The 1 Reason We All Have Clutter + How to Painlessly Let It Go

What is clutter?  
Why do we all seem to have it?
And once we know it's there, how can we feel good letting it go?

As silly (yet unsurprising) as it may be, these are the questions that keep me up at night.  They're the questions that keep me elbow deep in books on procrastination, positive psychology, decision making, and vulnerability.

These questions are also the main motivation behind Kyle and I and the work we do.  

We don't want to go into the home of a client for one day and force someone to get rid of clutter.  Sure, their house will look lovely for a day or a week.  But that underlying sense of anxiety will never be cured and the clutter will simply grow back with a vengeance.  

What we want is to change the way people relate to their things and help them prevent clutter from ever creeping back in.  And a huge part of that was learning how to help our clients shift their own mindset, to help them feel joyful and free once we pulled away with a carload of things they don't need or love. 

But before we could do that, we needed to know the answers to those big questions.  

Below are the keys to the clutter-free castle.  Everything we've learned about what clutter is, why it shows up, and how we can let it go for good. 

Me (top left corner:) helping a lovely client let her clutter go.

1. What is Clutter?

My favorite definition of clutter comes from Oprah's simplification guru Peter Walsh who says, "Clutter is anything that stands between you and the vision you have for your best life."   

I like to think of clutter as being anything that does not make me feel the way I desire to.  For example, if I want to feel vibrant, a drab and pilly black sweater is clutter.  If I want to feel natural, an overly scented candle or cleaners that make me cough are clutter.  If I want to feel powerful, clothing from a past job that I hated and got let go from are clutter.  If I want to feel cherished, a necklace from an ex who did me wrong is... clutter.

In either of these definitions, clutter is not universally defined.  There is no certain amount of anything that is clutter or isn't, it's personal.

2. Why do we all have clutter?

From all my research and nerding out on clutter I've arrived at this for my answer: we have clutter because we are trying to protect ourselves.  

There is a part of our brain that developed millennia ago whose sole job was to recognize threats and keep us safe (referred to by psychologists as "the lizard brain"). 

  • Spot a tiger?  Run for the hills.  
  • See a bush of fresh berries?  Stuff your face to store energy in case a drought is ahead.  

This lizard brain was super useful back in the caveman and cavelady days.  However in modern times where we spend most of our time in temperature controlled rooms and have thousands of products at our disposal every minute it's a huge detriment.  

  • See clothing on sale?  Buy a ton in case you're broke later.
  • Have extra hammers/batteries/cell phone cords?  Hold onto that shit in case it all runs out someday.
  • Have a bunch of shoes that don't fit and make your heel bleed?  Put them in the basement for some indeterminate time in the future when you "need" them.
To have clutter is to be human.
Which is what makes decluttering a deeply spiritual act.

3. And once we know what Clutter is, how can we feel good letting it go?

To have clutter is simply to be human (see lizard brain above), so let go of any guilt or shame you might feel. 

For many of us, we were taught growing up to nurture that lizard brain.  We're told that this is a dog-eat-dog world.  That the more someone else has, the less you have.  That no one is looking out for you but yourself and you must do everything you can to protect yourself.  And if the world is a place of lack and scarcity, whatever you have you need to keep because you will not get it back, sister.

Which is what makes decluttering is a deeply spiritual act.

In order to feel good about letting go, you must have in place the belief that in the future you will be able to obtain anything you might need.  This does not mean that you need to be an enlightened Buddha before you can experience the joy of release.  

ACTION: Start off small and DONATE.  

For those of us who find the "abundance mindset" tough to fully embrace, it's good to ease into it.  Try giving a pair of scissors and some markers that your child no longer uses to a local school.  Imagine how happy those items are in some student's hand (versus sitting unused and clogging up your kitchen drawers).  

Try out little bits of letting go, feeling the items you release enriching the world around you.  Imagine yourself as the person receiving what they need, no strings attached.  Imagine how loving and abundant the world must seem to someone who is getting what they need exactly when they need it.  Now imagine that person receiving is you...  Yummy, isn't it?

Do you agree that an "abundance mindset" is important for decluttering?  
Do you have any tricks that work well for you when you are letting go?
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