Do you have a growing pile of magazines you've been meaning to read through but just haven't had a chance? A half-started craft project you're finding difficult to muster up enough energy to complete? A negative "friend" in your life who keeps bringing you down?
Clutter comes in all forms, and Kerri Richardson explores them (and their culprits) in full in her book, What Your Clutter Is Trying to Tell You. She encourages readers to listen to the actual messages hiding behind the clutter, both physical and emotional; and from there, she offers a practical guide on how to reclaim space and energy in our lives.
So—what is your clutter actually trying to tell you? An excerpt follows below.
With your inner critic’s resistance challenging you to keep your clutter right where it is, let’s be sure you’re considering all the creative ways it shows up in your life. When you think of clutter, you probably think of things like books, mail, files, toys, clothes, or kitchen accessories. You may not consider things like toxic relationships, inner-critic messages, regrets, grudges, and outdated thoughts. These different types of clutter affect one another, with one often causing the other.
After a long day at work, you come home to piles of stuff on your kitchen table, and your energy is sapped. You start beating yourself up for not taking care of it sooner. You get aggravated with family members who piled stuff there after you asked them not to. Suddenly, it’s not just about the stuff on the table. The clutter becomes fodder for your inner critic to remind you how lazy you are, how your family doesn’t respect you, and how your efforts are futile. Now imagine what that kind of thinking does to your hope of making positive changes in your life. Can you say deflation?
It works in reverse too. Neglect emotional clutter and you’ll see how quickly it turns into physical clutter. For example, when you tolerate unhealthy relationships or agree to every request that comes your way, you become so drained that common household maintenance is neglected. Your outer world reflects your inner world; when there’s internal unrest, it shows up in your environment.
To help you sink your teeth into this concept, let’s explore the messages in some common clutter hot spots and in various types of specific clutter.
We all have areas where clutter tends to land, multiply, and live. These areas seem to be catchalls for either stuff we don’t know what to do with or stuff that has outgrown its home. What hidden messages might these areas be holding? When you consider each hot spot in its entirety instead of the specific clutter within it, you can get the big-picture message your stuff is sending you.
Closets are the places where we tuck away our dirty little secrets. Whether it’s clothes in the back of your bedroom wardrobe that represent a happier or healthier time in your life or the junk-collecting closet that reflects old hobbies or goals, out of sight is never out of mind with clutter. Hidden clutter is an energy drain that is always calling for your attention, and it becomes fuel for your inner critic to squawk about what you should be doing.
Clutter that you see often is a consistent energy vampire, but the solution isn’t to tuck the items away in a drawer. The clutter that ends up on a tabletop is often the kind that an organizational system can handle effectively. For example, piles of mail can be eradicated by creating a routine of sorting it when you pick it up, discarding what you don’t need and finding a home for what you do. Overtly visible clutter is a loud-and-clear message that something needs your attention. By ignoring it, you send yourself the message that you’re not a priority.
Clutter in your home office could be suffocating your financial health. Perhaps you have unpaid bills you’re avoiding, taxes you haven’t filed, or bank statements that need reconciling. It might just be a dumping ground for mail. Whatever it is, devoting scheduled time to sorting clutter here is a surefire way to boost your bottom line.
The same goes for clutter in an external work office. While your work demands may result in a messy office, unnecessary clutter slows productivity and could act as a form of self-sabotage in your career. You may be overlooked for a promotion or find your job in jeopardy, again affecting your financial security. A cluttered desk could also speak to a blocking belief about money. Do you judge those who have more than you? Do you fear others will resent you should your bank balance increase?
There’s nothing that will clutter your mind faster than a ticker tape of negative thoughts and worry. Excessive worrying indicates a strong discomfort with feeling out of control. By obsessing over the what-ifs, you can fool yourself into believing you’ll be prepared for whatever comes along; however, as the saying goes, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.” By holding a loving space for your worried thoughts instead of letting them rule the roost, you teach yourself that you are your safe place, and over time, you’ll notice it’s easier to calm your mind and feel more centered.
Now, it’s time to look at the specific clutter within these hot spots to clarify the message even further. You’ll find these items have some things of their own to say.
As you dig in deeper, listen closely to the words that surface as you consider individual pieces or categories. You want to feel positive and supported instead of criticized or judged. That’s the difference between an item that’s clutter and one that’s a treasured belonging.
Books hold a lot of promise. Novels are a pleasant escape, self-improvement books offer advice on or answers to longtime struggles, and resource books are handy when you need a quick reference. If that was all they represented, choosing which ones to keep and which to get rid of would be easy.
But for many people, books can feel like dear friends. You may have gotten swept up in the stories and gone on adventures with the characters. How could you possibly part with them? It all depends on how they make you feel now. Just because you once loved something doesn’t mean you should keep it forever. Keeping anything, including books, out of any kind of obligation takes up important energy in your life that could be available for something that is aligned with your current goals and values.
Books multiply quickly, particularly because they’re easy purchases and can provide immediate gratification without even cracking the covers. Take a moment and think about your stash. How do you feel about how many you own? Are they well organized? Scattered in various rooms? Have you read most of them? Are the majority novels, self-improvement, or resource books? How does your body feel when you consider letting some of them go?
I’m sure you can guess the messages your clothes are sending you: you’re not thin enough, attractive enough, stylish enough, fun enough, just...not enough. What hangs on that rod is more than just fabric, and it can make you feel pretty bad about yourself. The memories and feelings associated with those items can make cleaning out your bedroom closet much more difficult than it needs to be.
Some may trigger happy memories, others painful. Both can make it difficult to let go of them. Take thin or fat clothes as an example: “I’m going to save these jeans because I’m going to fit into them again someday,” or “I’ve really done well with getting healthy, but I’m going to hang on to those clothes that are too big just in case I slip back.” Either way, those clothes are sitting in your dresser or closet, taunting you like the books on your shelves, telling you that you’re not good enough.
Go take a look in your closet or dresser. See if you can find five items you haven’t worn for six months or more. Now ask yourself why you keep the piece of clothing. Is it a just-in-case item? Does it remind you of a happy time? Do you still love it? Doing this is a great start in determining if your clothes truly represent who you are today or if they’re interrupting your journey instead.
People love magazines! Like books, they can hold a lot of promises. Just picture the headlines you see at the grocery store checkout counter: “Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days!” “Cook like a Chef in Three Easy Steps.” “The One Thing You Need to Do to Find Your True Love.”
A stack of magazines drains your energy by being one more thing you need or want to read. They might also make you regret having spent the money buying them. And they might make you feel foolish for falling for the headlines. If you have magazines that are piling up for “someday reading,” think about what that pile really represents. If it’s nothing more than “I spent the money, so I should read them,” into the recycling bin they go. And no, you don’t have to go through them beforehand. If they’ve been sitting there for 3, 6, or 24 months, there’s nothing in there that you can’t live without. Keep this month’s and last month’s issues. But all the others? Gone.
Your resistance might say, “But I’ve got pages dog-eared that I want to refer to,” or “What if I need that information?” When is the last time you referenced those pages? What do you believe you’ll really be getting rid of if you recycle the magazines? What deeper purpose are they serving in your life? Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and inquire.
Family heirlooms often have a lot of expectations, obligations, memories, joy, sadness, and regret attached to them. Your grandmother’s locket, family photo albums, your father’s favorite recliner, your mother’s formal dishes—items like these, when not cherished or wanted, can still be nearly impossible to pass on. Does getting rid of them mean you don’t love your grandmother, mother, or father? Are you a bad daughter for no longer keeping something?
I guarantee that Grandma is not looking down on you and thinking, “I’m so glad she still has that locket even though she doesn’t like it.” She’s not in that locket. Only keep it if you cherish it. Whatever you decide, she’ll be with you always.
If you don’t love these items enough to use them or display them, they’re clutter. If the items mean a lot to you, honor them. If they’ve been sitting in a box in your basement for the last five years, they can’t mean that much to you. Reevaluate their worth to you and either say good-bye or make them a part of your life.
I bet as you walk by the box of scrapbooking supplies or the half painted canvas, your shoulders droop with disappointment over how long the project has sat undone. What messages are they sending you? “Oh, I really should finish that.” “You’d never know I was excited to paint. I have all the supplies, but I’ve never picked up a brush.” These items become tools to beat yourself up with for not completing that project.
Supplies or in-progress projects that have been ignored or neglected can validate negative beliefs you hold, such as “I don’t have what it takes to see a project through to completion” or “I never finish what I start.” But have you ever considered that maybe those items are no longer relevant to who you are now?
Dave Bruno tells a story in his book, The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, about the vast array of woodworking tools he acquired because he imagined himself as a “master woodworker.” As he was paring down to just 100 items, he struggled to get rid of these tools. However, after he’d done it, he said he felt an incredible sense of relief. Oh, good, I don’t have to be a woodworker anymore, he thought.
He hadn’t realized how much those tools were telling him who he “should” be instead of who he truly was. So along with the tools, he let go of that false image of himself. And in doing so, he opened space in his life to focus on who he truly wanted to be—a minimalist sharing his vision with the world.
Think about the people in your life—your tribe. Are they loving? Supportive? Inspiring? Do you often feel taken advantage of? Walked on? Are you exhausted after spending time with certain people?
Having relationships that drain you can send a message to yourself that you don’t believe you’re worthy of kindness or of being treated well or that your needs don’t matter as much as everyone else’s. It’s this kind of thinking that keeps you in those relationships. Whatever you allow to happen will continue. Flip the script, and make your needs a priority.
Many of the tools and techniques you use to clear physical clutter can be applied to emotional clutter too. Emotional clutter is different from physical clutter in that it’s about feelings rather than stuff. It’s about what you’re experiencing versus what you’re seeing. Because it’s intangible, it can be much easier to stuff away or avoid. The good news? You can change things up just by getting started on sorting and clearing—not just things, but your thinking too.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you struggle with clutter? Share your experiences with us below.