We’re all human. We attach objects to valuable memories and feelings. But building up too much clutter and being unable to part with it can seriously mess with your life. And when it reaches that point, you’ve moved from being a bit sentimental to potential hoarding.
Finding it difficult to give away possessions is a complicated issue that sometimes has to do with fears about letting go of the past, worries about being wasteful, or just not knowing where to start with organizing your mountain of possessions. And there are sometimes real connections to mental health.
But it’s possible to overcome those obstacles and get rid what isn’t serving you anymore.
And constantly having to look around at all the stuff that really belongs in the nearest garbage truck, or in a donation box headed toward those who really need it, can provoke feelings of guilt and anxiety.
Hoarding disorder (HD), according to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a diagnosable condition. And while throwing away a bunch of stuff can be easy for most people, it creates intense distress for people with hoarding disorder.
Researchers estimate that 2.5 percent of people in the U.S. have hoarding disorder, keeping them from fully using their living space and interfering with their daily lives.
Whether you have hoarding disorder (and you should seek a consultation with a psychological health professional if you feel like you do) or simply need to strategize how to unclutter your life, allow us to give you the full walkthrough.
Someone living with hoarding disorder usually displays these symptoms:
- the hallmark symptom of being unable to part with possessions no matter their value
- severe distress or anxiety when confronted with discarding these possessions
- feelings of shame, guilt, suspicion, or anger
- obsessive thoughts about running out of items, accidentally throwing something out, or needing things in the future
- accumulation of many more possessions than is needed due to this distress that compromises their living conditions or quality of life
- issues with their job, finances, health, or social life due to their living situation
It’s not clear yet what causes hoarding disorder, though we know it’s associated with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. Around 75 percent of people have a coexisting mental health condition.
Some risk factors for hoarding disorder include:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be the most studied and effective treatment for hoarding disorder so far. CBT helps people learn why they tend to hoard, how to deal with the anxiety of discarding items, and practices to help organize their space and life.
One 2018 study of people with hoarding disorder even found that peer-led group therapy sessions were as effective as those led by psychologists. So whether someone is seeking help from a mental health pro or a support group, they’ll likely make progress in treatment.
Some clinicians are wondering if helping people with the actual act of decluttering can help as well. But the jury is still out on how helpful or detrimental that would be for those living with the condition.
At present, medications to treat hoarding don’t exist and studies are still limited. But if HD overlaps with other conditions such as anxiety or depression, there are medications that can help manage those symptoms.
If you’re working with a professional for HD or just feel ready to take on the task of decluttering, try these tips and watch the clutter vanish, no English governess required.
1. Set aside about 20 minutes every day to clean
That way, you don’t have to worry about the clothes closet swallowing you whole and regurgitating you into Narnia, or starting a job you’ll never finish. You might not get it all tidied up, but you’ll get into a healthy habit, and it won’t seem so intimidating a task.
We found some ways to work healthier habits into your day.
2. Question your reasoning
Ask yourself: Are you keeping this item because it makes you happy? Or because you think you should keep it?
If it’s the latter, throw that broken Tamagotchi in the trash. Then you won’t even have to clean up Tamagotchi poops. That’s a tidy-up within a tidy-up. Cleanception.
3. Tackle the “maybes”
When going through items to give away, make a pile of items you “might” need and hide them somewhere for a month. Or, if you live with someone else, get them to do it.
If, over the course of that month, you find that you don’t need them even once, they’re probably not essential enough to keep. To the trash (or recycling) with them.
4. Remember your memories aren’t in physical objects
They’re in your mind. It’s hard to give away sentimental items like a great-grandparent’s dish set, but holding onto the dish set doesn’t mean you’re forgetting about the great-grandparents.
Plus, whoever you’re memorializing would hate to think that hanging onto this physical object was causing so much distress. Maybe put aside some time to really sit with their memory, rather than hoarding and forgetting about valuable objects attached to it.
And if you’re still hanging onto your ex’s old sweater, you need to forget about them pronto.
5. Dump the stack of old magazines
If you haven’t already read them, you probably won’t. If you’ve read them already, you’re unlikely to browse them again. Instead, keep a folder of your favorite magazine clippings, and donate the rest of the collection to a local library (or recycle).
6. Refresh your wardrobe
Try this trick: At the beginning of a new season, turn all the hangers so they face right.
After you wear an item once, turn its hanger around to face left. Once the season’s over, keep only the clothes on the hangers pointing left. (So long, Spice Girls costume from Halloween ’98! Friendship never ends.)
If you venture into your underwear drawer for a cleanup, you may want to ask yourself these five questions first.
7. Steer clear of danger!
Chances are there are some expired medicines and old makeup hiding in the bathroom cabinet. Avoid an accidental dose of 20-year-old Tylenol and throw that stuff away. (Follow these guidelines for safe disposal.)
Expiration dates are important. We looked at what they really mean.
8. Digitize it
Throw away old receipts you don’t need for tax day or items you’re not returning. Then scan the rest of the receipts, bills, and other financial papers, and store them in cyberspace. You can even just take a picture on your phone — job done. Those papers don’t need to hang around.
9. Make some money
Use that old blender sitting in the attic to whip up a cash smoothie. Try selling unused items (that still function properly) online or in a yard sale instead of just dumping them in the trash.
10. Donate items to charity
You might use that pancake spatula at some point in the next century, but there’s probably someone who needs it right now.
Don’t wait for the holidays to do a good deed: Try the local Salvation Army or Goodwill, or check out this list of charities that accept used books, athletic equipment, and musical instruments.
You can even donate old cars that are taking up driveway space to be sold for parts.
The buzz of knowing you helped someone out (both the charity and the person who needs a cheap pancake spatula so bad they buy it from Goodwill) is a good substitute for the reassurance you get from hanging on to old objects.
Here’s how to sell your junk and get organized.
11. Hire a professional organizer
Getting help from a cleanup pro can be costly, but if clutter is a serious issue, it might be worth it if you need a serious head start on years’ worth of bric-a-brac. There’s also certified KonMari consultants if you want to learn more about the *art* of decluttering and find what truly brings you joy.
However, this will be for nothing if you don’t maintain that uncluttered state, so make sure you take strides toward a clearer headspace before dropping dollars on a professional.
You can have a go at organizing your refrigerator yourself. Here’s how.
12. Set up a system
Going forward, try to deal with clutter on a regular basis, and get rid of old shopping bags, used batteries, and ugly gifts right away.
Donate a bunch of unwanted stuff every month, or even every week. And keep your bedroom from overflowing: Every time you buy a new item,an old one. Don’t deprive yourself of shiny new things, but make sure they don’t transform into a pile of musty old things overnight.
If you feel like hoarding is actively disrupting your life, you might have hoarding disorder. This is a diagnosable health condition that requires active treatment, so seek a consultation with a healthcare professional.
Once you’ve started on that path (or you find it’s just general disorganization and not a diagnosable thing), you can tackle the job of getting organized.
The real trick is making it seem less intimidating than it really is and working out what objects truly mean to you now, rather than what they might mean to you in the future.