I got an email recently asking for advice about boundaries. The recipient related how he was feeling depressed and fighting regret after “cleaning house.”
The paradox was not lost on me. We’re often reluctant to let go. Yet being weighed down by possessions and people hinders our emotional well-being. Whether it’s a living room crammed full of books, two dozen pairs of blue jeans, or toxic people hijacking your mental real estate, peace of mind lies in discipline and downsizing. Before jumping to solutions, the first priority should be understanding what lead you to inhabit Casa de Clutter in the first place.
Anyone can fill a box of unwanted items and drop them off at Goodwill. That’s easy. The hard work comes from deep cleaning your mind. Let’s discuss the underlying issues of non-stop taking in, but not letting go. Decluttering alone isn’t the answer; discussing how to get rid of your stuff answers only the what, but not the why.
If you come to my therapy office for help with anxiety, we won’t solely focus on deep breathing, positive visualization and how to think healthier thoughts. This would be a wonderful start, but would not help you understand why you’re up at 3:00 a.m. worrying about the meaning of life, or why you bottle your feelings and act as if things are great. Without this crucial understanding of the root causes of your clutter, you’re likely to clear out your belongings and feel light and energized in the short-term only. Worse, you could realize, I’m no more happy and fulfilled with an empty house and less social engagements than I was before.
If you are struggling to find the connection between your mood and your stuff, bear with me. The relationship is not always linear. Do any of the following mental states describe you?
Depression. Though chronic clutter is not considered a mental disorder, there’s an undeniable connection between depression and having too much stuff. Deciphering which came first can be a challenge. Does depression prevent you from having the time and energy to get rid of unwanted items and relationships? Or, does having loose boundaries around what you collect drain your energy and make you more irritable?
Regardless of the chicken or the egg, maintaining order takes energy. Fatigue and decreased energy reduces the likelihood of a streamlined existence. Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness make it hard to find the motivation to conquer a mess.
Delayed decisions. Indecision is costly and leads to countless hours lost on action. “I don’t have time to tackle this right now,” or “I’ll get to this over the weekend” are common thinking pitfalls. Additional behaviors include over-thinking, doubting, ruminating and obsessing over the “right” decision. This analysis paralysis may be the result of a phenomenon known as delayed discounting. Daniel Hommer, M.D., an expert on motivation says if it takes a long time to reach a goal, you value that goal less than if you could reach it quickly―making it harder to get started.
Disorganization. Difficulty with concentration, remembering details, and making decisions are the result of difficulty in sorting, organizing and prioritizing. Many experts agree that too often people approach clutter and disorganization as a space problem that can be solved by purchasing bins and organizers. Measures like these “are based on the concept that this is a house problem,” said David F. Tolin, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale. He dispels a common myth about the origins of clutter:
“It isn’t a house problem. It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”
Denial. Sometimes it’s easier to stack papers in a pile, toss junk in a closet, and drink your way through difficult family gatherings, rather than face the mess. The out of sight out of mind mentality only prolongs stress and anxiety. Hoping these issues will correct themselves with time makes as much sense as believing in the Declutter Fairy.
Getting on the Other Side of Clutter: Discipline + Downsize
Discipline. The first step in changing any behavior is committing to thinking, feeling and doing things differently. This article offer lots of tips about getting started, while this resource offers in-depth guidance on simplifying and organizing your physical and mental spaces in a timely manner.
Downsize. Downsizing is hard because it is emotionally difficult for people to release their history. The anxiety can be quelled based on three categories: Use it, love it, or leave it. In short, get rid of the shit that’s blocking your way. And sometimes that means getting out of your own way.
Despite the current #1 New York Times best-selling guide to decluttering, there is no life-changing magic to tidying up without mental toil. Physical crap is a sign of a disorganized mental state. Happiness, freedom, simplistic living and emotional well-being takes work. The first step is to answer the difficult questions + take a walk on the dark side:
Why do I have so many material possessions?
Why is it hard for me to decide?
What would my life look like if I could say no to people?