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The psychology of clutter: Why we hold onto ‘stuff’—and what that may be teaching our kids    

It’s been a long day. And whether we have just walked in the door from work, or we have just braved a poorly timed late afternoon grocery store run with three tots in tow, the feeling is all too familiar and the same each time we get home.

Instead of walking in the door and exhaling into relief, the calm we hope for is met with even more stress as our eyes set upon a garage stuffed with mega-store mega-items, current and stale sports equipment, and boxes full of I-have-no-idea-but-I’ll-get-to-it-later.

We feel our stomach tighten as we walk through the door and our eyes are met with piles of laundry, magazines we don’t have time to read, a constant rotation of dishes on the table, on the counter, in the sink, in the dishwasher, and toys—so many toys— on the floor.

It’s all. too. much. And we wonder, "Is it just me?”

Just as working in an environment that is crowded, messy, too loud and full of artificial light has been proven to affect mood and health, so too does living in a space that is stuffed with things that bring us neither joy nor use.

With a modicum of knowledge of why we clutter and what it does to our psyches, plus a little self-awareness, we can learn to set the limits that can liberate us from the tyranny of too much that prevents us from having the home we desire and the freedom to be our best mama.

We are not alone

Being overwhelmed by and in one’s own home is not as singular a situation as one might think. According to a study by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) the amount of stress we experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff we and our family have accumulated.

In the study, a team of professional archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists conducted a systematic study of home life in 32 middle-class, dual-income families with 2-3 kids of ages 7-12 in Los Angeles.

The scientists examined the amount of their stuff and found that women who feel their homes are cluttered tend to:

  • Be less happy with their marriages
  • Have unhealthy patterns of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Have difficulty managing every day tasks
  • Feel ineffectual
  • Have a harder time transiting from work to home
  • Get increasingly depressed throughout the day
  • Having greater fatigue in the evenings

The study also found that those unfinished home project falls into the category of clutter and generate the same kind of stress that clutter does. Housework and home repairs compete for the attention of time and resource-strapped parents, turning home into more a place of increased demands than a haven from stressors.

Wives were found to be more affected by these stressors than husbands. Other research has shown that wives assume more of the responsibility for maintaining a home than husbands do, which may be more closely linked to how they see the home environment, and so are particularly stressed out by the presence of clutter.

What about the kids?

If creating for ourselves a more restful home environment is not a big enough reason to declutter, perhaps the knowledge that our habits can be passed along to our kids will be.

"Our ability to organize begins at a young age through the modeling and messages we receive from our parents," says professional organizer, Regina Leeds. "Being raised in a home where we weren't taught the skills to maintain order, we inadvertently may fall into the habits of disorder, and unfortunately pass along these non-serving habits to our children, rendering them incapable of organization until they take it upon themselves to learn the essential organizational skills, to eliminate, categorize, and organize."

Our stuff adds up

In our materialistic society, we are exposed to ads all day long that tell us what need to have to be healthy, handsome, happy, and successful. This can make it easy to accumulate all sorts of stuff we don’t really need and difficult to get rid of it due to the associated emotional baggage.

For many reasons, we can find ourselves emotionally paralyzed when it comes to deciding what to keep or get rid of, and that stuff winds up controlling us rather than benefiting our lives.

We can have sentimental attachments to things, or we may believe our things have hidden monetary value, but the main reason we hang on to things is fear. However misguided, we can fear the loss of security, status, comfort, and love when we throw things out.

And our possessions embody our memories, our hopes and our dreams, representing who we believe we are now, and who we believe the better version of ourselves will be in the future. So it comes as no surprise that it can be difficult to let go. "Tidying lets you stare in the face all of your core beliefs and what you’re living your life based on,” says Sue Rasmussen, a Minneapolis life coach and decluttering professional.

Additionally, discarding things we’ve purchased can be an admission of our failings, but holding on to them can also be toxic reminders of what we have not accomplished.

“You hold onto things based on hope,” says June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter, a book that looks at not just the physical stuff that takes up room in our lives, but the mental clutter that keeps us from feeling productive and happy. "We hope to lose weight, hope to catch up on reading, hope to finish that abandoned project. But when we don’t, it’s hard not to feel like a failure about it…how many items do you need to hold onto before it starts controlling your life?”

Or, we may feel guilty for wasting money on things, so we hold onto them to justify our purchase. And especiallly, we are afraid of regret. We have all tossed something, only to wish we hadn’t later. But holding onto stuff by rationalizing we may need it one day is a recipe for just. too. much. stuff... Eventually everything piles up and cannot be ignored.

In a vicious cycle, the clutter that results from a reaction to feelings of emptiness, fear, guilt and anxiety can cause us to clutter more and can "compound into the reactive emotional pain” of more guilt and shame, fear, anxiety—and ultimately preoccupation and depression.

If clutter is the physical manifestation of emotions, decluttering, believes Saruwatari, isn’t simply about getting our desk and closet in order, "It’s about relieving yourself of all the stuff you’re hanging onto from past careers, relationships, and unfinished business."

Our clutter tells a story

Our stuff can signify different emotional messages, and it can also be represent our identity. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the things we struggle to get rid of the most are likely tied to our self-worth, as evidenced by the findings, that, "People struggle the most to part with possessions that lack monetary or functional value."

This is why we may mourn the loss of our possessions from a fire but not necessarily their monetary value. The study found that parting with possessions that make us feel worthy can cause us to experience real loss and real grief—even depression.

Some of us find self-worth in our physical appearance, while others find it in approval.

Usually, whatever we hold onto the most represents what defines our self-worth. For instance, if we place a lot of value on success, it can be hard to let go of the things that comprise tangible evidence of our achievements, like awards or college transcripts. Tossing these things might make us feel less successful.

Or if we value our relationships above all, it may be more difficult to get rid of gifts from people. Tossing unwanted or unused gifts can make us feel like we are being disloyal to the giver. This can apply to birthday and greeting cards as well, which can represent to us that we are loved and appreciated, proving that we mean something to others.

Clutter is not just a representation of our emotions, memories, worth and identity, but it also can be distraction from tackling deeper issues—and a buffer from pain.

"In addition to what we keep,” clinical psychologist Noah Mankowski says, "where we put our clutter usually corresponds to different emotional events." According to Mankowski, clutter in the attic or the basement might indicate an inability to let go of the past.

Or a cluttered bathroom might reveal body image issues, since this is where we’re most likely to be standing in front of a mirror naked.

And clutter in the living room might suggest blockages in your social life, while a cluttered bedroom might relate to issues surrounding your sexual self, fears of intimacy or gender roles. “When you clutter things, … you can’t see the surroundings. Which actually allows you to not deal with it—it’s a way of coping.”

It’s not what we have, but what we do

Decluttering can be hard to begin when we are at the end of a long day, or at the end of an even longer week. So, approach it with an attitude of gratitude. Being grateful that we can give to others unused belongings—especially those in good condition—not only benefits them, but can help us rewrite the story of who we are.

In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Marketing, researchers tested ways to help people donate items that were meaningful to them. And they discovered that people would experience less identity loss from donating a cherished item if they photographed it.

In another study by Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, associate professor of marketing, Rebecca Reczek, and her colleagues found that, "People are more willing to give up possessions if we offer them a way to keep the memory and the identity associated with that memory."

The results of the study demonstrate that, "It may be relatively easy to break old habits of clinging to possessions with sentimental value by photographing items to preserve the memories associated with them, making people more likely to donate those items by keeping the memories they represent intact."

In related experiments, other researchers confirmed that it wasn't just the memories associated with possessions that were keeping people from donating, "it was the identities linked to those memories.

For example, older parents may still feel connected to their identities as new mothers and fathers and not want to part with their infant’s clothes, the memories of their child’s infancy being connected to the clothing that helps to define who they are. “It is this reluctance to give up a piece of our identity that is driving our reluctance to donate," Reczek said.

So taking pictures can help us part with all those boxes of old baby clothes we no longer need, not to mention all the preschool artwork that comes home and stacks up. Even better, this strategy can also be implemented to help our kids pass along toys and books they have outgrown.

Our stuff, our limits

More than 75% of families use their garages solely to store the overflow of possessions (Arnold & Lang, 2007). Understanding the gateways of accumulation and the thinking behind them can help us recognize useless stuff when we see it, making it so much easier to get rid of before clutter becomes a problem.

  • Set boundaries. Storing other people’s things can be a signal that we need to be more assertive about our space and set appropriate boundaries to not allow other people to clutter up our home with their stuff. This includes holding on to family heirlooms. Keeping dear Aunt Susie’s china set might be sentimental, but it just becomes clutter if it is not going to be used and we don’t really want it.
  • Let go of the past. It’s okay to be nostalgic, but hanging onto dusty dried corsages from our high school proms or our too-small jeans from pre-baby days can be unhelpful reminders of the past and can prevent us from taking responsibility for creating a better tomorrow and moving forward in our life.
  • Trust in the future. Shelves of unopened or unused items can signal “just in case” thinking and a lack of trust in the future. They can also signal an aspiration to do or be something we’re not. Donating these items can free up space in our homes, hearts and heads and help us move on.
  • Tame the unfinished. 
Incomplete projects and half-finished remodels can suggest an unsustainable perfectionism, provoking a sense of failure. Prioritizing completion or scheduling removal of the abandoned helps us respect and accept who we are here and now, which can be empowering.

Home, sweet, neat home

The more we declutter, the better we get at it and the more aware we become of choosing what to keep, dump and seek in our lives. A little empty space helps makes room for a new way of living that enables stronger relationships and a stronger us through better physical and mental health.

Think of it this way: Getting rid of clutter is the ultimate form of self-care.

Anne-Marie Gambelin is a wife, mother of three, writer, and Motherly’s Special Projects/Science Editor. A Silicon Valley native, she is passionate about parenting and looks for opportunities in tech to illuminate the beauty, good and truth in all things motherly.

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