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I just reviewed a wonderful book on my self help blog, Clutter Busting Your Life: Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others by Brooks Palmer. Hoarding, as the problem has become known as, is a very real problem for many people. It’s one of those things that easily gets out of hand and, quite frankly, sucks the breath and happiness out of the individual’s life. It also affects other family members. Left untreated, families could, sadly, drift apart.
Clutter Busting Your Life: Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others is Brooks Palmer’s second book on overcoming clutter. The first, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back has helped countless people find their way back. Below are questions and answers with Brooks Palmer.
What is clutter?
Clutter is anything in our life that is no longer serving us.
Why do we have so much clutter?
We have lots of clutter because it’s hard for us to let go. We are encouraged to acquire. But not to let go. There is a lot of importance placed on stuff. We define ourselves and others by the things we surround ourselves with. Things will never make us happy. When we recognize that in our lives clutter loses a hold on us.
How do I know is something is clutter?
You know something is clutter when you ask, “Do I need or like this or can I let it go?” When something is part of your life it’s easy to say, “Yes, I like this.” If we hesitate, or are uncertain, or say, “I don’t know, I might need it one day” then we know it is clutter. Think of something that is really important to you now. That feeling that you get when you think about it is the feeling of something being a part of your life. The opposite feeling is clutter.
How do I get rid of my clutter?
You go through your things one item at a time. You hold the item and you ask, “Do I like this, or can I let it go?” The first feeling that comes to you is the honest one. The more you do this the easier it becomes. When you look at a big pile of stuff it’s overwhelming. Going through one item at a time is easier and doable.
What are some tips on letting go of clutter?
The going through one item at a time technique works well. Make sure to remove the clutter when you are done clutter busting. Toss the stuff that is unusable in the outside trash cans. Recycle the recyclables. Bring the usable stuff to a charity organization. Drink plenty of water while you clutter bust. Avoid phone calls. Turn off the TV. It’s okay to listen to music that you like. You may feel resistance to starting. However once you start it becomes easy. There is a supportive momentum in starting the process. Once you get started it feels really good. Know that the clutter in your home or office keeps new things from coming into your life. There are things waiting in line to come into your life. Give them the space to come in.
How do you keep the clutter from coming back?
As you do the letting go process you find that it feels good to toss the clutter. You enjoy having that feeling. You like the feeling of space in your environment. When you start to notice some clutter appearing in your living space you notice that it doesn’t feel good. You toss it. It’s also good to take the time every month to go through your things and
ask what is important and what’s not.
What was the worst clutter situation that you ever saw?
I worked with a client who lived in a three-story condo and every space was filled with clutter. There were very slim pathways that he created to be able to move around his home, but even those had obstructions. There were bungee chords holding back the clutter so it wouldn’t cave in on him. The clutter was over seven feet high. He was extremely depressed. I waded into the clutter with a trash bag and took one item at a time and asked him, “Do you need this or can we let it go?” I find it very effective to help people make definite decisions. Their discriminating faculties are sometimes dormant. This wakes them up. I spent a few months there and in the end we cleared the entire place of clutter. He went from feeling miserable and suicidal to hopeful and happy.
Why do people have such a hard time letting go of their clutter?
There’s emotional attachment to clutter. We associate a lot of feelings to our stuff. We have lots of memories with each item. Part of us feels that if we let go of that thing, we let go of a part of ourselves. It’s as if the item has us hypnotized. Sometimes my clients will tell them they tried clutter busting on their own and would look at one item and a half hour would go by. Recognizing the hold things have on us helps us in the letting go process. It makes us more vigilant.
Also, we are taught that things will make us happy. We are raised with advertising that tells us that we are unhappy and that if we buy this thing we will be fulfilled. A part of us believes that things have an inherent quality of joy. All you have to do is look at how you are affected when you purchase something. You notice there is a euphoric feeling when you buy it. It’s tangible. But then you notice the feeling wears off. We want that feeling back. So we often buy and acquire another thing. We don’t stop and realize that it’s not working.
What do you do when you work with couples – one wants to get rid of something, and the other doesn’t?
I talk with both of them. I help them look at it together. Sometimes one of the partners wants to control what the other does. This creates separation. Couples often have a lot of unconscious reaction patterns that occur in their interactions. These reactions are clutter to the relationship. By exposing it in a non-judgmental way and bringing clarity to their interactions, a flow is created between the partners. It helps when couples are working together to recognize when they feel tense and reactive. Often times the wanting to keep something and the wanting to get rid of something battles occur because of clutter in the mechanics of the relationship. Slowing things down and talking honestly has helped a lot of couples clutter bust together. No thing is that important enough to distort and spoil the relationship. The couple sees that the partnership is just as much of a thing as the item they are making a decision about. I point that out to them by asking them, “Is this relationship important to you, or do you want to let it go?” Sometimes we forget what is important to us and it’s great to remember.
The guilt! The emotions! The invisible strings! How does one deal with inheritances that are clutter?
You start by taking a curious look at what’s going on inside of yourself. There’s sorrow that you lost someone you cared about. You’re overwhelmed with all this stuff that you’ve acquired. … And there’s an added element that we don’t want to admit – we’re angry that our loved one left us with all their stuff. It’s an awkward situation because we’ve lost someone we love, and we associate them in their stuff, and we feel like if we let their stuff go, we let go of them. So we hang on to a bunch of stuff, most of which we don’t like and would never go out and buy, and a part of us resents being placed in that situation. I think we don’t want to see the resentment, so we end up staying stuck in our emotional pain.
Once we kindly and honestly see what’s really going on, we have the opportunity to begin to heal. We begin to go through the inheritance piece by piece and ask, “Do I like this, is this part of my life, or can I let it go?” If we feel the guilt come in, we remind ourselves that this thing is not our loved one who has passed away. If we want to honor them, we can do so by taking care of ourselves. That’s what the people who love us most would want us to do.
We begin to see that rather than hang on to the things to remind us of the person, it’s more powerful to let go of the things that we don’t care for because this allows the person to come to life in our hearts instead. They become a living and loving presence. It’s a much more emotionally satisfying feeling.
Why do emotional tornadoes crop up when clutter busting? What are they and how can one get through?
Emotional tornadoes are powerful feelings that come up out of nowhere during a clutter bust. We are in the midst of letting go, when suddenly, we feel a barrage of intense emotions that are not associated with what’s happening in the moment.
We sometimes acquire things in our lives to distract us from overwhelming feelings. When we let go of this clutter, those feelings can rise to the surface of our awareness again. They can be uncomfortable because we didn’t see them coming. It helps to know that this is what’s happening. We can patiently be with the feelings because we know their source. It also helps to know that they will pass.
Sometimes the emotional tornadoes can come up when we are clutter busting with someone we live with. The other person may become the target of our intense emotions. They may react defensively and it can turn into an argument. It helps to know this possibility ahead of time, so you can catch yourself in the midst of the storm and stop your argument, take a breather, and talk about what just happened.
Our kids get so much stuff from well meaning friends and family. What’s the best way to help a child sort through their things?
It helps to be super easy going when working with kids. They can sense if we are trying to control them. Rather than tell them they have to clutter bust, it works well to say something like, “I wanted to see if you’d like to go through your things and see if there’s anything you don’t play with anymore. We can donate what you don’t like3 to kids that don’t have toys to play with.”
If the kids don’t want to do clutter bust, don’t push them. You can ask them again later. Or, you can ask them to help you clutter bust. They can ask you questions about your things. Perhaps in your openness, you can be an encouraging role model for them. Plus it helps to have a kid’s eye when letting go. They often see things in a simpler way.
You talk about clutter busting “your past self.” Please explain.
By past self, I mean our old needs. The things that once served us, at some point no longer fit our current needs. By living with the things from our past, we muddy up our living space. A part of us is tethered to what no longer suits us, and it gets in the way of us enjoying what we love now.
Sometimes we get attached to the happy memories we associate with this thing. We feel if we let this thing go, we’ll lose some happiness. But these feelings can’t be captured and contained. They were alive for us in the experience, which is now over. But letting this thing go, we leave ourselves open to new and fresh joyful experiences. A powerful happy moment is more potent than a remembered moment.
You talk about the clutter of false armor. What do you mean? Please explain.
False armor is the things (stuff, people, activities) we gather around ourselves that give us an illusion of security. Out of fear of being hurt physically and emotionally, we believe that these things will protect us. “If I get enough money, if I find the right partner, if I get this job or this house, if I’m ____ then I’ll be okay.” The problem is, we can never get enough to feel secure.
At the same time, this false armor ends up insulating us from ourselves and the rest of the world. We desensitize ourselves. We lose out on the greatest possible feeling, which is our connection with ourselves and others. Our sensitivity is our greatest asset.
Being sensitive is often equated with being weak. “If I’m open to feeling too much, I can get hurt.” I like to use the word sensitivity more positively. Being sensitive means being aware of ourselves in our environment. We know what we feel. We sense when something feels good, and when know when something hurts. When we remove the clutter from our life, we are open and receptive. We respond in a way that nourishes and protects us.
Divorces, failed relationships of both the friend and romantic variety. Sigh. How do you even begin to clutter bust one of these situations?
Our main job in life is to take care of ourselves. We sometimes forget we have the power to say no to things. We don’t help another person by staying in a situation that hurts us. It’s not healthy for them either.
When a relationship no longer serves us, when a person’s presence in our life hurts us, we take care of ourselves by letting this person go from our lives. It may hurt to let them go, but the pain is the feeling of our hearts healing. We are repairing ourselves.
We may be scared at their reaction, or we may fear being alone, but if we just stay stuck in these thoughts and the relationship, we suffer. There’s power and support in taking action.
What are the three steps to take when a current relationship becomes clutter?
• Speak with the other person about your feelings. Let them know how you’re affected by the relationship. You’re letting them know how you are physically and emotionally uncomfortable.
• Listen to their response. See if what you said has a positive effect on the relationship or if things continue as they have been.
• If things don’t change in a way that supports and nourishes you, then tell the person that you are letting go of the relationship.
Read my Clutter Busting Your Life Review on Self Help Daily.
Make each moment count double,