Podcast 137: The emotional cost of clutter, part two

This is podcast 137 and it’s a follow up to one of my earliest podcasts, the emotional cost of clutter. I’m revisiting this today as a teaser for my next episode, an interview with Elaine Birchall whose new book is called Conquer the Clutter. She’s a social worker who’s helped hoarders release their clutter and become free of guilt, shame and stress for about 17 years. She’s a hero!

I don’t tend to work with hoarders because their issues often require the assistance of trained therapists and psychologists. I’m not that person.

What I say here today is simply my experience as an organizer, but it’s worth sharing because people regularly tell me, only partly joking, that they might be hoarders and they worry about it. This speaks to the relationship people have with their stuff.

Some people call themselves collectors. It’s true that collecting can be a smoke screen for hoarding. One difference is that people who collect like to show off their collections. They install them in vitrines with museum style lighting. They take care of their collections so they aren’t damaged. If their collections grow, they rent storage space for them, which in my mind isn’t ideal, but collectors don’t want to make their homes hard to live in and invite people over to so they can admire the collections.

If you’re worried about the amount of stuff you have, no matter what it is, then it’s an issue. It’s an issue not because you’re a bad person or are mentally ill, but you’ve grasped that your home isn’t so easy to live in anymore, either physically because things are in the way or emotionally because there is too much distraction or too many tasks left undone because of the clutter.

One of the many reasons that I recommend regular tidying up and getting rid of things is so clutter doesn’t creep in unnoticed. And it’s so easy for this to happen. Life events like a serious illness or death in the family can start a downward slide and if you aren’t feeling your very best, tackling the growing clutter that results when you aren’t handling life as well can make you feel worse and then the situation declines further.

You might stop opening your mail temporarily until things quiet down, but then suddenly three months have gone by and you feel incompetent for missing important deadlines. Maybe you feel bad about yourself because you’re chronically late since you can’t find what you need to get out the door in time.

This is a time to seek help, not necessarily from a professional, but from someone you trust to let you know when things seem to be getting out of hand before it’s too late. You may have a lifelong swing back and forth between too much stuff and coming back to a liveable amount. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can get back in control.

Having too much stuff in too small a space makes for a chaotic space. Chaos is stressful. Even if you aren’t having lots of negative feelings about clutter, the simple stress of chaos will bring you down.

By contrast, if you spend time every day or even every week making sure your stuff is put away and that it’s put away in a place that’s not to hard to get to if you need it often. This is how you stay in control of your possessions instead of having them control you.

At home, you can be in control of your environment and you should be. Our environments affect us deeply. It’s easy to see how a clean, bright living space makes you feel happier. It’s easier to focus and feel grounded, and be free from the burden of too much stuff.

We don’t always think as much about how a less pleasing environment can make us feel sad, depressed and even ashamed. Each item you have wants something from you; to use it, consume it, read it, or care for it in some way. Once the demands of your possessions exceed your capacity to deal with them, negative feelings set in.

What you can do right now: do a quick visual scan of the room you’re in. Does the amount of stuff on tables and shelves seem reasonable, compared to other homes you’ve visited? Do you feel that you could enjoy having guests over after just a brief tidy up? There’s no need to panic. Just realize it may be time to get back in balance for your emotional health.