By | Published On: May 6, 2013 |

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

For many of us the reason we allow ‘stuff’ to build up in our homes is because we feel a sense of security when visibly surrounded by our possessions. Many of us actually want to be surrounded by piles of books, CDs, old magazines, bric-a-brac and knick-knacks we can barely remember buying so that, when we are at home and take time to relax, nothing is far from our reach. These ‘things’ give us a sense of security, they validate what we represent to ourselves in terms of our preferences and our taste in what we buy: they are a physical manifestation of who we are. The problem is that, when taken together, the clothes that no longer fit, the videotapes and cassettes, the drawers full of clothes we hardly wear or even like any more, they become encumbrances and are, in a word, clutter.

The paradox of having so much to choose from is we quickly become overwhelmed by the available choice which produces stress in anyone who has a tendency toward accumulating things rather than buying exactly what they want, using that thing until it needs replacing, and then purchasing a replacement. In effect, things not used gather dust, physical and mental, and it is the awareness of that dust accumulating that makes people stressed with the way they live when they realise they are, both physically and mentally, drowning in ‘stuff’.

So what can be done?

One of the reasons people hoard is that everything from clothes to computers cost money to buy. The money spent on the item has gone but the item itself now exists and people are reluctant to part with something they know was expensive to begin with and now feel is gaining added value by being in their possession. I have friends who will not willingly part with a single long playing record, pottery figurine or designer label dress so the only reasonable suggestion they might consider for reducing the amount of clutter they live with is for these things to go into a storage unit where a) they are safe, b) they are still in the owner’s possession, but c) are not cluttering up their living space. If you are someone who is reluctant to part with things of value in this way, then why not consider this option, possibly with the proviso that a) if the cost of hiring the storage unit becomes excessive you consider disposing of the things you have proved by their absence you can do without, b) you consider disposing of those things if they are untouched in a specific time frame, perhaps six months or a year.

By their very nature, people who are hoarders are often procrastinators. They will allow a pile of papers to build up, knowing full well that buried in the middle is an important bill, a letter that requires an urgent response, a doctor’s appointment card. They know what matters is there, take comfort in not having lost it, but will not deal with the problem unless the pile grows unmanageable or the problem comes at them from another direction. These people often create ‘snail trails’, little piles of problems they promise themselves they will deal with ‘when they have time’, ‘when I’m on vacation next week’, or some other excuse. The only effective way of dealing with this is to create the simplest of filing systems: A-M, N-Z for what can be filed away as necessary to keep, a tray marked ‘Do NOW’ for the bill, letter requiring a response or doctor’s appointment. The rest can, and should, be thrown away (preferably shredded if it contains a name, address or other personal details).

Hoarders do not exist solely at home where they can do it in secret. They do it at work, too. We all know the person with a mountain of papers they have allowed to build up on their desk. They would argue that the accumulated papers offer a degree of security, sending out the signal they are too busy/important/stressed to tidy their desk and reassuring the hoarder that he or she is in control of their workload and only they know exactly where anything is, effectively making them irreplaceable. They gain a sense of security from being able to hand over a report, or presentation, a sample from somewhere in the paper mountain, but this sense of security is immediately eroded when they are asked if they have completed their objective and they say, ‘No, but I was getting to it next…’ My belief is that only someone subordinate to the hoarder who can demonstrate tenacity and determination can help someone who acts like this: and I do mean help because they will not willingly accept intervention from a colleague, considering the colleague’s intervention to be both critical and competitive.

If you are not a hoarder but know someone who is and have responded to a request from them to help slim down the possessions they feel overwhelmed by, the first thing you should not do is grab a handful of black bags, adopt an unwavering approach to clearing the clutter, and refuse to consider exactly why a particular item should be kept. All of these are counter-productive as they will only increase the stress the hoarder feels because they are no longer in control and this is not something they will allow to happen voluntarily. Try the ‘little goes a long way’ approach where you set up the filing system or decide what should go into the storage unit and pack things carefully into boxes that will ensure they keep their value (the antithesis of the black bag). Slim down a cupboard, a set of drawers, one room at a time so that the hoarder can quite quickly see the wood for the trees, the positive benefits of reducing the clutter, enjoy the palpable sense of achievement that what was messy is now neat, what was disorganised is now accessible, what was ugly is now aesthetically pleasing. The aim is for anyone affected by the stress of accumulating quantities of things to feel lighter in themselves, more in control of their surroundings.

If all of this tidying still seems impossible after reading this blog consider whether you are holding on to the items because they represent something much more significant about someone else in your life rather than you. When we lose someone and particularly if they left us in a traumatic way this can be at the bottom of a need to hold on to their things. Grief is very difficult for some and not something we have a prescription or template for; we know all of us are likely to experience grief and loss but books that support us and well-meaning people may not guarantee we ourselves have learned to move on let alone handle that person’s possessions and sentimental items. If you can sense there is something in this point for you then you might want to consider seeking psychological support and particularly the beneficial therapy of EMDR which releases painful memories in a peaceful and gentle manner by accessing parts of the brain you are consciously shutting down because they’re too uncomfortable to look at. The problem is that discomfort ‘locks’ in memories and we avoid the experience of tackling them thereby exacerbating our problems when it comes to dealing with the physical items we’ve held on to related to that memory or person. If you need an EMDR practitioner e-mail me: and I’ll help you find someone.

Whether you are a hoarder or someone helping a hoarder de-clutter their life or rooms, the process of removing the old and unused is cathartic: it makes room for the new, useful and more attractive which is an act of positive creativity that enables people to feel good about themselves. When it comes down to it, we all want to feel good about ourselves so break the job down in to bite size chunks, get a friend involved and begin…then celebrate when you’ve achieved that chunk, it’s incredibly motivating!