Why We Clutter

The emotional barriers to clearing clutter—and how to overcome them

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Although your perpetually messy house may simply reflect a technically flawed organizing system (hard-to-get-to storage, for instance), there’s often a deeper issue at work. In fact, when clutter becomes a way of life, says Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out, “I guarantee that you’ve got some psychological stake in the process—needs that make you gravitate toward disorganization, no matter how much you may crave control.”

Once we know what that stake is, she says, the biggest barrier between us and a well-ordered living space comes down. Here are some of the more common emotional barriers to clearing clutter, along with suggestions for overcoming them.

A barrier between us and our feelings. How can you think about a relationship when it’s tax day and the W-2s are missing? Who can plan a career when you’re late to the dentist and can’t find your keys? “As long as you have ‘I gotta get organized’ endlessly looping through your mind,” Morgenstern says, “you can’t focus on painful emotions.”

According to Anacaria Myrrha, founder of Simple Systems organizing service in San Rafael, California, these feelings include everything from loneliness to fear of success. If we fear success, for instance, a chaotic environment can pretty much ensure that it never happens. Clutter is “filling the space between us and our great work,” Myrrha says, “because we’re afraid to take it on.”

Kathy Kingston, author of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, both warns her clients and spurs them on by reminding them that cleaning clutter is “going to bring up feelings, but it’s going to be worth it. It’s like reclaiming your life.”

An excuse to retreat. If the guest room is full of boxes or the kitchen too messy to cook, we have the perfect excuse to avoid company. “It’s OK not to want guests,” Morgenstern says. “But you don’t have to keep the room filled. Get rid of the junk and create something for yourself—a study or studio. Give yourself permission to retreat, but retreat to a beautiful space.”

The “conquistador of chaos.” If you live from crisis to crisis or thrive on the challenge of overcoming impossible situations, you may be what Morgenstern calls a “conquistador of chaos.” A win only counts if it’s hard to get, and fighting your way through a thicket of trash to the finish line ups the odds against you. If you keep trying new organizational systems only to abandon them for “something better” the minute they start to work, this may be you. Stick with one system, Morgenstern says. If you need an extra challenge, learn to cook or write a novel; use your remarkable reserves of talent and energy to do something more rewarding than rescue yourself from chaos.

An old identity. Hanging on to moldering mementos may be a way to hang on to who we were, Morgenstern says, but it leaves no room for new life. Remember that you carry the best of your old self inside you. Honor your past with a scrapbook, collage, or video containing the most meaningful mementos, and store or toss the rest. You can also rotate different keepsakes through your living room every few months to prevent them becoming visual cacophony.