Is Clutter Ever Okay?
Yes! Like a pain in your knee, clutter points to a particular area that is calling for attention in your home or workspace. Our homes and workspaces are outer representations of what’s going on inside of us—how we really feel and think. Do you feel frustrated, depressed, overwhelmed, fearful, anti-social, cope through avoidance? Clutter can assist us in pinpointing and understanding the reasons for such negative feelings, and show us how to feel better.
The great value of clutter – just like pain – is that it tells us where we have a problem. The pain in the knee can be caused by any number of things. Understanding what the pain is linked to enables you to address the root cause. If you only treat the pain and not the cause, you can end up with repeated bouts of pain and a much more serious problem. The same is true of clutter.
When the word ‘clutter’ appears, the next thought “I have to get rid of my clutter.” This article invites you to pause before rushing to clear out your clutter, or hoping the impulse to do so passes quickly, and see the value of clutter as a psychological tool of self-understanding. If approached this way, clutter becomes a kindly messenger from your psyche which is trying to let you know what’s going on inside of you and what needs attention. Addressing whatever comes up in this exploration will make you feel much better for much longer, than the quick high one gets from cleaning up one’s clutter. You won’t learn how to clear your clutter, but rather how to clear your psychology using your clutter. Enjoy!
Clutter throughout your space can be a symptom of your lack of time to organize things. Seeing things scattered everywhere is like hearing a dozen people at once: you can’t focus on what any one of them is saying, you hear only noise. Each one of the things is calling for your attention, but there are so many things calling you can end feeling overwhelmed and anxious, not knowing how or when you’ll be able to attend to them.
From a psychological point of view, we do everything for a reason, even if it ends up hurting us or making our lives more difficult. We are not always conscious of what we are doing or why. The clutter which points to a lack of time, prompts the question: What is the value to you of not having enough time? Most people will say there is no value, they want more time. Okay. But the fact that you don’t have enough time may provide you with a good excuse to avoid activities or people you don’t know how to avoid otherwise. Since having no time is valued in our society, having none can be an ego booster. Having no time can be good cover for not completing things, or not reflecting on our lives.
Clutter in the in overhead cabinets, or on top of tall bookcases says you feel that you sense something hanging over your head all the time. Your space is communicating your low level feeling of dread.
One client avoided using an office space where she had things hanging over head on the tops of a row of six foot bookcases. She would only use the space when she was there with one of her clients. Even when she is there with another person, on a subtle level she will felt uncomfortable because her environment is cueing her that something could happen at any time.
Why would someone want to have something hanging over their head all the time, you ask. It can inhibit them from experimenting, taking risks, trying something new, or breaking the rules. On the other hand, the threat of something hanging over one can propel a person to do the right thing. For example, the threat of an audit hanging over their heads motivates many people to pay their taxes.
Low Level Clutter
When the clutter is on the floor, looking at it pulls your eye down and you along with it. Clutter of this type is a “downer” signaling that the person is down, or is moving in that direction psychologically. Often we need to step over the clutter we have on the floor or work around it.
There are times when we can’t allow ourselves to slow down. Using the space to slow us down is an ingenious solution. Having to work around a mess may make us feel resourceful or clever. Equally, it can tell us that we self-handicap, making our lives harder than they have to be. This often stems from not being supported in our young years, leading us to believe that life is difficult, a belief we than repeatedly recreate but putting impediments in our environment.
Stored clutter, that “stuff” that fills the basement, the backs and bottoms of closets, and off-site storage units should not be confused with storage per se. Items which are stored but utilized seasonally, situationally like skiis, holiday dishes, extra chairs, or emotionally, like you child’s baby shoes, and other personal memorabilia are not stored clutter.
Stored items that are kept but have no use or intended purpose beyond “just in case” or “you never know” are clutter. From a psychological point of view, these phrases are expressions of fear; fear that you won’t have what you’ll need in the future, fear about what is going to occur in the future. Keeping things for this reason, reinforces one’s sense of fearfulness.
An effective way to claim territory in a shared environment like a home or workplace is to “mark it” with your things – be they clothes, papers, food, personal items. I had a client who had a tidy well-decorated 5,000 sq ft home – antiques, beautiful window treatments, etc. She was devoted to her family and her community; always available to help others.
Unlike the rest of the house, her room had piles of packages, and books everywhere but on the bed. Family members avoided the room. Visitors were not allowed to see it.
Her room did for her what she could not: it said “no” – “do not enter, leave me alone.” She found it difficult to say no to the many requests made of her. By creating a room that was off limits, she was attempting to find a way to protect herself from the onslaught of demands by others. Her off limits bedroom may work with her family and visitors, but her inability to say no remains the issue and will continue to be a problem in the outside world, where her room can not speak for her.
Co-habiting couples can use clutter to send hostile messages to one another. There is the example of the husband who piles his night table with books making it look like a library book return counter ignoring requests from his wife that he keep only a couple of books there. Or the woman who leaves her legal briefs all over the dining room table, which one sees upon entering the home, and driving her partner crazy.
Repeated cluttering, contrary to the expressed wishes of the person one lives with, sends a clear non-verbal message of hostility.
When looking for clues about your inner life, look for the break in the pattern. If your home is generally orderly but your desk is a mess, there is a break in the pattern of orderliness. The break or distinctly different space points to a problem that is particular to the activities or feelings connected to that space.
A cluttered bedroom can speak to a problematic love life or sleep difficulties. For greater insight, notice what kinds of clutter there is and where it is in the room under consideration. Collections of work related items in the bedroom indicate an inability to separate from one’s work. Too many family photos in the bedroom can inhibit one’s love life.
Stairways and hallways littered with clutter suggest challenges dealing with the ups and downs in life, as well as life passages.
Take pictures of your space and your clutter. Then look at the pictures, not the space. Ask yourself "What is my clutter trying to tell me?"