Overwhelmed by clutter

I’m feeling overwhelmed by living in a house that has accumulated way too much stuff. Sure, I like to buy things and hold on to things, but doesn’t everyone, and yet others seem to manage it? I don’t even invite people over anymore. I used to be able to cram my mess into my office, but now most of the rooms in my house are simply too full. How can I begin to de-clutter?

De-cluttering is only a portion of the solution. Before you can create space in your home you need to create space and clarity emotionally, getting to the root of your behaviors.

First, let’s distinguish whether you’re a pack rat, a collector or a full-blown hoarder.

A hoarder is defined as someone who acquires more than can be used and stored in their space, keeps useless items such as old newspapers, containers or trash, restricts others from using or borrowing their items and finds these behaviors interfere with important activities, such as getting to work and maintaining social connections. This is distinguished from someone who is a collector and finds their stockpile of Star Wars figurines, baseball cards or salt and pepper shakers something they cherish and show off to others. As for the pack rat, the magnitude of the problem is much smaller and often gets resolved with their annual spring-cleaning garage sale.

Sometimes a person can be a pack rat or collector, but then a traumatic event or loss sets them over the edge to becoming a hoarder. This is because hoarding is an outgrowth of some underlying anxiety. It’s considered a relative of obsessive-compulsive disorder and can also be seen alongside illnesses like dementia or schizophrenia.

Recent neuroimaging studies show a link between hoarding and extreme anxiety when confronted with making a decision. If you procrastinate and lack overall organization, you could be more predisposed to hoarding. There is also a genetic link among those who develop hoarding.

Whatever category you fall into, the same basic coping mechanism is occurring: compulsively shopping and obsessively needing to collect and keep material objects to distract from feeling loss, grief or post traumatic stress. This prevented you from dealing with important feelings that needed acknowledgement. You tried to create an insular bubble of stuff around you, which brought initial, temporary relief to your anxiety, but has now led you to feel more anxiety and a shameful secret.

Recognize that these possessions you buy and surround yourself with are providing a false refuge for you. This attachment to inanimate objects is filling a void.

Transition from finding security in things to finding solace in your purpose, meaning, relationships and spirituality. My favorite musician, Michael Franti, sings, “The best things in life aren’t things, they’re living and breathing … they’re something you can believe in.”

We live in a world in which stress can surround us, and we all seek ways to avoid it (some are healthy, some not).

After you’ve begun to work through your anxiety, past trauma or other grief with a therapist, then you can make a plan for returning, reselling and recycling. Otherwise you will just refill your cleared space with new possessions. I recommend support from a professional both inside and outside of the home, such as a de-clutter coach.

Hoarding can become a serious problem. If this is indeed what you’re suffering from, treat yourself with empathy and understanding. Have hope that with hard work and support, one day you’ll no longer be weighed down by your “crap” and can enjoy a lightness of being.

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