a. adult life skills. Sometimes they themselves never had the skills to teach. Most of my people seem to lose their sense of smell somewhere along the way, and they can't detect odors like spoiled milk, rotting garbage, mold, or pet waste. If I hadn't been there so many times, I wouldn't believe that could be possible, but it is. How can you live like this?? Answer: Like what?
A house is only a house when its main function is as a storage warehouse. A house is a home when it's there for love, affection, friendship, and cheerful daily routines. All of these are much easier to attain when there is enough space for them. None of them require very many material objects. Let's return our focus to creating comfortable, welcoming homes and removing whatever physical things get in the way of that.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.