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Is your home cluttered with items you struggle to get rid of? According to experts, the clutter we accumulate not only points to our inability to organise our lives, they could in fact be a part of more serious underlying psychological problems. Here’s what you need to know about decluttering to find order amidst chaos.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Thursday, March 1, 2018 - 17:57
6 min 47 sec

Mess and clutter have been familiar sights to professional organiser Carol Posener for the past 25 years. It’s especially common amongst her older clients who’ve had a lifetime to pile up possessions. Posener observes that the main obstacle in decluttering is making decisions when it comes to letting go of things.

“The reason why people have problems making decisions is because they've paid really good money for things, and so, it's a real block to let things go if you've paid good money; also, there might be an emotional attachment to the item even if they don't love the item, it’s really hard to let go of it if your mother’s left it for you. Or if your father’s passed it on to you.”

The very thought of putting the entire house in order could seem like mission impossible, but Carol says all you have to do is start by asking yourself some important questions.

“Is it useful? Does it serve a purpose that you need now? Your status in life, you might not need the item anymore because you’ve gone through that stage or you just don’t need the thing anymore or you’re not using it. So, they end up keeping things because they haven’t made those decisions; also, do you love it? If you don't love it, then you should really let it go. Donate it, recycle it, give it to friends or family who might need it.”

Statistics shows that we only wear 20 per cent of our wardrobe 80 per cent of the time, that means most of our clothes are taking up unnecessary space in the closet.

Take clothes for example, statistics shows that we only wear 20 per cent of our wardrobe 80 per cent of the time, that means most of our clothes are taking up unnecessary space in the closet. Posener says the very act of clearing useless items can lead to better feng shui.  

“Everything has energy so if an item has emotional attachment to you, then it'll be draining your energy even if it’s sitting in a cupboard and it’ll also be taking up space.”

Most people have trouble sorting through their home office.  Clutter often occurs in the work space due to the overflowing of documents. Posener says you don’t actually need a complicated filing system or structure to arrange your office.  

“By setting up a category of paper work that you need for the future, for reference, or scanning items onto your computer, so you can find things when you need them. So, setting up digital files or folders on your computer for items like accountants, banks, energy bills, gas bills, telephone, schools, everything like that that's relevant to your life, and then you’ll have a structure where to put all your paperwork when it comes in, and it’ll be really easy to file and then put it into date order, the most recent at the top and that goes into your file so you've got the most recent statements.”

Kitchen is another problematic area people find hard to sort out.  

“Probably declutter this once a year and by decluttering, I mean take everything out, sort it all out on the kitchen floor. Everything that you’re using. If you’ve gotta source them, if the handle’s broken, get that fixed or simply replace it.”

Whilst many clutterers may see themselves as hoarders, only two to six per cent of the global population are actual hoarders. This compulsive obsession to collect items is an officially recognised mental disorder, according to hoarding expert Professor Michael Kyrios from Flinders University.

“Hoarding is very much associated with a high degree of comorbidity, so coexisting mental health and physical problems. About 60% of people with hoarding problems have major depression, other anxiety disorders, could be panic, it could be post-traumatic stress disorder, any kind of sort of trauma reaction, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder. A lot of these coexist with hoarding as well - anywhere between 20-40% of people with hoarding problems will also have these difficulties.”

In the case of hoarders aged fifty plus, their obsession with collecting things actually contributes to 24 per cent of all preventable fire deaths. Unfortunately, for serious hoarders, fixing the problem isn’t as easy as getting someone to come in and help them clear the clutter.

Professor Kyrios says hoarders face enormous difficulties to sort through things because they see value in everything even if others disagree.

“People with hoarding problems also have some sorting difficulties. They have organisational difficulties. They have some decision-making difficulties. They have some beliefs about the nature of possessions and the utility and usefulness of possessions - a lot of those beliefs are very unhelpful. So, for instance, if I don't keep this and if I have to throw it away, I will just die. Well, people don't die because they’ve thrown something away but people with hoarding problems really feel exactly that way because these things are so meaningful to them.”

Unfortunately, for serious hoarders, fixing the problem isn’t as easy as getting someone to come in and help them clear the clutter.

“A lot of the possessions actually are a bit of a defensive wall against people feeling threatened, people feeling they’re gonna be hurt, people feeling not secure so they build a wall around it, and so, you can’t throw these away because then the person is left with nothing in terms of feeling secure and feeling safe in the world.”

Developing a new kind of relationship with possessions rather than using your belongings as a defence wall can be an effective treatment. It’s also about giving people other outlets for the things that are important to them and the values that they really want to live their lives by.

“Giving people other options like hobbies, getting people better connected to others, because in many instances, people who have hoarding problems have been traumatised by others - they have been bullied as children or as adults. They feel disconnected so just helping people feel more connected to their community and to their friends is another fantastic component of the treatment.”

At the end of the day, whether you are a clutterer or serial hoarder, the expert advice is to get in early to avoid the space becoming so cluttered that it gets difficult to sort through.

“Get in early when you are sorting through things. Make sure you make quick decisions. If you do throw something out that you feel you needed, it’s always replaceable when it comes to throwing things away that have a lot of good memories for you, don't worry about it, the memories are in your mind. You can always imagine those things and bring back the good memories.”