Getting rid of clutter is challenging because it’s complicated. There are always multiple reasons why the space got that way. There are often multiple reasons why we feel conflicted as to whether to keep something or get rid of it. After the decision is made to let something go, we often feel yet more conflict about how to dispose of something. Give it away? Donate it to an organization? Which one? Are we supposed to clean it first? Is it recyclable? Will we have to pay to haul it away? We add layers of decisions to the first decision. We don’t always realize that we’re deliberately, yet subconsciously, delaying. This is usually because there are hidden obstacles that we haven’t yet overcome.
One way to approach the issue is to sort items by what is blocking us about them:
Fear that we’ll change our minds after it’s too late
Lack of knowledge of how to get rid of it
Guilt or feeling like we don’t have permission to get rid of it
Strong, yet undesired, emotional connection to the object
Lack of energy
Partner or family member’s active interference
Preference to avoid work on space clearing in favor of something more fun
Anxiety is usually one of the first hidden obstacles. For many of us, it’s the hidden obstacle behind everything. Whenever we contemplate taking an action, there are umpteen reasons we can imagine why it might be a bad idea. Anxiety can stop us from pursuing opportunities even when we are virtually guaranteed to succeed. It can make simple decisions feel overwhelming. It can even stop us from leaving the house on time. The way it works, it simply helps us to rationalize and justify why we should stay in our comfort zones. Inaction is the best course of action when we want to protect ourselves and maintain the illusion of safety. Clutter, junk, and stuff are insulators. They help us to create a cozy nest where few people want to come in and bother us. We can become anxious not just about the thought of letting go of something by mistake, but of having a less crowded space, or of making any changes at all.
Not knowing what to do is another common obstacle. This always surprises me, because we now have the entire internet at our fingertips. There are instructional videos for everything. I couldn’t figure out how to wrap my earbud cords, so I Googled a video of a teenage boy carefully demonstrating how to do it. That video had over 100,000 hits. I found a video of how to fold fitted sheets, and though I had to play it back three times, I now know how. (My previous solution was to own only one set of sheets, but that started to be more of a hassle than this basic fabric origami). I’ve watched several videos on such scintillating topics as how to clean colored grout and how to clean a shower door track. There are probably videos on how to make homemade glitter or saddle an ostrich. It’s okay not to know things. It’s also really easy to find out how to do things, without anyone ever finding out we didn’t know how!
Guilt can be a major obstacle. Guilt makes us feel like we’re not allowed to have what we want. Guilt makes us feel like our decisions will hurt other people’s feelings. This may or may not be true. Sometimes, though, we’ve been set up due to other people’s inappropriate expectations or poor boundaries. Other people don’t get to decide what to keep in our homes. Other people don’t get to dictate our taste preferences. Gifts are sometimes gifts, and sometimes symbols of power and control. I’ve seen this happen with all sorts of things, from clothing to furniture to entire houses. “I gave you this and now you owe me.” Another area where guilt tends to interfere is with the physical symbols of unfulfilled intentions. We buy or accumulate materials that we thought Future Self would want, and then we kick ourselves when it turns out we were wrong. This might include books, fitness equipment, art supplies, expired vegetables, or all sorts of other things. We also tend to feel guilt over wasted money, such as what we’ve spent on clothes that we never wore. Sometimes we feel guilt over a past event, and we bury the associated paperwork or other items that remind us of what happened. This can include stolen items.
Shame is one of the strongest emotions that interferes with space clearing. Shame can be generated by the space itself. Rather than simply getting on with the tasks at hand, we spiral into self-criticism. How could I let it get this way? Why am I like this? This negative self-talk is never helpful. Whenever it comes up, we pause for compassion. I’m working on it now. I’m ready now. It’s going to be okay. In a short while, nobody will ever be able to tell how this looked. When overwhelming shame is an issue, almost anything can set it off. It’s like standing chest-deep in the ocean, knowing a wave will slap us in the face any moment now.
Emotional connections to specific objects are – wait for it – unnecessary. Stuff is just stuff. Any other person would be able to pick up a particular object and shrug. We build our own stories and attribute significance to things, and none of this is visible to others, because they see our special objects only as objects. Someone who sees my wedding ring doesn’t see my marriage. Most of the objects we venerate are not emotionally significant in positive ways, though. They remind us of the past. The only future they can create for us is a future in which we’re surrounded by stuff and old memories. Stuff can’t propel us into a destiny.
Grief stops us in our tracks. Grief objects seem to have an almost religious aura around them. Many of us never had a problem with clutter or space clearing until we experienced strong grief. Death of a parent is a major trigger. Loss causes us to cling to even the most ordinary objects, and we feel as though throwing away the object is throwing away the person. How can we throw away an old hairbrush or partially used prescription bottle? Oh, is it sad. Grief works on its own schedule. Grief hangs in the air even when we methodically go about our business. All we can do is to remind ourselves that the vanished loved one probably would have felt concerned (or embarrassed) that we still hang on to these things. When I go, won’t someone please throw away my old socks quickly?
Lack of energy is a problem that can continue for years. Sometimes it’s related to grief or depression. Sometimes it’s related to a sickness. Sometimes we’re not sure where our energy went. It’s my contention that living in a cluttered or squalid space drains energy, both mental and physical. When we have to pick our way over scattered objects on the floor, it’s draining. When we’re constantly breathing dust and mold, it’s draining. When we can’t operate in the kitchen, we’re not inspired to cook healthy meals. When we look around a room and see the evidence of dozens or hundreds of unmade decisions, it’s mentally taxing. Ugh. Having fought chronic pain and fatigue, I understand the feeling that even the slightest physical effort is like climbing an eternal ladder. The more sedentary we are, though, the worse it gets. The only way to regain physical strength is to 1. Eat sufficient micronutrients and 2. Keep moving a little more each day. Space clearing and housework are two basic, minimal workouts that can start to bring us back. Standing up and moving for even 60 seconds at a time is an improvement. It’s an improvement that needs to happen at some point if we ever want to feel normal again. Carry out a bag of trash and rest for an hour, if necessary. Take all day to put away a load of laundry if you need to, a few items at a time. It’s okay. Up and moving, up and moving, 1% better every day.
Sometimes we get hung up in space clearing because we live with other people who don’t want us to do it. The clutter can symbolize a stuck emotional situation. We really need to pause and evaluate whether this living situation is going to work for the long term. We also really need to assess what our personal contributions are to this problem. As often as not, when I’m called in for a home visit, the person who made the call is blaming family members or roommates for what may be largely his or her own fault. We want to claim all the common areas of the home for our own things, and we feel irritated when the other people we live with leave out a couple of items. We always need to focus on our own stuff, and keep going until our own stuff is done. Sometimes, we’re genuinely living with someone else who is the source of the clutter or squalor. Counseling can help, because whether the house gets cleared or not, whether we stay or go, we need to figure out why we put up with this. It can be extremely difficult to convince another person to get help, and that is not necessarily our job.
Finally, we stay in cluttered spaces because we’re willing to. We’ve done it this long, and there’s no particular reason to change today. (Unless there’s an eviction notice, that is…) There is always, always something more appealing to do. Like staring at the wall. If there is anything in this world that qualifies as an aversive task, it’s cleaning up. We sometimes feel it as a humiliation. Why should I clean a toilet? Why should I do these chores? There are those of us who feel like our very souls are dying whenever we feel forced to wash a dish or carry a bag of garbage outside. We can’t bear it. The result, though, is that we live surrounded by piles and grime and bad smells. Nobody would choose that. It just happens. It happens as the result of a lack of systems and a lack of routine effort. A little bit every day. There will always be a good book to read, or a cup of tea to be drunk, or a cat waiting to crawl into a lap, or the entire internet to attempt to experience. It’s nicer to experience these things as rewards after a few small successes, movements toward a more pleasant and comforting space.
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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.