I recently wrote about how our emotions can become tangled up with possessions and artifacts that represent past experiences and relationships; how our homes gradually fill up with ‘stuff’ — literal and metaphorical — that blocks us from moving on. But how do we actually go about clearing the clutter?
Most of us have been there at one time or another — facing cupboards full of things that fulfill no useful purpose, but which remind us in some way of a loved one, or an event, or some other experience. ‘Emotional hoarding’ isn’t necessarily a problem, but when we start to feel overwhelmed by it or prevented from letting go and getting on with our lives, then we may need to do something to resolve it.
A friend and fellow emotional hoarder read my post “Letting Go of Life’s Laundry” and commented that while it’s all very well recognising that the time has come to de-clutter and move on, actually doing so is much more difficult: “It just feels like an overwhelming and impossible task! How do you do the actual letting go of things that mean so much — isn’t that the reason we’re hanging on to them in the first place?”
So having just done some de-cluttering of my own (and feeling a great deal better for it), here are my top tips — or at least the ones that worked for me.
- Think small: If your de-cluttering task appears enormous, it’s better to dedicate yourself to clearing one small corner of a desk or cupboard per session, rather than setting out to de-clutter the entire house in one marathon effort. You didn’t achieve this level of clutter overnight, so why assume that you can clear it overnight?
- Piles are your friend: If you’re anything like me, de-cluttering has to be done in several stages. I can’t go from putting my hands on a pile of undifferentiated ‘stuff’ straight into having documents neatly filed in the correct folders and other objects put away or sent to the rubbish bin. Therefore I start by choosing which area to de-clutter first and then I sort everything in that area into piles according to what needs to be done with them — for the accounts folder, for the insurance folder, for the utilities folder, for the bin, for ’emotional review’, for giving away, etc. Put a label on each pile to remind you what needs doing with each one.
- Don’t stop there!: The first ‘risk of slippage’ point happens to me right here. I’ve done some sorting and I’m now faced with several piles which, if I don’t persevere for a bit longer, will quickly turn into just another unmanageably large mound of clutter. So take a deep breath and do that first tranche of filing. But equally, don’t push yourself to continue when what you actually need is to take a break.
- Listen to yourself: De-cluttering can be very stressful, and especially so when what you’re trying to sort out, and in some cases, let go of, has deep emotional resonance for you. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you — are you beginning to feel tired, irritable or anxious? Is your attention faltering? I know it’s time to take a break when my stomach starts to churn and I begin to lose the ability to make choices and decisions about what I’m doing. Knowing when to stop for a break, whether it’s for the day or simply for five minutes, is critical for keeping up the momentum to make a lasting change.
- Be kind to yourself: Whenever we try to change something in our lives (whether it be de-cluttering or giving up smoking), there’s always the danger of lapse and relapse, interspersed with periods of committment to change and doing the changing. This ‘cycle of change’ is worth being mindful of. De-cluttering may well be a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process, depending on the time you have available, your mood, your energy levels, your other commitments, etc. And that’s OK. Being harsh on yourself for faltering or back-sliding will only make it harder to go back to what you’re doing.
- Every journey starts with a single step: I find it really rewarding to acknowledge openly to myself what I’ve achieved in my de-cluttering session. I may have tackled only one small corner, but if I reward myself for having made a start and achieved something, then I can leave my de-cluttering session with positive feelings rather than self-critical and judgmental ones, and I’m more likely to return to my efforts willingly.
- Let the feelings flow: When you reach the pile of things that evoke the deepest feelings for you, it can be tempting to try to push them away — both the feelings and the objects — as being too much to handle. As my friend said, one of the reasons you’re hanging on to them in the first place is because it’s too difficult to let them go. But without acknowledging the power and depth of the feelings, without allowing yourself to revisit the relationships and people and experiences that the objects represent, you may find you’re still ‘stuck’. Your feelings need to be heard.
- Share it with a friend: We enrich our memories when we share them aloud with others. And so long as the friend you share with understands that their role is to listen and witness what is so precious and memorable to you rather than tell you what they think you should keep or get rid of, then the retelling — making it part of the narrative of your life — may help you resolve those difficult feelings and enable you to let go and move on.
- You can’t save the world, but you can save a part of it: Another friend lost her husband to cancer earlier this year, and part of her process of letting go and moving on was to choose from his wardrobe a couple of pullovers and a coat that seemed somehow to encapsulate the essence of the man she was grieving for. It didn’t make it any easier to parcel up all of his other clothes and send them on to the charity shops, but it meant that she had something tangible to represent that aspect of him.
- Finding resolution: In “Letting Go of Life’s Laundry”, I wrote about my late mother’s day-glo orange dessert bowls and how I finally felt ready to let go of them. Writing about what they represented about my childhood has helped that moving on and letting go process. I’ve boxed up the bowls and they’re ready for despatch to a local tea shop which displays unusual crockery. I’ve kept one of the bowls and put earrings in it, and it’s now on display in my home rather than boxed up in a cupboard where no-one (including me) ever saw it; it’s become more than just a reminder of my mother, but also a visible part of my life in the present.
Writing about what objects mean to you and why you’ve held on to them; sharing memories with family and friends; finding new purposes for objects whilst still respecting their original emotional value — all of these are helpful ways of resolving and letting go of the ‘stuff’ that holds us back. Having done a fair amount of de-cluttering over the last couple of weeks, I feel lighter of spirit and yet also closer to my mother (and others) than I did before.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by