Why do we clutter and hoard




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'Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.'
- William Morris




Most of us clutter to some extent, but when our clutter causes problems for our family, prevents us from having as fulfilling social life, or leaves us with rooms we can no longer use, then its time to take action.  But what action do we take?

Initially we must consider that there are many reasons that we clutter, and these can range from a busy lifestyle and lack of time, to emotional issues that need to be dealt with before the clutter can be tackled.  These issues have been the subject of much discussion on recent shows such as the Life Laundry and Oprah Winfrey.  Often though we simply need helpful and efficient tips on getting rid of the clutter quickly and easily, and a book or online course will be sufficient to enable us to achieve a new clutter free lifestyle.  For others who do not have the time, then hiring the services of a professional declutterer will be hugely beneficial.  If there are emotional issues involved however, then these may need to be dealt with before the decluttering process is undertaken, otherwise you might return to your previous habits and the situation will quickly return to how it was before you invested your time and money into decluttering.


A busy lifestyle can lead to a cluttered home simply because you just don’t get enough time to sort your belongings out or to organize efficient storage systems. A number of my clients say that they feel life is too short to declutter, they have very busy social lives and the idea of spending time sorting their homes out is not high on their agenda.  When procrastination in this area sets in people find the services of declutterer's and organizers a huge benefit in their lives.   Once the bulk of the clutter has been cleared, efficient storage systems have been put in place, and the rooms are a delight to look at and live in my clients generally find it a joy to maintain their new clear, calm and inviting homes.’





 To determine if your clutter is simply due to procrastination resulting from a lack of time or motivation, or whether there are underlying emotional issues then try this simple test:

 Firstly select a small area such as a cupboard, corner of a room or a drawer in a chest of draws to declutter.

Pick up the items in this area one by one and sort them into three piles, Keep, Trash and Donate or Sell.

 Did you find yourself becoming confused and frustrated when trying to make decisions about sorting your items into the above three categories?

 Did you find it difficult to put items into the Trash pile?

 Did you have problems throwing any items away?

 Did you feel overwhelmed after only a short time, around 5-10 minutes of sorting?

 Did you become emotional during the process of sorting the items?

If you answer yes to 2 or more of these questions then your decluttering problem may be due to an underlying emotional issue.


If your cluttered space is due to procrastination and/or lack of time then you will have few problems in deciding if an item is important and worth keeping, or is trash that can be thrown away.  If you can easily decide what to keep, donate and throw away you are unlikely to come across many emotional issues as you clear.  If the test above suggests there might be underlying issues behind your cluttering habits, then read on and see if you can identify with any of the common emotional issues below.







 A principle of feng-shui is that our external world can also be a reflection of what is going on internally.  We might find ourselves in a vicious cycle where we are overwhelmed with events in our life, this leads us to get behind with the housework and become overwhelmed with too much stuff, now we become overwhelmed with this as well as other areas of your life and feel even less motivated to tackle the clutter.


Many people find that they loose motivation when they feel sad, down or blue.  You might have lost interest in keeping your home tidy and even the thought of doing the washing up seems overwhelming and brings you to tears.  If you can pinpoint the time when the clutter started to build to when you started to feel depressed, or when something significant happened in your life, e.g. you lost your job or ended a relationship, then your clutter maybe due to you feeling depressed in general.  People with depression may also become more internally than externally focussed and simply may not notice the clutter for long periods of time, causing a further lack of motivation to change things. 


Employing the services of a declutterer and organizer will be helpful at this point, only if you deal with the underlying depression, otherwise you might return to your previous habits as soon as their work is done, and be back in the same position within weeks or months.  If you feel that your depression is severe then do seek professional help.  Take a look at my Counselling and Life Coaching pages for tips on how to lift your depression.



We might be keeping items that clutter our homes due to a number of reasons that provoke anxiety in us:



 If we have grown up with poor and/or frugal parents who have taught us that being wasteful was very wrong, letting go of items may trigger feelings of guilt and anxiety within us.  See my Liveabrighterlife website for advice and tips on dealing with anxiety through relaxation techniques and on how to identify and deal with guilt.  You may need to seek some professional help if feelings of guilt or anxiety are overwhelming, but this is an area where people CAN distinguish between trash and something worth keeping, they simply don’t think they SHOULD throw worn out or useless items away, once we get rid of the should rules in our life the clutter will cease to be a problem.



 One client felt tremendous guilt about letting go of an expensive item that she had never and would never use.   She felt ashamed of being wasteful and had a difficult time accepting that she had made a poor decision at the time of purchase.  Having explored the fact that she had grown up in a family where wastefulness was met with anger we understood the roots of the issue.  We discussed how it would be more wasteful at this point, to deny someone who would enjoy using the item the pleasure of doing so.  We also explored how she could make a useful decision at this point by finding another home for the item and recouping some of the monetary value of the item.


In contrast some people who have grown up in poor or frugal families find that surrounding themselves with material goods is reassuring.  They never want to return to a situation where they don’t have enough of something, or can’t have something they want or need, so keep everything they can and buy more than they need.  People in this situation often have the problem of compulsive shopping (article on this coming soon).



 People can also clutter their homes as a way of rebelling.  If our parents kept an overly tidy home that caused us misery and prevented us from playing normally as kids (e.g. no going out and playing in the mud, and no more than one toy out at a time) we can often regain a sense of control over our environment by refusing to keep our own home tidy.  The brilliant Gregory Bateson has helped me in this area more than once, he defines maturity as, ‘being willing to do what you really want to do even if your parents want you to do it as well’.


 One of the most common reasons for holding onto excessive clutter is that many of our items hold special memories for us.  This can lead to us keeping boxes and boxes of childhood toys, Christmas and birthday cards, photographs and mementoes.   A sorting technique for items of this type is to consider what memories they evoke, if they make you sad do you really want to hold onto them?

A fun way to deal with sentimental items is to create a memories box full of the treasured possessions that hold the most special and pleasant memories.  By creating this box you will be able to make clearer decisions about what can be cleared out, for example there is no need to keep EVERY Christmas card you have ever received, just select the most precious ones and put them in a beautiful box where you can view and take care of them.  For the cards left over try donating them to a local charity shop that turns old cards into gift tags and help others.



 Buy yourself or make a beautiful storage box and place in here your most treasured possessions.  Items frequently placed in here include:

A childhood toy e.g. a Teddy Bear

Special gifts you have been given

Certificates of your achievements


Prizes you have been awarded

Mementos of days out or holidays

Special and meaningful birthday or Christmas cards

Every item in this box should bring a smile to your face and/or be associated to memories you really want to retain.

Knowing that you have your MOST treasured items in a safe place can enable you to let go of all the other items that are just taking up space.





 Do you have your old collection of Star Wars figures, Sindy dolls or Transformers?  If you have boxes of toys from your childhood, sort them out so that you keep only a few special items.  It is also important that you have items such as this valued or simply look on Ebay to check how much items are selling for, as there is a huge market for vintage toys.



 Letting go of items that belonged to a loved one who has died can mean facing up to our own loss and grief.  We may also feel some anxiety and guilt, as if we are failing to honour a person if we let go of any of their items. 

One solution is to keep only a few items that you enjoy and treasure the most.  If there are no great sentimental reasons for keeping an item simply ask if the item will be useful to you, if not let it go.


A questions that my clients have found useful here is:

Would you want your children or family members to keep items they inherit from you that are not useful to them and that they do not appreciate, or would you rather they were used by someone who could enjoy them?


If you have inherited items that you no longer wish to keep, offer them to other family members.  Ensure that they are dropped off or collected within a week or two and if you are asked to store them for the person who wants them learn to say no!  After this either sell them or donate to a charity of your choice so that they benefit others.



 Ensure that you get a valuation on items that you inherit.  I have discovered many pieces of treasure that my clients were about to throw out, sell for pennies or donate to charity because they had no idea of their worth (one person had a price ticket of £1.50 on a vase that later realised £900 at auction!).  You may have little idea as to how much a late loved one had paid for an item or where and when they purchased the item.  If  you are unsure have the items checked over by a local auction house, many will do free valuations for you it you are considering selling items through their auction house.



Alternatively we may be keeping items that clutter our homes because getting rid of the clutter would lead to situations that cause us to feel anxious.  Dealing with clutter can often mean dealing with emotions we find difficult to handle.



If we are suffering with low-self esteem we may not value ourselves enough to believe that we deserve a beautiful homes.  We may sit on broken or uncomfortable furnishings and wear worn out clothes we have had for years, simply because we do not believe we are worthy of having a nice, comfortable life.  People in this situation have often grown up in a highly critical or negative environment.  Seek out help with improving your self-esteem and confidence immediately if you are in this situation, self-help books or a good life-coach will enable you to change your life around quickly and dramatically.

 Psychological research shows us time and time again that there is a positive intent for all behaviour and even cluttered homes may be giving you some secondary gains:



 Often my clients recall having unusually painful experiences with other people in the past.  This might be due to a relationship break-up or repetitive experiences of being let down or feeling rejected.  By keeping a cluttered home we are in some way protecting ourselves from experiencing these painful feelings again.  Friends no longer call round because we keep putting them off, and the idea of bringing a new friend or boyfriend home fills us with dread.  We feel that we are unable to form new relationships until we have a clearer home.  To overcome this underlying issue behind clutter firstly we must be honest with ourselves.  My clients often have times when they are desperately lonely and in need of loving care from both friendship and a partner, they feel pain anyway but still their homes have remained cluttered for years.  The clutter prevents us from having to deal with the painful emotional issues that having to go out into the world and form new relationships would bring.  We are scared of taking risks in this area and by focusing on the problem of clutter this enables us to hide away from the real issue.  Sadly this defence can also prevent us from having the loving relationships we all want and need for years at a time.  If cluttering is due to this underlying issue then it is important that you deal with your fears around allowing people to get close to you, before or during the decluttering of your home.



 One client wrote to me after dealing with a similar situation:

‘Facing my fears and decluttering my home is the best thing I have ever done………  My son can now have friends around to play and is happier at home and at school, he is becoming more and more sociable all the time and has a much larger circle of friends.  I held a birthday party for him at MY HOUSE a few months ago and one of his friends was dropped off by his Dad, who asked if he could stay and help.  Dad turned out to be single and asked me out on a date.  He is a wonderful man and I would never had met him if I had not dealt with the clutter and was still fearful of entering a relationship.  My life is so much more joyful now and I am enjoying loving and being loved.’



 Our clutter sometimes acts as a buffer between us and the risks we must take to live a full life.  If we sorted out the clutter we would not have that particular problem to deal with anymore, and so we would no longer have anything to hide behind (literally) and no more excuses not to get on with our lives.  When we are clutter free we begin to accept that our life is not how we imagined it would be in a number of areas quite unrelated to the clutter problem.  Clutter free we will also need to take responsibility for how our lives have turned out and take risks to make changes so that we can live the life we deserve.  Change can bring fear and anxiety to the best of us, and we all lack confidence at times.  Make a decision today to attend some seminars or read some self-help books on how to improve your confidence and self-esteem, and seek out a life-coach who can help you turn your life around and give you the motivation to go and get what you want.





OCD consists of:

 Obsessions – Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images.  Intrusive thoughts may feel as if they are being forced into your mind or you might have persistent worries about events that have not and may never happen.  In relation to hoarding you might worry about throwing something you might need away, and have intrusive thoughts about how awful things will be if you don’t retrieve a scrap of paper from the bin.

 Compulsion – Repetitive mental acts and physical actions that you feel compelled to carry out in order to reduce anxiety.  In regard to hoarding you might need to throw only odd numbers of things away or go and retrieve an item from the bin or keep all the newspapers that come into your home.

 Compulsive shopping & hoarding can be a sign of OCD in some cases.  If you find it very difficult to distinguish between what is useful or sentimental and what is trash you may be in this category.  People with OCD feel very uneasy with uncertainty.   If you can’t be certain that there is no value to a piece of paper you might keep every piece of paper that comes into your home.  You might worry about throwing away newspapers, carrier bags, empty bottles, wrappers and towels for example.   OCD is characterised by a desire to keep, and an inability to dispose of anything regardless of perceived monetary or sentimental value.

 Throwing items away is extremely difficult due to overwhelming anxiety and fear.  The obsession about keeping items is coupled with a compulsion to retrieve items from the rubbish bags if you do manage to throw something out.




 You will probably need to find professional assistance to help you deal with clutter and hoarding if you have OCD.  My advice is to only see a therapist who has had a lot of experience with helping people with OCD, perhaps ask an organisation like OCD UK for help or seek out an organisation such as Triumph Over Phobia (TOP) that holds self-help groups at low cost throughout the UK, I currently run the Southampton group.  General Psychiatrists, Psychologists and Counsellors who have not dealt with OCD may not be suitable in this case and you may be offered the more inefficient drug therapy or psychoanalysis instead of future and present focussed therapies, which in my opinion are far more beneficial.

 OCD UK and OCD Action also provide fantastic resources - http://www.ocduk.org/index.htm  http://www.ocdaction.org.uk/ocdaction/index.asp


Get back in touch with what is generally practiced.  How long do most people keep junk mail or old newspapers?  Your goals will be to be able to decide easily what is trash and to then throw it away without retrieving it.



 This involves a Psychologist or therapist coming to your home and helping you to throw things away that you have been saving.  You might be asked to make a list of all items that need to be thrown away and then rate each category according to how difficult you will find it.  You should start with throwing away the category of items that give you the least difficulty and work your way up the list from there.  Note that the anxiety involved in anticipating throwing something away is often higher than when you are actually doing the throwing away.


Use an anxiety rating scale like that below to determine difficulty:


0                      25                    50                    75                    100

no anxiety        mild                  moderate         severe              extreme



Response Prevention involves resisting the urge to remove items from the bin.  In this case at the point you feel you need to go out to the bin look at your watch, now hold off for as long as possible before you retrieve the item, next time try and beat this time.

For motivation you can use visualisation.  Make a large colourful picture in your head of how clear and inviting your rooms will be when you complete the decluttering.  Imagine being able to invite friends and lovers over to your home and feeling proud to show it off.

The best therapists will use a selection of anxiety reduction techniques so that you can control major anxiety before you initiate the exposure or response prevention methods.




 Fear can hold us all back and it is a strong emotion when facing the above situations.  Sometimes we all feel as if we might not be able to deal with challenges in our future.  Let me assure you that you can and that simply taking the risk of clearing your clutter and dealing with your difficult emotions will free you to live a life you can not even imagine at present.  As the saying goes, we only have one life, so take a risk and start living the life you know you deserve from today.

 Ask yourself a powerful question:

 What would I do now if I was not afraid?

 Now DO IT!




 We all have to live with uncertainty in our lives at some points and by letting go of items you have held onto you may indeed feel some regret about disposing of an item or two at a later date.  You can let this feeling go and trust in the fact that there will always be an equal or better item available if you need it.  Also we mush contrast the feeling of regret over a couple of items with the negative impact that having a cluttered lifestyle is bringing you.



 As you become more aware of what you allow into and keep in your home, you level of trust in your own decisions will become stronger and stronger.

 People who are able to live without clutter have the following characteristics:

 They can let go of any regret that occurs from disposing of an item.

They trust themselves to make useful choices and understand that they do not have to be right forever, only at any moment in time. 

Decisions we made yesterday will not necessarily be the same as decisions we will make tomorrow, in a week, a month or a year and  that’s okay!



 If you find that some items bring up difficult feelings for you and you feel you are not ready to deal with those at that moment then leave those items until a later time.  Be gentle with yourself, take care of yourself and go at your own pace.



 We all have internal dialogue going on in the background of our minds and often when we make a mistake or do something we are uncomfortable with that nagging voice comes to the forefront.  ‘Why did you throw that away you stupid stupid girl’, ‘You know you’re not really up to this, you can’t cope with it’, ‘It’s all too much for you’, ‘You are too lazy to sort this out properly’.  Take a look at my article on dealing with internal dialogue to stop this aspect of yourself sabotaging your efforts.





One powerful question that all of my clients have found helpful is:

 If nobody was home and your house burned down, how would you feel about the items you have lost?

 Most clients find it difficult to think about the question but when they do, the responses I hear include, I would feel relieved, I would feel freer, I could stop worrying about the clutter.  The overriding response is one of relief rather than fear of loosing items!  All the papers you agonized about sorting out and all the items you kept because they might come in handy one day are gone and you don’t miss them, so what’s stopping you letting go and having a free life now without the trauma of a fire?



 When making a decision about an item ask yourself is this item beautiful or useful?  If not clear it out?



 Simply ask them if you can drop the items off or if they would like to collect the items by next week or if you should donate them to charity for them?  If they decline to take possession of their items donate them.



 Clutterer’s just don’t know how to organize their lives.

 Many clients I have worked with know very well how to organize their possessions and are very clued up on storage stystems.  The fact is that you can be an expert on organizing systems but if you do not have the motivation to change things, and/or do not address the underlying reasons why you clutter in the first place, then you are likely to clutter your home again.

 Clutterr’s are just lazy?

 This is rarely true, I find that my clients are motivated in many other areas in their lives, it is just in this area that they have the problems.


© Article copyright Sasha Phillips, 2008.