Declutter Your Feelings

A decluttered room

We humans are hardwired to clutch at possessions.

From a laboriously-carved flint arrow to a coffee machine, we spend a lot of effort in accumulating belongings. Advertisers and lifestyle businesses know this. They target us with scientific precision to make us buy things we don’t need. We’re sitting ducks for advertisers because we want our lives to be comfortable and to reflect who we are.

We buy and buy, but our things remain a source of dissatisfaction (just look in the drawers to see how much unused stuff is in them).

My parents used to bellow ‘Tidy up your room!’ at me once a week. This sounded unfair and hypocritical to my young ears and my resentment grew. Why should I tidy my room when the whole house was in chaos? Parents project their poor housekeeping skills onto us.

Children experiencing sad moments comfort themselves with a toy or a blanket. As adults we also comfort ourselves with things – our stuff is a valuable connection to people, memories, money well spent and future aspirations. It’s a reflection of who we are.

So why does it make us feel bad?

We feel overwhelmed by our stuff but we can’t quite get rid of it.

Instead of keeping a photo album of carefully curated photos on the shelf, to admire and to hand down to future generations, we keep them in boxes in the attic, basement or under the stairs. We feel overwhelmed by the thought of sorting photos so we leave them indefinitely. The feelings around these photos might be nagging, overwhelm, guilt, regret, procrastination.

Our stuffed wardrobes and drawers hide clothes we haven’t worn for years. Loads more are in boxes or suitcases on top of the wardrobe/in the spare room. Our thoughts on clothes might be that they’re expensive/useful in the future/unique/vintage. But they also make us feel we’ve lost our youth, are out of shape, bereft of a previous life, financially irresponsible, delusional, dissatisfied, overwhelmed, bored, tired, depressed. And we can never find anything to wear.

If we hang on to this excess stuff for the rest of our lives we will feel dissatisfied, embarrassed, guilty, stuck, tired, depressed, panicked, overwhelmed, procrastinated, argumentative, defensive, angry, heavy, frustrated or sad EVERY DAY.

Imagine a room in a high-end hotel or a photo in an interiors magazine. Whatever your preferred style – rustic or glamourous – the rooms are clutter-free and calming. Sure, the photos were taken with special lighting and photoshopped, but the point is there is no clutter.

The feelings in a clutter-free room are freedom, being looked after, cleanliness, space and contentment.

We can look after ourselves by caring more about how our home makes us feel. We can start letting go of excess stuff; relinquish guilt and shame and feel something new – freedom and contentment.

We can embrace our home and feel good, rather than dreading it.


Blame the Parents

Is your parents’ home also your free storage deposit?

We love to fix, however few of us like to be fixed. To be fixed implies something’s wrong with us in the first place. It can feel like we’re being judged or blamed. Like a friend who raises an eyebrow to our cooking, dress choices, parenting or choice of partner, we pretend to ignore them and seethe. When our parents eventually need our help in their old age, we may see ourselves as the fixers, without giving thought to whether or not they want to be fixed. Backtrack for a minute and think about your relationship with your parents. Yes you (mostly) love them deeply but you also have other feelings (unworthiness, fear, frustration, hate, guilt, regret and so on). It all sounds a bit negative but these are natural human responses to the complexity of familial relationships, as well as love, devotion and admiration. All these emotions can cloud the helpful decluttering and tidying you plan to do for them. When your parents become less mobile it seems sensible to help them get their house in order (getting rid of clutter, deep clean, sort the fridge, unworn clothes and unread papers). This fix seems sensible and it is, but your parents may not want to be fixed! What to do? Lead by example (parents have an antenna-like capacity to sense hypocrisy). Make sure you first get rid of all your stuff you’ve kept in your parents’ home for years because they provided free storage for you. Once ALL your stuff has gone from their home, hopefully you’ll have had time to spot another category of superfluous stuff in your parents’ home (eg: old newspapers or catalogues) and can gently start a conversation about how to recycle them. And carry on until other categories are decluttered.

ElWell is an organisation that helps older people live the life they want. They write in more detail about the link between decluttering and older parents.


Sparking joy

Sparking joy (invented by Marie Kondo) is a subjective term used to describe the process of decluttering.

When I was 10, my dad threw my brand new ice skating dress in the bin without telling me. The dress was a Christmas present from my grandad. I loved that dress. It was made of pure nylon – a mid-mustard colour, with long sleeves, a fru fru skirt and white rabbit fur edging.

I never had a chance to wear the dress, such was my dad’s keeness to eliminate it. While it sparked joy in me, my dad had other ideas. Things that sparked his joy included making things out of wood and wearing paint-splattered courdroy trousers. What didn’t spark his joy was evil nylon, made from the unsustainable plastics manufacturing industry.

I recently read an article about a boy who was asked to tidy and declutter his room. Afterwards his mum discovered his school uniform in the bin, because he said ‘It didn’t spark joy’.

I’m old enough now to spark my own joy, although I reckon only 5% of my stuff sparks joy. It’s a very low percentage, which I blame on my dad who frowned apon all things ‘frivolous’ (fun, joyful, pretty, decorative). If I got rid of the remaining 95% that is joyless I’d have an empty house.

But I recall the joy and sparks of my nylon ice skating dress and I think that I will try to rekindle this joyful feeling when purchasing any future items (while practicing conscious consumerism, of course)…


A decluttering experiment

I’m conducting an experiment to see whether an uncluttered home is easier to keep clean and tidy.

My decluttering journey started because I was desperate to pursue my passions and creativity rather than tidying up and cleaning. I’m not interested in having a show home or become a perfect home maker, but using time wisely and reducing stress is important to me.

Why clean up for guests?

All my life I have only ever known the ‘frenzied tidying up for three hours’ method of preparing for guests, which mainly involved moving stuff from A to B and stuffing things in cupboards. My friends are not judgy or obsessed with cleaning, but when they come to my home I want to respect them by hosting in a clean tidy house. Three reasons I clean up for guests:

1 respect  

2 hygiene  

3 minimise stress

An uncluttered house is supposed to be easy to clean. When friends came to dinner last night I made a note of everything I felt I needed to do before they arrived (bear in mind my house is fairly uncluttered). I was suprised by the brevity of tasks:

1 quickly clean loos (I like them to be sparkling white)
2 empty and wash kitchen bins (built-in bins for recycling, compost, landfill)

That was it. No hoovering, picking up magazines, books, jackets, shoes, No puffing up cushions, hiding laundry, hurriedly washing up or clearing paperwork away. Everything was in its place and I had hoovered the day before (easy when there’s nothing to move off the floor).

Sisyphean housework or a delcuttered home?

My experiment shows that a decluttered home reduces the need to tidy up and clean. Further tweaks I will make include checking the sparkliness of the loos everyday and emptying the kitchen bins before they’re full. It’ll take 10 minutes. These will be two fewer things to do before guests arrive. My ultimate aim is to not have to do ANYTHING before guests arrive!

I’m looking for liberation from housework (but I’m not one of those people who can live in a dirty messy house though), so I’m clearing the excess stuff which reduces cleaning time.

My thoughts expand to thinking about decluttering and freeing women from the drudgery of housework. In The Second Sex (1949) Simone de Beauvoir writes “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition, the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”


Your home is not a landfill site

The Arctic is melting and plastic sinks deep into the seas. This compels me to think of the environment when clearing space in my home.

I care about the environment (I worked in environmental sustainability – including waste reduction – for large organisations for 11 years).

Knowing where waste ends up and the damage it does, made me feel guilty about sending my decluttered stuff to landfill. Consequently, my excess stuff lived in the recesses of my garage, attic and cupboards.

Then I realised if I postpone getting rid of my junk, it’s destined for landfill eventually (when I leave the country, downsize or die). So now is the best time to send my stuff to landfill so I can enjoy a spacious home NOW.

Of course I still reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible, but everything else goes to landfill, not my home.