This article first appeared in the Albany Times Union on June 10, 2020.
Dear Jes, I have a unique issue with clutter, and I hope that you can help me. My problem is not only that I have a lot of clutter, but the clutter makes me feel really bad about myself. I think my clutter is actually contributing to my low self-esteem. Yes, the clutter itself is overwhelming. But worse than the clutter is that I beat myself up for letting it get so bad. I feel like I am a failure, which makes it even more challenging to begin to declutter. I feel trapped by my thoughts and my clutter. How do people declutter when the clutter makes you feel so bad about yourself?
Sincerely, Suffering in Shame, Saratoga
Dear Suffering in Shame, I know how difficult it can be to write a letter like this, and I want to thank you for finding the courage to share your struggle. Clutter can create havoc in both our external and internal environments, but the opposite is also true. Decluttering can create order and peace in your home and your head.
Make Decisions People who struggle with low-self esteem will frequently characterize themselves as indecisive. Decluttering, an act of making a series of small decisions, is essentially an exercise in confidence-building.
Start with easy decisions and skip anything that feels difficult. You can always come back to the more complicated decisions when you have strengthened your decision-making skills. Does it seem like everything is a difficult decision? Start by removing items that are trash, like broken objects, expired cosmetics and food, and outdated technology.
Take (Small) Risks Taking risks, and overcoming fear, is a big part of achievement and success. Making decisions about your clutter involves risk; you risk letting go of something and regretting it in the future. The research here is clear: when you allow yourself to take risks and step outside of your comfort zone, you build tremendous resilience and confidence.
If you need help objectively assessing the risk of letting something go, ask yourself what is the worst-case scenario if I let this go, and I need it in the future? Choose one of the following options and focus on decluttering low-risk items:
This is a common, inexpensive item, and I could easily and quickly replace it in the future if I needed to. (low-risk)
This is a more expensive item and I would be very upset with myself if I had to replace it in the future. (medium-risk)
This is a one-of-a-kind item that is not easy to replace. (high-risk)
The vast majority of my clients report that they are surprised by how little regret they feel after they have let something go. Often they don't think of the item again once it is gone. A client recently shared that she decided to let go of a heart-shaped pan that she used infrequently. This pan fell into the low-risk category. The next Valentine's Day, she initially regretted letting go of that pan, but she improvised, baking a cake and cutting it into a heart shape. Ultimately, she was very proud of herself for coming up with a creative solution, and the experience gave her a confidence boost she needed to continue decluttering her kitchen. She noted, "this feels very freeing" when she proudly texted me a picture of the cake.
Know Yourself at a Deeper Level Choosing what should remain in your life helps you develop a deeper understanding of what will serve you best right now. This deepening self-awareness is a building block of self-esteem, allowing you to better understand and advocate for your unique needs in all areas of your life.
A client recently reflected on the process of decluttering her clothing. She chose to keep only the pieces that she loved and made difficult decisions to let go of clothing that she "might" need in the future. Comparing the before and after photos of her closet, she made an interesting observation. Prior to decluttering, her closet was full of black and gray fabrics, and looking at it made her feel drab and depressed. The after pictures are the exact opposite. What remained is a closet full of colorful fabrics and bright floral patterns, pieces that inspire her and reflect what she loves and who she is. "I was surprised to learn so much about myself by decluttering my closet. Now I love everything that I wear, and I feel so much more confident every day."
Suffering in Shame, I implore you to begin decluttering, starting with easy, low-risk decisions. The decision to start will be the first of many choices that boost your confidence, improve your self-esteem, and empower you to move forward in all areas of your life.