The Psychology of Clutter

psychology of clutter

Why is it that some people are so pulled together and organized while for the rest of us it’s a struggle just to keep a grip on all of the stuff in our lives? You know who I’m talking about, you’ve seen their homes.  Their dishes are always done,  their papers are filed away,  and their living rooms look like something out of a lifestyles magazine.

Through my journey from messy packrat to happy minimalist, I’ve picked up a thing or two about why some people are naturally organized and why so many others struggle with it.

Techniques that work perfectly fine for the naturally organized often fail for the naturally cluttered. So let’s ignore all the typical home organization strategies for a minute and focus on what makes a person naturally cluttered.

For cluttered personality types (myself included) there is a pyschology at work when it comes to clutter.  All the home organization strategies in the world won’t change your tendencies. To truly get to the heart of why you clutter and eliminate it for good, you need to understand the emotional side of your clutter. Once you explore your emotional connection to your things  you’ll find it becomes effortless to kick the clutter habit.

Why We Keep Clutter

The emotional side of clutter is often overlooked in organizing books, but I’ve found that it is the key to why people clutter. By exploring the emotional relationship you have with your things, you’ll be able to change your patterns and release clutter forever.

Not sure you believe in emotional clutter? Try this on for size:  Have you ever started out on a clutter clearing mission determined to clean out your house for good? Then out of left field you were ambushed by a flood of emotions? You get stuck on the strangest things; old clothes that no longer fit, dusty books you’ve never read, or maybe a brand new “had-to-have-it” impulse buy that’s been sitting in its box unused for two years now.

The reason these seemingly innocent items can feel so hard to part with is because there’s an emotional component to why you’ve been keeping them:

  • Getting rid of your “skinny jeans” means admitting you might not ever fit into them again.
  • Getting rid of a bad purchase means admitting you wasted a few bucks buying it.
  • Getting rid of books you haven’t read means admitting you’re never going to read them.

For the naturally organized, there is no attachment to these items. They see these items as no longer needed and pitch em in a Goodwill bag. Problem solved.

For the naturally cluttered encountering even one emotional trigger in your clutter can be enough to derail the entire clutter clearing mission for the day.  So what do you do? Admit defeat and live in a mess? No.

It’s time to change your emotional relationship with your things. I did it, and you can too. It may take some time. It took me three years to completely purge my collection of useless junk and redefine my relationship with stuff,  but it was worth every minute. I did it by being patient with myself, allowing time to explore my emotions as they arose, and steadily making headway, one piece of clutter at a time. Here are 5 tips to get you started:

5 Tips for Releasing Emotional Clutter

1 Give yourself time and patience. Understand that there may be mini emotional roadblocks during a clutter clearing session.  It’s not a race. Every useless thing you release will help you feel lighter and saner. It becomes easier with each piece of clutter you release.

2 Address your emotions as they rise. Make the connection that your clutter is causing this emotion. By holding on to the piece of clutter, you bury the emotion. By dealing with the item, you work through the emotion, becoming a stronger and happier person in the process. Not only do you clear clutter, but you also increase your joy!

Think about the ways your life will improve when you don’t have so much stuff. Less stuff will give you more free time, more serenity, and more space. You’ll also discover you don’t lose important papers anymore, you show up for appointments on time, and you never have a frustrating morning searching for your car keys. Envisioning your life after clutter can spur you on to move through some stuff. It “loosens” the emotional grip of clutter when you can see something better on the horizon. Those unread books from college suddenly seem less important when you compare them to a future life in your perfect home.

Play games with yourself. There are tons of games. Here’s one. You can “pretend” to get rid of something by storing it in a box for a month. Check in after a month and see how it feels to live your life without it. If you’re horrified, you get to pull it out of the box and keep it. You may just realize your life goes on without it just fine, better than fine even, improved! Pretending to release an item lets you explore the emotion of living without it. It’s a safe way to get started with decluttering.

Explore your emotional relationship with your things. This tip sounds so simple and basic, but I swear it is the reason I was able to transform my life from cluttered to divine. As you go about your life, just look at the things you own and think about how they make you feel. Explore the emotions that pop up when you think about keeping them in your life, getting rid of them, storing them in a box in the garage, tripping over them every day, burning them in a bonfire. Just exploring the emotions that rise up as you think about these different fates for the item can help loosen your emotional connection to it. Before you know it, you’ll realize that there are some things you really want to keep in your life and others that can disappear without a trace.

Getting to the heart of the psychology of clutter is all about discovering the emotional ties you have with your things. As you explore this relationship you’ll see which items you own are “true best friends” and which ones are “fair-weather friends”. By kicking the “fair-weather friends” to the curb, you’ll be opening up your life to good times with your “true best friends.” Less really is more.


the minimalist packrat clutter bootcamp


7 Responses to “The Psychology of Clutter”

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  1. Zarinne says:

    Just wanted to say thanks! This is the first article I found that has a realistic approach to actually getting rid of clutter instead of just analizing the problem.

  2. Hey Zarinne,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was my very first post for this blog! It’s my treatise on clutter types. I spent a ton of time psychoanalyzing myself while I decluttered and it’s pretty apparent here! :)

  3. Jessi says:

    Hi. I’m a Packrat. There! I said it!

    I discovered your blog just a couple days ago. I’m eating it all up. I think we’re kindred stories. LOL!

    I’m currently in the middle of my body letting go of my second child. Sammy (miscarried before a gender could be determined) died. Yet my body won’t let go. Maybe because my mind and heart can’t let go yet. Or I’m just reading into things. Either way, to keep my mind from dwelling on precious little Sammy, I’ve been reading all your old posts and slowly working through projects and piles and drawers. It’s cathartic. Letting go of something like a spatula gives me release. A release I haven’t found in anything else. It’s something I started before the miscarriage and something I had no idea would help this much.

    I will be doing a lot more self discovery this weekend.

    Anyway, much love and appreciation!

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  5. Sydney says:

    I woke up this morning determined to spend the day on decluttering my home office and guest bedroom. I’ve been here before, more times than I want to admit, but I’m really ready to get this done and move on. As I was heading toward my office I was wondering how could I develop a new mindset that would make today’s effort more successful than the last. Imagine my joy when I did my quick morning Pinterest peek and found a pin to this post.

    This is just what I needed. Thanks so much for a fantastic post!

  6. Kim Counts says:

    This is so true for me. My Mom raised me to connect emotions with things and even though I don’t want to be that way the emotion I experience the most is guilt – guilt if I keep it because it causes clutter, and guilt if I get rid of it because it seems like a betrayal somehow of the meaning behind the item. I also struggle with the inevitable pile of now-what-do-I-do-with-it that results from trying to get rid of things because I have items that I don’t want, that aren’t quite trash, but also aren’t quite good enough to donate to someone else yet still have life in them (albeit not much). The hardest projects along these lines I have dealt with have been taking care of the belongings of someone I loved who has died because parting with their things feels like discarding a part of them. I still have boxes in my garage from when my grandmother passed and I had to clean her house eleven years ago because I was just too exhausted from making decisions about things. Great post. Thanks for writing it!

  7. How do I receive your blog? I received this through a friend and again another friend on my FB news. I would like to benefit from your blog on a daily basis

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