This advice column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on March 25th.
Many barriers exist to getting help with decluttering: hiring a Professional Organizer is expensive, it is embarrassing to let someone into your home, and it can take a long time to see results. Recently I ran a free five-day Clutter Bootcamp on Facebook as part of a continuing effort to break down some of these barriers. The response to the Bootcamp was tremendous, with over 3200 sign-ups in just about ten days. The experience reinforced once again the hugely underserved need for real assistance with clutter that families across the country face. It also revealed other significant common experiences that are worth sharing here.
Community Crushes Clutter
My biggest takeaway from Clutter Bootcamp? It is the power of a community. Decluttering is not just throwing out stuff. It is examining your life, shifting your mindset, and coming face to face with past decisions. It is preparing for a transition, and it is (finally) completing a transition. It is making room for change and growth. It is complicated, it is scary, and it can be very emotional.
Just like so many other difficult experiences in life, it is easier to tackle with someone at your side. I encouraged everyone to find a clutter buddy during Bootcamp - someone to cheer them on and lend an ear during the week, a friend. Decluttering during Bootcamp was infinitely easier for participants who frequently woke up to messages such as this one, posted from other members in the community: I just want to let everyone know that we can do this! Whether someone has a buddy or not - remember that we got this. For those that don’t have a buddy - you can message me - I’m here for you. Baby steps - don’t be discouraged. Even if you do a little- great job!!
If you are faced with a daunting clutter situation in your home, you do not need to take this on alone. I encourage you to find a (judgment-free) clutter buddy and accept their assistance. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that clutter does not stand a chance against a supportive community.
Having a large support system... was so helpful. I was able to be open about the mess that was created during 30 years of teaching. I am very good at "hiding" things in corners and closets. Receiving encouragement from the community kept me moving from one problem area to the next. Seeing ways other people solved problems gave me strategies too!
This boot camp made me feel I am not alone. I was able to really analyze that it's not my fault. I'm a busy working mom, and things just kind of got away from me... it's time to begin taking care of ME! That means working through the clutter... I loved all of the sharing and victories you could celebrate with others.
Wow... I've only read a handful of comments, but it is inspiring to know I'm not the only one struggling and makes me want to take even the small steps each day to clear out corners if floor clutter and closets and cabinets next...thank you to all of you out there who are sharing your stories. Community crushes clutter... I'm so hopeful. I can do this!!
Clutter Complicates Mental Health
Mental health and clutter have a complex relationship. Many Bootcamp participants shared how grief, trauma, anxiety, and depression are additional obstacles that are equally brought on by the clutter and easily triggered by the decluttering process. "My house is cluttered everywhere. It gives me anxiety and depression." Comments like this one were common; the word anxiety alone came up over 500 times during the week.
Clutter is known also to trigger grief, especially when you are dealing with a collection of items from a loved one who has passed. However, there is another side to grief and clutter that we don't hear about as much, and it is worthy of mention here because of how frequently it came up in Bootcamp discussions.
When we lose a loved one, grieving this loss is difficult in the best of circumstances. When we lose a loved one, and they leave behind more than a lifetime worth of possessions, the clutter only complicates the grief. In the words of one participant, "It was so hard to lose my mother, but I was not prepared for the feelings of anger and resentment that I felt when I spent an entire year emptying her home and two storage sheds packed full of stuff. I felt angry that I didn't have the freedom to simply mourn her passing."
Words of advice fail me in this scenario, but, dear reader, if you find yourself in this situation, perhaps you will take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.
A Judgment-Free Environment is Critical
Successful decluttering can only happen when we understand how we got to where we are today and remove all judgment from the equation. Creating this environment might prove challenging within a family or close friend dynamic but can be easily fostered inside of a private group on social media. Bootcamp participants experienced the unique balance of anonymity and understanding within the security of a supportive and judgment-free community. This foundation created a launchpad for success. If you are working with a family member assisting them with their clutter, I urge you to approach the process in this manner as well: free of judgment and ready to truly support your loved one.