Credit: George Danby

What is clutter? And what is your clutter trying to tell you?

Many of us feel overwhelmed by our stuff and don’t know where to start to unclutter our lives. There is good reason for this, as clutter may have more to do with psychology than with possessions. Many professional organizers and psychologists often refer clients to each other.

Recently, some very interesting research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools, mapped the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli. Studies of uncluttered and organized living have discovered that with multiple stimuli present, or when our environment is cluttered, a person’s ability to focus is restricted. Clutter also limits the brain’s ability to process information.

Clutter, it turns out, makes us distracted and unable to process information as well as we do in an uncluttered, organized, serene environment. The clutter competes for our attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to us calling out, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy…” Even though we might be able to focus a little, we are still aware that a toddler is also vying for our attention. The annoyance also wears down our mental resources, and we are more likely to become frustrated. This research shows that, at the very least, diminishing visual clutter makes us feel less chaotic.

The human impulse to hoard is rooted in evolution and has lingered in our brains since normal human behavior originally included hunting and gathering. Hoarding can be anyone’s problem, rich or poor, privileged or neglected, famous or unknown, but it does run strongly in families. The key feature distinguishing hoarding disorder from run-of-the-mill cluttering is that living spaces become so filled with possessions they cannot be used for their intended purpose.

The sheer number of items doesn’t differentiate collecting from hoarding — what matters is whether there is any logic to the arrangement and how well the objects are maintained. A hundred shiny teacups in a glass cabinet constitute a collection. A hundred bags filled with gum wrappers and newspapers is a hoard. Collectors delight in showing their goods, whereas hoarders keep their stuff hidden.

Distress is a key component of hoarding disorder, both when confronted with throwing something out and getting fed up with jam-packed surroundings. Hoarders get nervous about throwing things away, worrying they might need their possessions, won’t remember them if they are gone, or must hold on to them for sentimental reasons. By not getting rid of anything, they are trying to ward off uneasiness and anxiety.

I am a psychotherapist who uses cognitive behavioral therapy, and this is a useful approach for helping someone who wants to either stop acquiring, to sort and organize, or to discard objects. Some people find it easier in the beginning to gain control over acquiring, and to develop an organizing plan, than to make decisions about discarding. However, some people find that clearing clutter is their first goal and can tolerate the distress this often brings before finding relief. Progress with decluttering depends on the person’s ability to question stressful thinking and thereby reduce emotional distress about “losing” possessions. The methods of cognitive behavioral therapy help with this process.

One person with whom I worked to streamline her household habits realized that growing up in a messy, overcrowded house taught her certain habits, like leaving food on the counters overnight. “I was never taught to hang my coat on a hook,” she said. “Having a spot now to always put my wallet and phone is a miracle.”

Clearing the clutter in our lives, not only the physical clutter but also the social, emotional and financial clutter, can be revealing and sometimes difficult. One reason that people stay in abusive relationships, low-paying jobs and cluttered homes is because it’s predictable and we become experts in dealing with unpleasant situations. Changing this — one stressful thought at a time, one object at a time — will allow bravery, serenity and joy to flow into our lives.

In her book, “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo beautifully sums up the connection: “Taking good care of your things leads to taking good care of yourself.”

Robin Barstow is a clinical social worker in southern Maine.

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