The secret life of clutter: What your clutter says about you

BY Helen Sanderson

25th Jul 2023 Wellbeing

The secret life of clutter: What your clutter says about you

Psychotherapist Helen Sanderson reveals what your clutter reveals about your psyche, and how taking steps to declutter your life can free your mind

As a psychotherapist who studies the deeper factors behind why people accumulate stuff, and having worked as a professional organiser for over 15 years, I am known as an expert on the psychology of clutter. No surprise that I’m often asked, “What does my clutter say about me?”

I’m delighted when people ask this, because it means they understand that clutter is about so much more than just the stuff. When you take time to investigate it, your clutter can reveal fascinating stories that reflect many aspects of your life and personality.

"When you take time to investigate it, your clutter can reveal fascinating stories"

Unlocking some of the meaning your possessions hold can be the beginning of a significant shift, enabling you to discard what you no longer need, get things sorted and create a richer, simpler life based on experience and connection rather than an excess of possessions.

Being free from constantly having things to worry about means you can focus on planning the next stage of your life.

The deeper psychological factors that lead to each pile of clutter can reveal something very important: what I call your "Clutter Why". Here are some examples:

Photos and greetings cards are among the hardest objects to let go 

It is not uncommon to keep things that evoke memories of significant people or events in our life, and it is important to maintain a sense of personal history.

But holding on to everything that has some kind of sentimental meaning can be a way of trying to control what you didn’t feel in control of in the past. This could be the loss of someone you loved, or difficulties in childhood.

It may also be a sign that as an infant you didn’t develop a secure feeling of attachment to your parents, so the security of being surrounded by possessions meets that need for stability lacking in early life. This is a case of when our possessions begin to possess us.

Clutter belonging to your adult children

Clutter in childhood bedroomThe desire to keep your childhood room as it was could indicate that you are holding on too tightly to the past

The parental home can be an affordable and convenient storage solution for young fledglings. But if you keep their childhood bedroom like a frozen moment in time, it can reflect a desire to hold on too tightly to those precious memories of parenthood.

This may be linked to some difficult pain or loss, maybe from their or your own childhood, or perhaps you sacrificed a career or other aspects of life to be a parent.

Revisioning or repurposing that room can be significant, shifting the focus to create space for your life now.

Old decorations from Christmas and other festive occasions

These are often associated with precious time with family members. Letting them go, or even just reducing them, can feel like dishonouring something special.

Holding on excessively may reflect a desire to re-experience intimacies that you miss profoundly. On the other hand, seasonal festivities may have been disappointing or difficult times, and this type of clutter can represent an unconscious desire to fix what went wrong.

If you are like most people, it is probably a combination of the two.

Separating the memory from the object is important and a simple photo can do as good a job as a box of trinkets.

Cluttered lofts, garages, or storage units

Clutter in loft or garageClearing out clutter from your garage could also free up mental space to pursue something new

The out of sight, out of mind syndrome comes into play here. Often these hidden spaces in the home are perfect "clutter corners": places to hold on to aspects of your life that you don’t want to deal with.

Clutter is decisions that haven’t been made, and actions that haven’t been completed. These spaces allow you to put aside those decisions and actions, but this strategy comes at a price.

"Clutter is decisions that haven’t been made, and actions that haven’t been completed"

Your mind holds on to all these incomplete things from the past, making it much harder for you to pay attention to the now and the future. This keeps you feeling stuck and overwhelmed.

When you take action to deal with the clutter you will release a massive amount of energy and feel so much lighter and more positive. Dealing with these things really is about making room for the future.

The less you have, the less you have to manage and the more time you will have to spend in a more fulfilling way.

The importance of decluttering

I hope you are starting to see that one secret to creating a calm and nurturing household is to understand what is blocking you in your home and your life.

This is often the key to moving forwards. As well as a practical process, decluttering can be a transformational journey through your past, a voyage of self-discovery that allows you to redefine yourself and reshape your future.

Decluttering is fundamentally about action and change. People are almost always driven as much by a desire to move towards something as they are to move away from the clutter.

This might be an unrealised dream or a creative project, lying dormant like a seed, waiting for the right conditions to grow.

"Decluttering is fundamentally about action and change"

Whatever it is, the accumulation of unmade decisions that your clutter represents is probably holding you stuck and preventing you from entering a new phase of life.

The origin of the word "clutter" is the same as the word clot. In other words, a blockage and often one that is connected to injury. Understanding a little more about the injury can release the salve to help it heal.

If you want to dive deeper into the psychology of clutter, and discover your personal "Clutter Why", you can read more in my book The Secret Life of Clutter.

It features ten intimate and touching stories that take you on a profound journey as people discover what lies beneath their clutter, and make life-changing shifts when they start to get clear, let go and move on.

Helen Sanderson is a psychotherapist, professional organiser, and expert on the psychology of clutter. Her unique Getting Clear process empowers people to create beautifully organised, clutter-free homes that support more mindful and meaningful lives

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