There are some predictable moments in working with people who are chronically disorganized. They never believe me, even when I tell them in advance, and they’re quite sure it won’t happen to them, until it does.
What’s the deal with keeping stuff even when it’s gross? Even when it obviously hasn’t been used and isn’t necessary to begin with?
There are a lot of reasons behind this. One of these reasons is enough, but often several of them come into play.
Lack of situational awareness; clutter blindness. My people stop seeing their surroundings and genuinely don’t realize how it looks or smells anymore. It’s like they’re going through life with a blindfold on and just peeking through the gaps by their nose.
Disbelief in germ theory. Even when they’re clearly suffering with constant respiratory problems, lethargy, sleep problems, low immune system, or mysterious gastric symptoms, my people don’t make the connection with their personal environment. Of course the wet black mold can’t have anything to do with my breathing problems! Of course the scary fridge can’t have anything to do with my chronic stomach problems! Just because you walked in and had a ten-minute sneezing fit doesn’t mean the dust is affecting any of us who live here. What my people think is that their state of poor health keeps them from doing any housework, rather than the reverse, which is that their home is making them ill.
Grief. People who are grieving often stay stuck that way for years or decades on end. Anything in the home that was associated with the bereavement will stay that way. Gifts from the deceased, unsorted boxes from the home of the deceased, entire chronological layers from that time period, all will stay the way it was left in that bad year. Touching or moving any of it will set off a fresh wave of grief. Grief is usually what sets off hoarding.
Scarcity mindset. The desire to be constantly surrounded by as much stuff as possible, because it feels like this is all we’ll ever have. We can’t get rid of anything, even expired food we’ll never eat or expired cosmetics that would cause a skin infection, because it’s wasteful. Spending more than we can afford on more than we can use perpetuates that feeling of being broke and deprived.
Emotional attachment. The item represents a memory or a relationship. Getting rid of anything that represents a memory is like deleting the memory... isn’t it? Won’t I immediately forget everything associated with this if I ever let it go? This was a gift! Isn’t letting go of it exactly like permanently severing the relationship?
Anthropomorphism, or, believing deep down that inanimate objects have souls and emotions. Getting rid of something will hurt its feelings. What an unforgivable insult! Subconsciously, lonely people identify with their stuff as neglected and unwanted, therefore deserving of sympathy.
Simple greed and materialism. This is where what I call stuff-stroking originates. Pretty, pretty, shiny! Ooh, all my nice nice things. Many people have an easier time interacting with stuff than they do other human beings, and certainly many of us have an easier time interacting with animals.
Rebellion. Keeping all my stuff is a way of setting boundaries and demonstrating my autonomy. If you suggest that I get rid of something, and I do it, that’s like being your slave and making you the boss of my life. The only way I can prove I’m in charge of my life is by doing the opposite of what anyone asks me to do, even if it makes my life more difficult. Every hill is the hill I want to die on!
Indecision. The worst thing is that feeling of cutting off options. Deciding is like death. WHAT IF I need it later?? I’m so mentally overwhelmed right now, I need a break, and maybe we can make all these decisions later. Or never. Never would be good, too.
Not knowing what to do next. A clear-out is complicated and tends to have a lot of moving parts. Working alone is something I’ll never do. Once you go home, O Organizer, that’s it, this process is grinding to a halt.
Low physical energy. Getting rid of stuff means bending and twisting and lifting. It means looking around and finding things. It means rounding up bags and boxes. It means carrying heavy bags and boxes out to the car or the curb. It means unloading stuff at the donation center. I’m tired, I’m so tired. I can’t.
I’ve seen people keep a lot of gross and weird things. A couch so infested with fleas that nobody would sit on it. Rusted-out leaking cans of expired food. Soggy old phonebooks. It’s very mysterious. It feels like my people genuinely believe this stuff is more important than their own home life. That their weird old stuff is more deserving of space and resources than they are themselves. What I’d like to see is that all of us have enough space to live out our dreams, that we all have enough breathing room. I’d like us to care more about our friends and loved ones than about a bunch of objects.
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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.