6 reasons why we accummulate clutter (and how to finally let go)

This is our garage. Once upon a time it was a useful room. Venue for enjoyable family snooker matches, organised tools storage and space to overwinter the garden furniture.

Then, about 9 months ago, I decluttered the house. Room by room, I discarded junk we hadn’t used in years and items we had 4 of and only needed one.

But I couldn’t let go of most of our stuff. I tend to get emotionally attached to lifeless objects and some items were treasured souvenirs of happy times. Most of it belonged to my husband and it didn’t feel right to get rid of it. And I didn’t want to waste money by tossing out perfectly good, fit-for-purpose things. It’s fair to say I resisted the idea of parting with our possessions.

So I shifted the problem from one area of the house to another. And now the clutter is mocking me. Every day I enter the garage, it reminds me of my failure to declutter. It condemns me for my weakness and it shames me for the ever increasing chaos, mess and dirt.

I attempted to declutter but the task is so overwhelming, so massive and unmanageable that it is suffocating me. I don’t know where to start, feel anxious at the thought of wading through the mountains of junk and dust.

I know it has to be done. I worry that other people will judge me, I beat myself up for procrastinating. And every time I sit down for a well-deserved rest I feel guilty and embarrassed about the lack of progress. And I think “I should really declutter the garage”.

It weighs on my mind non-stop. And it made me wonder.

Why do we accumulate so much clutter? Why is it so hard to let go? And what is the best way to ban useless clutter once and for all?

So I did what I do best. I researched. And here is what I discovered. May it help us both to declutter for a simpler, happier life.

The #1 reason why clutter keeps invading our homes

Clutter is sneaky. It creeps up on us. It hijacks our home when we are distracted and can’t defend ourselves. When we are paralysed by grief after losing a loved one or incapacitated by illness.

It weasels its way in when we are too busy to notice after a new baby arrived or a stressful new job started. And it can instantly swallow our house when we downsize, merge several households into one or inherit a lost relative’s possessions.

But the main reason why we keep buying, collecting and hoarding is low self-worth.

Cluttering as symptom of low self-worth

Low self-worth has become an epidemic. Most people are affected by it to some degree. And it causes many common symptoms, such as social anxiety, negative thinking or self-doubt. As well as compulsive buying, hoarding and cluttering.

You see, our society focusses on materialism, fame, prestige, wealth, competition, achievement and success. It teaches us that we are inherently worthless. We can earn worth by gaining qualifications, through a thriving career and exceptional beauty, riches or popularity. The more we achieve, the more we own and the more we can afford to buy, the higher our worth in society.

But let’s face it. Most of us aren’t famous, rich or “very important”. We can’t afford the lifestyle that would make us worthy in society’s eyes. And we never achieved the exceptional greatness and success required to “be somebody”.

So we live with the conviction that we aren’t good enough. That we should work harder, be better and have more. We feel unworthy compared to others who “made it”. Irrelevant, unimportant, inferior.

And it’s this devastating feeling of worthlessness that causes most of our clutter problems.

The 6 self-worth related reasons for cluttering

Society convinces us that we are worth more if we possess more. And it’s easy to comprehend how low self-worth will trick us into buying and accumulating in the hope it will increase our worth. But not all self-worth related causes for cluttering and hoarding are so obvious:

  1. More possessions mean more worth. Possessions are a sign of wealth. And wealth defines worth. In society’s eyes. So we buy, collect and accumulate possessions to compensate for our feeling of unworthiness. Not because we need more stuff but we long for more worth. We want to feel good enough. And the stuff makes us feel better about ourselves. At least for a moment.
  2. Filling the gap. When our self-worth is low, we often feel unacceptable, incompetent and unimportant. We believe that we aren’t capable of following our dreams, finding true love or making a difference in the world. We lack direction, passion and purpose. We feel the emptiness that the lack of purpose and affection leaves in our hearts. And we try to fill it with purchases, goods and merchandise. Because they will make us happy. At least that’s what the commercials, ads and billboards that flood our mind every day promise us.
  3. Clinging to the past. We tend to hold on to things that remind us of happier times when we felt more appreciated, deserving and worthy. Keepsakes from a time when we were successful in sports, when our career was thriving, when we weighed less and were younger. They become glorified reminders that we were once good enough. That we had reasons to be proud of ourselves. That we are not a lost cause. And that there is still hope for us to make our life matter.
  4. Pleasing other people. Low self-worth tricks us into believing that we are only worthy of other people’s love, respect and appreciation if we please them non-stop. So we don’t dare to say “no” if our mother-in-law offers us her 264-piece porcelain clown collection. We don’t want to upset our partner by throwing out the trillions of cuddly toys that were souvenirs from various business trips. And we can’t get ourselves to tell Auntie Marjory that we don’t need yet another glass vase. And so the clutter grows. Because we don’t want to disappoint others, we want to please them, make them happy. So we can feel worthy of their love.
  5. Fear of change. Clutter sucks. It makes us feel anxious, unbalanced and ashamed. But we are used to our cluttered life. We are experts in dealing with it, rearranging our lives around it, no matter how unpleasant it might be. And, in a weird way, it makes us feel safe. Decluttering means change, a move into the unknown. And it terrifies us because, deep down, we believe we aren’t strong enough to cope in different circumstances. And we aren’t good enough to adapt to a new situation.
  6. Fear of failure. The whole task of decluttering can be overwhelming. How will we ever get through this massive pile of junk? Where do we even start? Can we actually succeed? Worrying about the enormity of the task causes anxiety. So we choose not to start at all rather than risking failure. Because failure would prove what we feared all along. That we are pathetic losers.

And so the clutter wins. Every time. Sucking us into an endless circle of guilt, shame, self-condemnation and anxiety. Making things worse than they ever were.

The vicious cycle of self-worth and clutter

We accumulate clutter to boost our self-worth. But a cluttered, chaotic environment looks untidy. Cleaning becomes increasingly difficult and we start to feel disgusted with the state of our house. Our self-respect suffers and we are too embarrassed to invite guest. The mess drains our energy, leaves us unhappy, joyless, breathless and isolated.

We accumulated our clutter to increase our feeling of worth. But now it is proof of our worthlessness. We aren’t good enough to have our life under control, not strong enough to juggle all the tasks. We hate ourselves for all the clutter and feel useless and inadequate.

The clutter is damaging our self-worth. So we buy more to provide another self-worth boost. And so it goes on.

But how can we break this cycle? How can we let go of useless stuff, find the strength to tackle the decluttering chore and stop accumulating things we don’t need?

The 3 crucial steps to ban the clutter for good

We need to put 3 systems in place if we want to escape the clutter habit:

  1. Find the motivation, support and accountability for the decluttering task ahead

Starting an overwhelming task can be almost impossible on your own. Motivation fades rapidly if progress is slow and the job is boring and lonely.

It is therefore imperative to find support. A way to motivate ourselves and keep ourselves accountable. Here are some ideas how we can make the chore easier and ensure we stick with it:

  • Take “before” pictures of every area in your home that needs decluttering. We quickly forget how bad it was and might not realise how much progress we actually made. Frustration with lack of progress is one of the main reasons we give up on decluttering. But if you have the picture to remind yourself of the change, your motivation will increase rather than vanish.
  • Get family members and friends involved, throw a decluttering party, make a game out of it. Do whatever it takes to get some help and make the task more fun.
  • Start or join a declutter support group in your local area for much needed understanding, comfort and accountability. Alternatively, you could find a decluttering Facebook group or forum where you can share your successes, failures and frustrations with people who share your pain.

2. Declutter a small area every day without beating yourself up for lack of progress

Once you’re on your way, it is important to be nice to yourself. Take your time, tackle smaller areas more often. Make a plan, set yourself achievable goals and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t move as quickly as you want.

Even if, after first successes, you catch the decluttering bug, don’t burn yourself out. Slow but steady wins the race.

Give yourself two or three options every day so you can choose the one you fancy most on the day. And plan in catch-up and rest days so you aren’t getting stressed if you fall behind and don’t need to force yourself to declutter if you really don’t feel like it.

But keep going, be patient, see the difference the disappearing clutter makes in your life. Feel the freedom, the lightness and be proud of yourself.

3. Break the connection between possessions and worth to stop clutter from returning

Yes, we can declutter. But the clutter will return sooner or later and all your efforts would have been in vain. Because while we addressed the symptom, we haven’t dealt with low self-worth as the cause.

We need to realise that society’s view of our worth as dependent on our attributes, achievements and possessions is a dangerous misconception. An unfortunate case of global amnesia.

The truth is that we ARE worth personified. We are born 100% worth and we die 100% worth. What we do in between, how much money we have, how many things we can afford and how much stuff we own does not change anything about our true worth.

It is inherent, infinite and unconditional. You ARE worth, no matter what. You just forgot all about it. We all did. And it is our task in this life to rediscover the knowledge that our worth is absolute.

No matter what we do, no matter what we have, no matter who we are. Whether we own nothing or everything, whether we are rich or poor, whether our home is spotless or cluttered. Our worth remains the same. Always.

Embracing a clutter-free life

I’ll be honest. I am still not looking forward to decluttering my garage. But I can’t wait to have my room back, with all its intended uses. With all the enjoyment, organisation and storage space it used to offer.

I will do it, step by step. I can cheer myself on, be proud of my achievements, even if they seem tiny. And I can feel the sense of calm, peace and relief increase with every corner, every shelf I clear.

I know I am not alone, I am not the only one who struggles. And it is ok. I am good enough. And the fact that my garage is such a mess doesn’t make me a lesser person. I don’t need to be ashamed.

Because I AM worth.

And so ARE you. I know you can do it.

Dr Berni Sewell, PhD is a health scientist, energy healer and self-worth blogger at The Self-Worth Experiment. She is on a mission to make you feel good about yourself, no matter what. Download her free guide Instant self-worth: an easy 4-step solution to heal your self-worth in under 5 minutes a day and start to boost your confidence today.

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