the psychology of clutter


The seemingly mundane domestic scenario of clutter can reveal a surprising amount about a person’s inner world.

Have you ever walked past your crammed closet and thought, "I'll clean it. Later."  Or rummaged through packed drawers feeling frustrated unable to find what you’re searching for.  Or lost your keys in piles of stuff and perplex how this keeps happening.   When it comes to de-cluttering, we think that we should just know how to do it.  But after repeated attempts to tidy up or get organised, the piles of stuff come back.

So why is it so hard to get control over clutter?  

Because clutter isn’t just about "stuff" and the visible external world.

To remove clutter and make lasting changes, we must examine the psychological inner workings that influence this behavior.

Firstly, our ability to organise begins early in childhood through the modelling and messages we receive from parents. If you grew up in a cluttered home, then you probably weren’t taught the skills to maintain order.  

Another factor contributing to clutter is indecisiveness. Answering a simple question about “what to do” with stuff can seem overwhelming to some.  Decisions about how to organise requires a high level of cognitive processing that can be incredibly complicated for the clutter prone.  These decisions often go beyond a cognitive process and include a deeply emotional one.

Nostalgia can make clearing out a space seem impossible. Holding onto special things is acceptable when it is a sentimental reminder of an important person or memory but this can be a mistake if taken to the extreme. Clutter can be a distractor for tackling deeper issues like loss and grief and holding onto ‘stuff’ can be a buffer from emotional pain.

Clutter also creates emotional distress.  When exposed to clutter, our ability to think clearly amidst the stuff is diminished.   When confronted with piles and junk drawers we are haunted by feelings of guilt about our disorganisation.  

Disorganisation causes stress and is an inefficient way to live as it wastes time, money and energy.

For those who experience difficulties with clutter and disorganisation, there is hope.  The clearing of clutter and the concept of organisation have become mainstream and there are services and self-help books filled with tools to help create clean spaces.  The essential skills to eliminate, categorise and organise, can be learned.  But learning to organise is just one piece of the puzzle. In order to fix the outside space, we often must turn inward and this is where a clinical psychologist comes in.  

A clinical psychologist can help to identify when, where and how a clutter tendency began. Therapy will also consider the here-and-now, discovering the reasons and hidden payoffs of keeping ‘stuff’.  Finally, working with a psychologist can help to shift thinking to a more healthy view of our belongings and how to organise stuff and life generally.  In essence, we must clear our head before we clean out our home for true, lasting change and to live our #BestLife.

article by Lydia Rigano

this article appeared in DUOMagazine May 2017