The Emotional Impact of Clutter
Updated: Oct 11
Think of a cluttered room in your home. How do you feel when you think about or stand in this space? Take a moment to pause and really consider what you experience. Do you feel tightness or heaviness in your chest? Do your shoulders rise up towards your ears? Does your body feel restless, like you just have to get out of that room?
All of these sensations are messages our bodies are sending us about our emotional state. Common emotional responses to clutter are anxiety, overwhelm, sadness, or guilt. These feelings may even manifest in the need to avoid the space altogether. Clutter takes up not only physical space in our homes but emotional space in our lives as well. A cluttered home has been shown to increase cortisol, the stress hormone, as well as to impact our ability to process information. This can have a significant impact on the way we experience life.
I know this first hand because I used to be a “sentimental worrier”. Everything in my home was either sentimentally valuable or might be just the thing I would need one day, just in case. I spent over 30 years living this way until, as an overwhelmed new mother, I discovered the power of decluttering to free up much needed emotional resources. These were resources I later used to be the kind of mother and woman I wanted to be.
As a professional organizer, I now have the honor of helping others begin their own journeys from the stress of clutter towards the freedom of a more organized home. Over the years of walking this path with individuals and families, I have come to realize it is as much an emotional journey as anything else. This is why I like to focus my work on teaching how to ask good questions about our homes and our possessions. I have found this focus on questions allows for real transformation and is an approach that will evolve with us as we grow and change.
Here are a few questions to consider as you begin to investigate the emotional impact of your clutter.
1. Does this item bring you joy, contentment, or make you feel loved?
You may be familiar with this question as popularized by Marie Kondo, “does it spark joy?” We want learn to identify this type of emotional response because these are the things we want to keep in our home. In an ideal world, we would only own things that inspire these types of emotions.
You can begin to notice this response when you put on a favorite jacket. How does it feel to wear? Maybe you have a favorite book with worn pages, a book you have read over and over. How does that book make you feel to see or hold? Perhaps you have a handwritten letter that makes you feel loved and appreciated. Begin to notice how these items make you feel. Not only will this allow you to learn to identify the things that bring you joy, but it just might help you enjoy them even more because you took the time to notice.
2. Are you keeping it out of guilt, worry, or sadness?
Emotions can be labeled as “approach” emotions, those that draw us in to engage, or “avoid” emotions, those that make us want to steer clear. The items addressed by this question trigger the “avoid” emotional response, often making it challenging to process and make decisions about them. It feels easier to just avoid them all and forget about them in the back of the closet. It is important to remember that clutter takes up valuable emotional resources. So open up the closet and try asking this question!
We often keep items we spent money on or were gifted, simply because the thought of giving them away fills us with guilt. So we keep them but never use them. If we can summon up the courage to address the guilt, to forgive ourselves, and to give the item away, we can let go of the emotional weight we feel each time we see it in our home.
Many items that bring up feelings of sadness sit around our homes because it’s simply too painful to deal with them. That is ok. Take your time, don’t rush it, but give yourself the opportunity to consider if letting go of some of these items might free up some emotional resources that could help you move forward.
The response to our possessions of worry or fear is often inherited from family, passed down generationally from a time of poverty or scarcity. It can look like frugality, bargain hunting, repurposing, or a waste-not want-not attitude. These can be all positive, earth and wallet friendly ways to live. The key is to identify when this approach to our possessions is triggering fear or worry and might be impacting our quality of life. How much do we really need and what could we do down the road if we find we needed more?
The key to making good decisions around items that bring up challenging emotions is to acknowledge the response we are having to the item, to give a name to how we feel, and to consider what it might feel like to let it go.
3. Does this item represent someone you thought you would or should be?
This question gets at the things we keep out of unmet expectations, those we have for ourselves, or that others might have for us. Purchasing and keeping books because we want to be the kind of person that reads about a particular topic doesn’t make us that type of person. If we aren’t willing to take the time to actually read the book it may serve us better to let the book go and embrace the things we genuinely want to spend our time on. Unused kitchen tools or baking supplies often fall under this category too. We may feel we should be the type of person who makes homemade goodies for the family. If that is just not true to who we are, filling the cabinets with unused tools doesn’t get us any closer to being that person. Make room for the items that bring you joy in using them by letting go of the unmet expectations and disappointment.
4. Does this item represent someone you used to be but aren’t anymore?
This question is about letting go of and grieving for the past. It can be challenging to let go of an old work wardrobe, one that defined you and your life for years. If your career path is leading you in a new direction, filling your closet with unworn clothes isn’t serving you. The old textbooks from college or graduate school may represent a significant investment of time, but if you aren’t using them regularly consider letting them go. Accessories from past hobbies or sports, ones we may no longer have the time or physical ability to do, can take up significant room in our home if we don’t take the time to acknowledge and let them go. Let go of the guilt and grief to free up emotional resources for the life you are living now.
Recognizing the emotional impact of our possessions can help transform our cluttered homes into spaces filled with joy instead of anxiety and guilt. What are the items that fill you up and help you live your best life? Keep these around and give them pride of place. What are the items that trigger more challenging emotions? Identify these and consider how you might free up some emotional resources by letting them go.
I encourage you to try asking some of these questions on your own, notice how you feel and experiment a little. If you find the “avoid” emotions are too strong or if you would like some support along the way, please reach out to me. I have experience in helping my clients work through these types of questions and decisions.
Janine Bui, Make Room To Breathe, Chapter 113
Janine is a professional organizer in Santa Clara, CA and is the owner of Make Room to Breathe. She provides individuals and families with guidance on the journey from clutter to organization in a non-judgmental and supportive atmosphere. Her approach builds lifelong organizational skills by teaching clients how to ask the right questions about their homes and the things they choose to keep in it. She offers free 30-minute phone consultations and during the shelter in place order, she is offering 1-2 hour remote organizing sessions. This is your opportunity to get organized and Make Room to Breathe! Learn more: https://www.makeroom2breathe.com/