The psychology of clutter
By Heather Grimshaw Special to The Denver Post
(Maureen Scance, The Denver Post )
Our stuff has a powerful grip.
"People turn physical objects into magic talismans that connect them to memories (and) better times in their lives," says Regina Leeds, author of
"One Year to an Organized Life" (Da Capo Press, 2007).
Professional organizers walk a tightrope between therapy and physical order.
Most clients are garden-variety clutter bugs in search of help storing old magazines, arranging unmarked photographs and eliminating the unused things that line every surface of their home or workplace.
But a few cases illustrate the deeper psychological elements of clutter: One client keeps a box full of cashmere sweaters from high school even though they are riddled with moth holes and far too small to wear; another stores the ashes of his deceased wife in a closet; a third needs a therapist simply to sort through his boxes of stuff.
Getting organized may have more to do with psychology than piles of possessions, according to professional organizers and the people who hire them.
From low self-esteem and an inability to make decisions, psychology shapes a person's relationship to his or her space and stuff.
So the key to more organized lives may lie within the gray matter of the mind.
Leeds has logged 20 years as a professional organizer.
"Your home should be your sanctuary, your buffer against the world," says this author who also calls herself a Zen organizer.
"It is torture if you're living in chaos."
On a daily basis, organizers like Leeds suggest clients make simple, positive habit changes — such as washing and stowing dishes immediately after use, and making beds each morning to establish a foundation for an organized, healthy, effective life.
Yet guilt, grief and attachment are common motivations for retaining old things well past their expiration date.
Many professional organizers and psychologists, who often refer clients to each other, believe that clutter can be indicative of underlying psychological issues.
"It can be an obsessive disorder in which the person is immobilized in terms of action," says Elizabeth Robinson, a psychologist in Denver.
"I think there is a great fear of making a decision that could be wrong, of feeling something like regret or loss or guilt about getting rid" of things.
There are about 75 Colorado members of the National Association of Professional Organizers. These people specialize in corporate, residential and time management organization, and charge $50 to $200 per hour.
Teri Lynn Mabbitt is president of the state chapter.
She says disorganization is a symptom of something else. "The art is in digging deep to understand the cause," says Mabbitt, who owns Chaos 2 Calm in Denver.
The first step for many organizers is to ask clients a series of questions about their homes and the items in them.
Krista Socash is a spiritual counselor and clairvoyant in Arvada who teaches energy healing classes and offers organizational help to clients whose clutter has reached a fever pitch.
These are generally people who cannot walk through their rooms without tipping piles and become panicked by the thought of sorting through it all.
"These people are in a lot of pain," she says. "Much like people who use drugs as an (escape), some people cannot get rid of their stuff."
To help clients process ties to clutter, Socash asks people
how each item in the room enhances their lives:
Do you like this item?
Does it weigh you down?
Do you feel stuck to it?
Things that clients do not want to part with are put into a bin for a week.
"At the end of the week if they remember what is in the bin," she says, "they can keep it."
Helen Kearney hired Mabbitt to organize a few rooms in her home.
The Boulder sales professional had trouble with change but says there was a "feeling of total relief" once she saw the benefit to grouping like items together.
"Talk about a transformation," she says. "It was so simple, but I couldn't see how to do it all. . . . Teri really helped me with the dark corners where I would always shove stuff."
Kearney also spent the past two years working with a therapist trained in feng shui who helped streamline her household habits.
She realizes now that growing up in a messy, overcrowded house taught her certain habits, like leaving food on the counters overnight, half-empty coffee cups in the bathroom, and drawers and cabinets askew.
Teri Lynn Mabbitt, a professional organizer in Denver, believes:
Four kinds of clutter
Technical: Clutter that causes space restrictions and an overall lack of storage space.
Life changes: Clutter caused by a new baby, a death in the family, a move or anything that has thrown a life out of balance.
Behavioral/psychological: Clutter caused by depression, attention deficit disorder, low self-esteem or lack of personal boundaries.
Time/life management: Clutter caused by the need for better planning.
Of these, the behavioral/psychological-driven clutter is the hardest to solve.
Regina Leeds, author of "One Year to an Organized Life," says there are
three basic steps to organization:
2. categorize and then
Among her tips:
Start with closets. If you are holding onto a piece of clothing that belonged to someone who has died, consider keeping a swatch of fabric in a shadow box instead.
Here are some ideas from the domestic gurus at Better Homes and Gardens magazine for gaining control of common home clutter zones.
Let storage components climb the walls of your home office, and rearrange your work space so regularly used supplies are accessible and others are out of the way.
Use the "handle it once" rule to keep papers from piling up.
Immediately toss, file, pass on or mail off paperwork rather than revisiting it later.
Labeled hanging files provide a quick, tidy place to stash paperwork.
Correspond via phone or e-mail to prevent a paperwork backlog.
Stash office supplies out of sight. Choose small-scale tape dispensers, staplers, pencil sharpeners and the like; full-size ones hog more space.
Store clips and rubber bands by the batch.
Spice jars, secured with commercial grade hook-and-loop tape under cabinets, will do nicely.
Put an end to a jumble of jewelry in the bathroom, bedroom or closet with a ceramic egg tray found in the kitchen supply aisle.
Tuck earrings and necklaces away in little cups so they will never get lost or separated again.
Reserve a drawer in the family room for board games.
A divided bin is a winning solution for corralling all those tiny game pieces.
Replace door panels with pegboard in the laundry room for storage on both sides of the door.
Build plywood cubbies in the garage to span an entire wall. Be sure to attach them to studs.
Add adjustable shelves in the garage to accommodate camping gear and other bulky stuff.
Smaller knickknacks and holiday ornaments are for stackable containers.
Ask yourself these questions when deciding what to keep and what to throw out:
Has it expired?
Is it used?
Is it a duplicate?
Is it a good fit?
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