Every clutter story is different, just like almost all organized homes are alike. One thing my people tend to have in common is that they box up their favorite, most valuable possessions and leave them hidden away. This includes family heirlooms, artwork, and sometimes tools or art supplies. There is a tendency not to wear one's nicest clothes, use one's nicest dishes, or display one's finest belongings. We save "the good stuff" for later. We don't want it to get ruined. Meanwhile, we surround ourselves with cheap or free stuff that often feels like it just showed up somehow.
For our entire marriage, we've had two boxes of my husband's grandmother's gorgeous glass dishes. I love them. I've only been allowed to look at them a couple of times, to check that they didn't get damaged in one of our many moves. The rest of the time, they remain stowed in cardboard boxes in the back of a deep kitchen cabinet. They survived the 1996 Northridge Earthquake. My grandmother-in-law was by no means a fussy person. I doubt she would have been fazed if these dishes had gotten damaged at some point. They're heirlooms now, though, and they'll probably still be in their boxes ten years from now. The insight here is that they represent family connection and the aesthetics of a vanished world. Our futuristic daily life, where we routinely use robots and artificial intelligence, doesn't really match these pre-television artifacts. We're so nomadic that these boxes of glassware are the only roots we really have to the old family farm.
What other insights can be gleaned from boxes?
A rushed move. The majority of the time, unpacked boxes come from a move in which someone outside the household helped pack. Items were just thrown in at random. This happens for a mix of reasons. The home was disorderly before the move, and 'KITCHEN' or 'LIVING ROOM' are not fully accurate labels. There weren't enough boxes because it was too hard to estimate how many would be needed. (I know from experience that we need one hundred, but most people don't move as often as we do). There are many small-to-tiny objects that get tossed into any box that still has space. There are a lot of possessions that are not necessary to daily life, so they can be left in a box for years or decades without being missed. There isn't enough storage space in the new home to put everything away, because there's no 'away' to put them. There's a lot of MISC. These types of boxes show that the household can call upon friends for help as needed, but also that they tend to be chronically disorganized and indecisive.
"Yard sale." Another thing my people have in common is the belief that all this stuff is "worth something." Even when they got it for free or bought it at someone else's yard sale, they can't let go until someone has agreed to pay for it what they think it's worth. This signifies an inexpert relationship with frugality. If you can "earn" hundreds of dollars holding a yard sale, this generally means you've been overspending on things you didn't need for many years. The last time we had a yard sale was the last time we had a yard sale. We gave up an entire summer Saturday and earned significantly less than minimum wage for our time. We might have earned more by setting up a lemonade stand. The real problem with "yard sale" items, though, is that once they're set aside in a box they can be forgotten. It's a way of pretending to get rid of things we are really still emotionally attached to. The perpetual yard sale box tends to signify a person who hangs onto objects for their perceived cash value rather than their usefulness to the household.
Scoop and Stuff. When people come over and the disorder might be seen, the household goes into panic mode. Anyone who can be enlisted to sweep up clutter will run around trying to hide it. This may happen at different speeds, from shuffle to full-blown freak-out. The Scoop and Stuff habit tends to result in boxes full of bags full of stuff. Usually, the contents are about 80% junk mail, 15% pocket litter (receipts, napkins, gooey breath mints or oozing pill blister packs), and 5% truly important things. Scoop and Stuff boxes tend to include coins, gift cards, and uncashed checks, because that's how much of a hurry was going on. This kind of box reveals that the owner cares deeply about reputation and public perception, worries about approval from others, is a people pleaser, is also chronically disorganized, and has issues with time management.
Unsorted papers. Papers are thoughts. Even people who don't have any other kind of clutter often have paper clutter. Paper is the hardest to process because almost all of it is visually identical to every other piece: 8.5" x 11" white paper with black print, or notebook paper with handwriting, or unopened envelopes, or receipts. There's no way to process it without using System Two thinking to analyze and assess the contents. Boxes of paper clutter offer the insight that this person is overwhelmed, anxious, at least somewhat disorganized, does not have much mental bandwidth to spare, and is probably worried about money.
Grief clutter. The boxes were inherited after someone passed away. I like to think I'm pretty good at what I do, but I've never once managed to get anyone to touch grief clutter. As likely as not, it will be passed down intact to yet another generation. Grief clutter has a half-life. Opening the lid of one of these boxes is to let out a howling hurricane of sobs. We believe that material objects carry memories and that they retain the spirits of the departed. Donating or throwing away something that belonged to a loved one is erasing their mortal existence. If I throw away your dear hairbrush or your old pajamas, it's like you never lived at all. Our culture sorely needs a ritual for letting go of emotionally radioactive grief clutter. It's like these objects have souls of their own, trapped and wandering the earth like hungry ghosts.
My belief is that if something is stored in a box, it isn't necessary. Almost anything important can be replaced, including passports, social security cards, bank cards, and of course every common household object. The stuff we tend to keep is either unsorted or loaded with memories. If we truly hate sorting stuff, we can just take each box, flip it upside down, and shake it into the curbside garbage can. It's when we believe that Stuff Is Memories that we get into trouble. When that's the case, every bottle cap and candy wrapper can potentially masquerade as valuable, irreplaceable, and priceless. It's not the stuff we need to sort, so much as our thoughts and feelings.
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.