I hear three little words so frequently that I can finish clients’ phrases before they pronounce the second syllable.
Here is the scenario. Client “Sarah” and I are decluttering during a virtual organizing appointment. Thanks to our Zoom sessions and her practice of newly learned skills, she has become so decisive that she makes decisions in a fraction of the time that it previously took. It is remarkable, and we are both excited to see massive progress towards her goals. We finished organizing her closet and are now tackling her second priority project: the kitchen. We have decluttered and organized her glassware, mugs, bowls, plates, serving ware, and are moving on to the pantry.
The fast pace suddenly declines. See, Sarah is a great cook. Her creative culinary skills wow her friends, family, and community. She concocts unique combinations of ingredients that others would never think to employ. She is also conscientious about food waste.
Her pantry is overflowing to the point that she can no longer access it. Instead, she uses whatever ingredients are sitting on the floor in front of its entry door. It curbs her creativity to the point that she no longer enjoys her evenings that used to be filled with creativity and joy.
Not only is she saddened by the lack of creativity, but she also feels guilty about food waste. Delicious ingredients become rancid before she has a chance to use them. In the past, she tried to declutter the area. She would get started, remember the expired food, and become overwhelmed with a wall of guilt. She would typically shut the door and defeatedly pick up the newest bag of flour off the floor and bake uninspired desserts for her friends.
As you can imagine, this combination of creativity and conscientiousness made it challenging for her to declutter the pantry independently. Employing newly learned strategies and keeping her goals in mind, she is now determined to compost expired food and impulsively-purchased ingredients that usurp precious shelving space.
She makes peace with composting long-expired food. Out go rancid specialty oils, still sporting bows and tiny birthday card messages. Next, she composts long forgotten tea, remarking that it is probably about as tasty as sawdust at this point. She even finds a can hiding in the back corner that feels unusually light. She laughs to realize that the contents have dried out.
We give each other virtual high fives and let out “woo-hoo!”s as space opens and she moves items off the floor. We celebrate her ability to reach more shelves with ease. She’s on a roll again. Until she isn’t. . .
She pulls out a green jar; so vibrantly green that it seems to defy nature. “Pepper jelly,” she says, as I see the energy drain out of her face. This jar has flummoxed her for years. She once experimented with a similar brand and didn’t like the flavor it imparted. She regrets shopping on an empty stomach, which led to low blood sugar and brain fog: in a moment of weakness, she purchased a second jar, thinking the new brand would taste vastly different. It is now Sara against the green pepper jelly. Even with all her culinary wizardry, she cannot fathom a practical use for it.
Her initial gut reaction is to keep it. “I’m sure if I give it enough thought, I can find a way to use it. I think I’ll keep it.” She follows this up with three dreaded little words that can derail progress in disproportionately large ways: “Just in case.”
“Just in case” bubbles up during most organizing sessions. (It is closely related to its equally destructive cousin, “just for now.”) It starts innocently enough. If uttered too frequently, though, progress comes to a screeching halt. If we are not careful, we can easily justify keeping any of our possessions “just in case”:
“I never quite figured out how to use this kitchen utensil. It has taken up one-third of this drawer for three years now, but I paid good money for it. I might use it in the future. I’ll keep it just in case.”
“I never liked saffron-garlic infused oil, but I feel guilty tossing out this gift. Maybe I’ll cook a meal for someone and simultaneously make myself something else to eat. I’ll keep it just in case.”
“Oh wow, I totally forgot about this bag of wooden skewers! I remember buying them eight years ago before I switched to metal. I gave away my grill last year, but I’m sure I will be invited to a barbecue next year. Even though summer is ten months away, I know I’ll remember these and make vegetable skewers to bring with me. I’ll keep them just in case.”
We’ve all been there. There’s no shame in it, and some of us pride ourselves on diverting almost all items from landfill (that sense of pride and responsibility can wreak its own havoc, but that is a story for another time). Using those three little words too many times can mean the difference between a useable room and keeping so many possessions that one more incoming item will throw a disorganized room into full-blown chaos.
So many sneaky reasons can hide behind that phrase: guilt from an unused gift, trying to be ecologically responsible, being frugal because we never know when we’ll need an item again, not wanting to uncomfortably admit to ourselves that we wasted hard-earned money, etc. “Just in case” mentality needs to be challenged when it is blocking progress.
In Conquering Chronic Disorganization, Judith Kolberg describes sorting unconventionally. She and a client sorted by past, present, and future. It became evident to her client that he was robbing his present self of the ability to enjoy his home. Items from his past and those for his future self were hogging most of the space.
You can use this tactic just by scanning your room. How many items from your past or items for competing potential futures usurp so much space that the present you (who is currently reading this article) has no room to breathe? It can be an eye-opener.
Back to Sarah. I explain this concept, and she realizes how much precious space these “just in case” (but most likely never to be used) items are taking up at the expense of her love for cooking. I ask other tactical questions and use various tools to help her come to a conclusion one way or the other. She decides to donate the green pepper jelly. Realistically, she knows she will never use it. She shrugs: “Maybe there’s someone out there who absolutely loves this stuff.” We continue the process until she has made decisions regarding all items in the pantry. Now she can walk into it, reach her shelves, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that she cooks even more creatively than before we started the organizing process.
Later that month, she sends me photos of an incredibly enticing spread for a dinner party. She told me about the many homemade dips, cornbread, and other appetizers she created from scratch. Then she rolled out the rest of the Southern-themed dinner, and it was a roaring success. Even though there was no green pepper jelly to be found, the meal was so delicious that guests reminisced about it for years to come.
("Sarah" is a figment of my imagination, but her story is representative of the vast majority of individuals who seek my help.)
Summer is fast approaching, but this one definitely feels different. Not only are temperatures rising in much of the US, but many counties and states are opening up from COVID lockdowns for the first time. The excitement is palpable. This summer will be exceptionally sweet for those who are now venturing out with family and friends.
Decluttering and organizing had a banner year: the media wrote countless articles regarding individuals who spent their lockdowns decluttering. I worked virtually with individuals who became increasingly bothered by old stacks of paper, home office disorganization, and general disarray. Even my go-to donation centers consistently close earlier than advertised because their trucks fill by early afternoon. For those who could handle it, decluttering became a coping mechanism to wrestle back some control in a year that lacked so much of it.
Virtual clients not only reached their goals but also addressed underlying causes, navigated roadblocks, and began using organizational systems that supported their lifestyles. Before working with me, some had neglected one of many critical components of organizing: they didn't carve out enough time in their busy lives to do the organizing.
Professional organizers are prone to say, "the clutter didn't appear in one day, so it most likely won't disappear in one day." It takes time and consistent effort to replace old habits that don’t support our lifestyles. Some ask for my guidance due to situational disorganization, such as dealing with a large volume of items that come with having a baby. Most, though, have struggled with clutter for many years. It is not a magical, quick-fix situation, so one must be willing to devote sufficient time to the task. That time needs to be held sacred, or it will fall by the wayside when urgent matters pop up.
As summer rolls around and those of us in lockdown venture out into the world, we look forward to more social gatherings. It is only natural to want to pay attention to enjoyable activities rather than decluttering, especially during the beginning of the process.
If you successfully carved out weekly decluttering sessions during the last year, it is crucial to hold those time slots sacred. As we venture out, there will be an increasing number of temptations vying for our time and energy. It is best to think of decluttering sessions in the same way you would a doctor's appointment that you would not think of missing. You will enjoy newfound freedom, but not at the expense of your organizing progress that you deemed important enough to commit to in the last year.
If you schedule sessions on a recurring time date and time, you'll have an even higher chance of sticking to them. In the past chaotic year, clients have cleared space and solidified organizing habits to ensure that new relaxing environments endure; the results have been nothing short of amazing. Multiple individuals have purged papers dating back 40 years. We have created such user-friendly filing systems that some have even remarked that they now actually enjoy filing. We pruned closets, created more functional kitchens, made living rooms ready to receive company; the list goes on. If you had similar success, give yourself the gift of working your new social calendar around organizing sessions. Those sessions made your home much calmer, enjoyable, relaxing, and supportive of your life goals. By this time next year, you will not only feel uplifted from social interactions but also feel amazing when you return home to recharge your batteries.
You’re feeling tired but hugely satisfied after a successful decluttering session in the closet. You look down in triumph at the aftermath of your battle: four massive trash bags stuffed full of cast-offs that you’re ready to donate. Hopefully, you’re celebrating with the visual reward of all that extra space, and looking forward to getting dressed more easily tomorrow, now that you no longer have to contend with gnarled hangers.
Ecstatic from vanquishing the clutter, you drag the bags out to the car so that you can drop off your donation.
Not so fast! There’s a crucial task that you must do before you leave.
Are you the type of person who comes home and hurriedly hangs up your coat in the closet, or the type who fastidiously checks all pockets for essential items before you hang it up? On a recent bout down the podcast/youtube rabbit hole, I laughed when someone remarked that they purposefully leave $10 bills in their jackets so that they can be pleasantly surprised next year when they pull it out again. Your future self might thank you. Here’s the only issue with that strategy: if you are not detail-oriented, you might eventually donate that coat without checking the pockets. Maybe $10 won’t break the bank, but there might be something much more valuable lurking inside. Either way, it’s best to check pockets and bag compartments as you go rather than have to do that task after the cast-offs are already in a big pile.
I’m a thorough organizer, and it has definitely paid off over the years. When working with a client, I generally check clothes pockets and purse compartments (unless the client informs me that they never leave anything in them, so it would be a waste of time to double-check). On virtual sessions, clients often hear me reminding them to “Check the pockets!” as they walk off-camera to dump the item into the donate bag. Most of the time, I find Kleenex, loose change, gum wrappers, and ancient cough drops ensconced in sticky papers. Sometimes, though, we find items that clients had lost hope for long ago. It can be pretty exciting. Additionally, it’s courteous to empty pockets and purses before you donate, so nonprofit employees don’t have to do it for you.
So before you drive those bags to your local nonprofit, be sure that you’ve checked the pockets and compartments first. You might gain even more than a new workable closet. If I can’t convince you of this task’s worthiness, maybe $42,000 will: https://kfor.com/news/local/norman-goodwill-employee-finds-42000-in-donated-sweater/.
1. Clear the home from all the stuff, and the problem is solved.
Hoarding disorder can be quite complex and often debilitating. There is extensive comorbidity with depression and significant comorbidity with anxiety and other disorders. The “stuff” is just the outward symptom of what’s going on underneath the surface. Without addressing root causes, coping mechanisms, behaviors, and habits, “clearing out” is like putting a band-aid on a wound that needs further medical attention.
2. A fast clear-out is the most effective way to help someone with hoarding disorder.
Thanks to tv shows like Hoarders, the quick clear-out tactic is well known. Many situations necessitate clear-outs, such as looming evictions or the ability to return home safely for recovery from major surgery. However, an unfortunate side effect can be reaccumulation to previous levels in less time than it occurred before the clear-out.
When the situation is not so dire, a steadier approach can be helpful. The individual has time to work with a therapist (or support group such as Buried in Treasures). They learn the “why” behind the acquiring behavior and the inability to let go and use healthier strategies to cope with difficult emotions.
Simultaneously, they can work with a professional organizer, such as yours truly, who obtained specialized training to work with those who have hoarding disorder. As they work with me, they put their new coping skills into practice to decrease the volume. They’re able to challenge the gut-level reactions (that tempt them to keep too many objects) that compete with goals such as having grandchildren over again. They gain competence and the ability to discern what is truly important.
3. People with hoarding disorder are just stubborn and could quickly get rid of the stuff if they wanted to.
To family and friends, it can seem that their loved one is just belligerent. There is a lot more, though, than meets the eye. Many who struggle with hoarding disorder have experienced trauma. While trauma doesn’t cause hoarding disorder, it can make the symptoms more extreme. Some clients have told me how the hoarding behavior helped them cope with challenging feelings before working with therapists and support groups to find better coping mechanisms.
Additionally, many people with hoarding disorder have low insight. (One 2018 presentation showed that less than 20% had excellent or good insight. More than 65% had either poor or only fair insight.) Until individuals gain enough insight, treatment options will have limited success. Fortunately, there are various ways to help reduce ambivalence about behavior change. Non-clinicians can even use some tactics.
4. “I have hoarding disorder because my parents grew up in the Depression.”
Some say that they have hoarding disorder because their parents needed to save everything during the Great Depression. While there seems to be a familial link, researchers are still unsure if it results from genetics or learned behavior. At that same 2018 conference referenced above, I learned that there is no link between “material deprivation” and hoarding disorder. While the Depression must have been challenging and individuals certainly needed to save items as much as possible, hoarding behavior did not suddenly become the norm. During the later years of the Depression, newspapers published the sensational (and quite sad) story of the Collyer Brothers. If hoarding had become commonplace, that story would never have been newsworthy. Traumas such as living through a depression can undoubtedly exacerbate symptoms, but they don’t cause the disorder.
5. There’s no help available for those with HD or their families.
Thankfully, there is help available for those who struggle with hoarding disorder and their families. One can start by reading helpful books such as Buried in Treasures and Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring. Hoarding task forces throughout the country work to help those in local communities who struggle with the disorder.
Additionally, therapists and clinicians (who have extensively trained in this area) can be of great help. Individuals gain insight and work towards less detrimental behaviors. Peer support groups work as well. Some of the most effective groups are based on Buried in Treasures (often referred to as BIT groups).
Lastly, Friends and Family support groups focus on helping those affected by their loved one’s hoarding behavior.
6. “They’ll never notice stuff that I toss out when they’re not looking.”
Throwing items away might appear helpful, but it can backfire in significant ways if there’s no prior consent. One of the best ways to erode trust in a relationship is to toss items without permission. If someone notices missing items, they will most likely become less trustful not only of the individual who threw things out but also of trained professionals who might otherwise be helpful in the future.
Untrained professional organizers have the best of intentions but can do more harm than good. I’ve witnessed those repercussions at conferences when people share their experiences and how they feel afterward.
It can be rough for friends and family members who the behavior has hurt. I find it helpful is to imagine how I would feel if someone started throwing away my possessions without my input or guidelines. It’s not a pleasant feeling, by any means. If you’re struggling to avoid tossing without permission, this visualization might be helpful.
7. People with hoarding disorder must not be smart to let situations get so seemingly out of control.
I have worked with incredibly bright individuals who have held down high-level jobs while secretly struggling with this disorder at home. Those who work with me have usually have good insight and intellectually know that the behavior doesn’t make sense on the surface. That doesn’t make it emotionally easier to conquer. We all have various battles in life where we intellectually know the behavior isn’t good for us. Still, we struggle to stop doing it anyway because of the strong emotions involved.
8. You can tell that someone has hoarding disorder just by looking at their home.
While visible signs can point to hoarding disorder, it’s never a sure bet. Before a clinician can diagnose it, other disorders with similar symptoms have to be ruled out. Someone might have a lot of clutter in the home, but it might be due to a motivational struggle due to depression. Perhaps someone is having a hard time touching items because of unchecked OCD symptoms (hoarding disorder is no longer considered a form of OCD). Maybe the individual is dealing with dementia or a traumatic brain injury. In any cluttered situation, hoarded or not, knowing the root cause gives one the capability to apply the appropriate strategies to reduce the clutter.
9. “I’m just a packrat.”
Many describe themselves as “packrats” or “collectors.” Clutter might be due to these reasons. It’s also entirely possible, though, that the “pack rat” tendencies they are struggling with are symptoms of undiagnosed hoarding disorder. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to review the definition of the disorder, along with the requirements of diagnosis: https://hoarding.iocdf.org/professionals/diagnosing-hoarding-disorder/.
10. “It’s hopeless; I’ll never change.” Or “It’s hopeless; they’ll never change.”
Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. I have witnessed clients make massive transformations as we work together and as they continued to work on the emotional underpinnings with trained clinicians and support groups. That’s not to say it’s easy. It might be one of the most demanding endeavors they face. As they commit to the work, though, they experience the massive value it brings into their lives. I’ve witnessed clients clear out the excess so that they feel relaxed at home, so they can close multiple storage units that cost tens of thousands of dollars (and more) over the years, so they can spend more time with family and on hobbies, and generally get their lives back. For those willing to commit to the work, it can truly be transformative.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.