You’ve read it over and over: clutter brings anxiety. But what about when decluttering causes fear, panic, and anger? Or guilt and shame? Here’s what I’ve learned.
Decluttering paralysis (not an official psychological term) often occurs at the beginning of projects and when you hit a mental roadblock during the process. It leaves you stymied, unable to make the decision about any object. You might shuffle items around (sometimes referred to as churning), but no progress is made.
I find it helpful to stop at these points and examine my thoughts for a bit. Let’s face it, I wanted to stop anyway, but without the intention of returning to the task. However, this is just a break so I can better care for myself.
I think about what I could possibly be feeling. It’s tough to identify emotions sometimes, so I try to recall the thoughts preceding the paralysis. Am I thinking “I’ve gotten rid of so much stuff already?” How about “What if I need this in the future?” Or my favorite lately, “I spent so much money on this, I should keep it so I don’t waste the money.”
Denial, fear, and guilt.
All of those feelings, while worth acknowledging, are not all rational. They aren’t entirely fact-based. Emotions rarely are.
Recovering from Decluttering Paralysis
Here’s what I do:
- Acknowledge the thought
- Identify the corresponding feeling(s)
- Tell myself a counterpoint or two
- Let the thought go. Just know it’s there, don’t judge it any further, and allow it to drift from my mind. Stop focusing on it.
- Return to the project. If I can’t right then, I make an appointment later in the day or very near future to get started again. I do something uplifting in the meantime.
A Sampler of Thoughts and Emotions & Rebuttals
Let’s start with the thoughts I mentioned before. While not comprehensive, these are popular irrational thoughts I have.
“I’ve decluttered so much already (so I’ll just keep this)” – This is denial. Yes, You’ve purged a lot already, but you don’t need to keep this horrible pen/tupperware/stuffed animal so that you have something just to have it. Think about the item and its merits, not the things already decluttered.
- “What if I need this in the future?” A common fear-based thought. Allow yourself to ponder this: What if you did discard it? Can you replace it? Make do with something else? How likely is it that you will need it? Pretty sure you don’t need six strings of half burnt out Christmas lights to celebrate the season (technically, you don’t even need one to celebrate a holiday). You don’t need that high school book report from decades past. So give yourself permission to live dangerously and purge if it is not useful.
- “I spent so much money on this, I should keep it so I don’t waste the money.” This is denial and guilt. You’re denying that you don’t actually need it, and trying to avoid the guilt of not being frugal. But you already feel the guilt you’re desperately trying to ignore. Keeping whatever it is is a visual reminder of the mistake. Don’t compound the bad feelings by hanging onto it. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but you’ve already learned it. Be nice to yourself and let the physical part go.
- “I can’t believe I’m so out of control with my acquiring. I’m such a dummy/slob/mistake.” Calling yourself names out of anger is not helpful. It saps the hope out of you by pigeonholing yourself as inferior. You’ll probably get negative thoughts about yourself as you declutter. Acknowledge them, tell yourself something positive like “I’m confronting my problems now. I’m in charge.” and then move on. The negative idea will probably still pop up. Just observe that it did, and let it go from your mind. Sometimes saying “Huh. I thought that again,” will shoo it away.
“The donation collectors/used bookstore/neighbors will think I’m nuts if they see all this stuff.” Crazy thought of shame I’ve actually had. First of all, you’re not decluttering for them. It’s for yourself. Second, odds are, they won’t even notice the amount you’re clearing out, especially if you’re going slow and steady. People are generally preoccupied with themselves. If they aren’t, they’re usually caring, empathetic and want the best for people. Third, who cares what they think? You are the most important person in your life, and your sanity/happiness matters more than impressing them.
- “I can’t decide about this, and this, and this, or this.” If you’re working a small area and considering things on an item by item basis, you might be overwhelmed and feeling the effects of decision fatigue. It happens when you’ve made too many decisions recently. Take a break. Relax. Make an appointment with yourself to resume decluttering when you’re feeling recharged.
- “No one will notice if I keep all this stuff. What’s the point?” Well, there’s a dash of denial in this, and discounting your dreams and desires with the question, too. People might notice that you’ve kept items when you mentioned you were decluttering. But more importantly, you’ll notice. You’re someone, and your goals and reasons for decluttering are important to you. As mentioned in #5, you’re the most important person in your life (like it or not), and your happiness is valuable.
What are some thoughts you’ve had while decluttering? Comment below – I’d love to hear from you. Odds are I’ve said the exact same thing to myself before.