Break Through the Emotional Blocks to Decluttering

If you’re the optimistic type who thinks it’ll be easy to downsize and declutter I’m here to warn you… it won’t be.
Decluttering is like an Iceberg. It’s the iceberg that’s never heard of global warming, it’s the type of iceberg that took down the Titanic. So buckle up and take a deep breath because it’s a huge job and it all begins with a serious declutter.

Today let’s deal with the biggest problem in this process; yes, decluttering is all about those scary things… emotions.

When I tell people I’m doing the BIG DECLUTTER their response is nearly always the same:

First they say ‘Oh wow I really need to declutter but there’s just so much stuff!’ But the next thing is how hard it is to deal with the emotions involved and finally make the decision to let the stuff go. That’s what this ‘stuff’ problem is all about.

As if the physical side of sorting through it all room by room, cupboard by cupboard and shelf by shelf isn’t bad enough, the real issue is making a decision about the fate of every item. That’s when the emotions get involved and so many of us just pack it all up and postpone it for another day. Again.

Recently there’s been lot made of the Konmari method where the decisions are made by asking the question ‘does it bring me joy’. While the simplicity of the process is attractive I’ve talked to friends who have done this but ended up with the a ton of joy producing, and now beautifully folded, clutter.

The real issue facing us downsizers is more about how to let go of the stuff even when it still brings us joy on some level.

There are 6 main fears that keep us stuck in the decluttering loop.

To beat these I’ve developed a process for finding a  way forward.


Time to Bust the 6 Emotional Blocks for Become a Star Clutter Buster.
1. Fear of What You Might Find.

Maybe you always thought there was a special painting or book or even a pile of cash in those boxes. You were quite happy with that belief as long as you didn’t actually look for it. That’s the emotion thing, that until you sort through all those items you don’t have to deal with was is actually there.  The declutter my expose a nasty reality that the things you ‘valued’ have been lost, broken or destroyed by mold and neglect.

SOLUTION:- There is nothing for this but to remind yourself that you’ve lived without these things for 5 or 10 years so they really can’t be that important to your happiness on a day to day basis. 

2. Fear of Embracing the Bitter Sweet Memories.

  These are the ones associated with your children’s things or perhaps the lingering possessions that you emptied out of your parent’s home. It’s this category that takes us down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. It’s all about the time when the kids were small and parents were alive. The great reminders of family holidays, baby days and birthdays are also reminders that this time has passed.  There’s also the fear that if you let something go you’ll lose the memory associated with it. The tickets to that great concert, the white stone he picked up from the beach on your first date, and while each special sentimental item may be small before you know it there are boxes and boxes of those small special things.

SOLUTION:- Build a journal of annotated pictures to remind you of the delights of a special day or place. The days you spent helping out on a school project or the fun of that first date. A small photo printer is your best friend for this. Simply take a picture of the item, print it, put it in your book, write a quick note and let the physical item go. But be careful…This is NOT scrapbooking. It’s not about being perfect or super creative. You’re building a quick and simple ‘do it now’ record to make you smile later. Here’s how I’m doing it:

A picture snapped on your phone…
plus a small blank book…
and a tiny printer…
and you can create a quick ‘memory store’ from all those boxes of ‘stuff’
3. Fear of Facing the Painful Memories

This is the other side of the nostalgia sword. It’s hard to look through photos of your happy family days before a divorce. Perhaps you’ll stumble at photos of the last family Christmas before you relocated to another country. Even mementos and photos of special places can become roadblocks. For me memories of my hometown of Christchurch in New Zealand are tough ones. In 2010 and 2011 a series of  devastating earthquakes destroyed lives and so much of the familiar city landscape that was the backdrop of my childhood. 

SOLUTION:- This is where I apply  a 2 second rule; if it makes me feel happy, even in a nostalgic way, I keep it (or record it as above), but if it gives me twinges of anxiety and sadness it’s in the bin and I move on. No second guessing. It takes practice and you’ll need to be kind to yourself but it helps to name the sadness out loud and allow yourself the associated grief as you go. 

4. Fear of Overwhelm.

This is that throat clutching moment when suddenly see how much you need to declutter. We all know clutter breeds in dark corners so if you’ve left it for years or even decades the sheer quantity can be mountainous. Maybe it hasn’t yet grown to the point where you have designated runways through your clutter canyons (we’ve all seen those terrifying hoarder TV shows) but a full cupboard holds a terrifying amount of ‘stuff’ when you take it out to sort it. That’s the top shelves of my pantry emptied onto the counter and no matter how often I do it I still get surprised how much stuff fits hided in such a small space.

How does so much stuff come out of the top shelves of one small pantry?

SOLUTION:-  Much as we all have days when we’d love to pack a suitcase and walk away someone actually has to deal with this stuff. In the end it’s the overwhelm of affluence and we really shouldn’t complain about such a first world problem. So, apply the ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ principle… one bite at a time. It took time to accumulate and it’s not going to be fixed in a day.

 [In my next blog I’ll take you step by step through the practical steps but the first one is to just acknowledge that it’s hard but you’ll do it anyway.]

5. Fear of Future Regret. 

This is the ‘but what if I need it/finish it/want to read it someday’ monster. It sounds reasonable and in a different time when families owned much less it may have been a good idea. We however do not live in a time of scarcity.  We simply can’t store, insure, and maintain the avalanche of potentially useful things we own in the faint hope that one day we’ll will need it or want it. There aren’t enough years to read all the books, compete all the craft projects or wear all the clothes that we hang onto. 

SOLUTION: Put it in perspective… Reality check… if you haven’t used/worn/read it in 2 or 3 years there’s a good chance you never will. Also when you think about it what’s the worst that could happen if you did need it one day?  Perhaps you’d have to buy, borrow or rent it again. Or maybe you’ll invent a brilliant way to avoid needing it at all. Say goodbye to all this potential usefulness and enjoy being free of it.

6. Fear of the Loss of Value. 

This covers so many things that feel like they should have real value… but they don’t. The cupboard full of old technology: phones and tablets and computers. Gaming consoles, stacks of games, CD’s that are uploaded to the cloud and the crates of Lego that once ruled the house… they were expensive to buy but now they have little or no value. The kids do not want Grandma’s china. The family silver is an ordeal to clean and if you don’t want to do it no one else does either. 

SOLUTION: This is the Carrie Bradshaw moment in Sex in the City.  She realises she has spent the equivalent of the down payment for an apartment on her collection of amazing shoes. If you haven’t bothered to sell it then how much do you really value it anyway?  An item is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it and often that’s not very much. So sell it if you wish but eventually it’s easier to just donate it all to the local goodwill store.

And you may find things that you really do love and decide to bring them out to add a smile to your day …

Next week I’ll be back with the practical steps and a proven process to make your declutter a success.