Decluttering is supposed to help my anxiety, why is it making me feel worse?

By: Anna Guerdjikova, PhD, LISW, CCRC, Director of Administrative Services, Harold C. Schott Foundation Eating Disorders Program, Lindner Center of HOPE 






Spring is in the air. More often than not during this time of year, we find ourselves determined to clean, declutter and organize. In a way, spring cleaning is very similar to New Year resolutions and the big hurray at the beginning of the school year in August when everything is new and fresh, big decisions of how we will be better are made…but not for long. We find ourselves hyper-focused on new goals and behaviors to quickly abandon them soon after as it is too hard, too slow, too boring, or life comes in the way of our good intentions. Then the guilt of “look at this mess, I should be decluttering” sets in, we continue to buy things to organize the many things we already have and this cycle continues to perpetuate both the mental anguish and the physical clutter.

To be able to consistently change a behavior, it is helpful to understand why we are resistant to the change, even if we know it will make us feel better in the end. Digging into the barriers and the reasons for our self-sabotage can help us be more self-compassionate and to get us a step closer to actually making the changes we intend and hope for.

Decluttering can be difficult and anxiety provoking. Below we summarize some of the issues and possible ideas on how to approach the solutions to avoid self-blame and feelings of failure and to finally get the ball rolling.

Issue: The job is too huge and you don’t know where to start. It gets to be too overwhelming too quickly. 

Solution: Decide on decluttering small bites – a time period to declutter daily/weekly or one surface, drawer, rack, 1/3 closet at a time and don’t overdo it. Keep a very open mind and avoid rigid agenda (ex. be done with the kitchen by Sunday) no matter how tempting this is, as when the job does not get done for some reason as we have planned, we tend to abandon the whole project.

Issue: What if I need this later?

Solution: If you have not used it in 6 months, you are most probably not going to use it now. Most things in our households can be replaced quickly, thus giving yourself the permission to buy new if needed is the “get out of jail free card” that can help battle this problem. In most cases than not you will not have to use the card/buy the item again.

Issue: The guilt of life not lived. Textbooks we bought to study something we never got to, the hiking shoes to walk the Appalachian trail, the super expensive multicooker and many others representing the life we hoped to have or wished to live but never actually implemented.

Solution: Consider radically accepting yourself for who youare truly at the present moment in life instead of who you wished you were. Get rid of the expensive hiking shoes you have never put on. If you decide to hike the Appalachian trail, you will have to start by hiking the local parks and this can be done in regular sneakers for a while, then if needed you can buy some new fancy hiking shoes.

Issue: Change is hard and decluttering does not solveother issues.

Solution: Take it slow and give your brain and body time to process the change. If you get rid of a rug, the room will feel empty and sad and the most common reaction is to go buy another rug immediately. Try to give the new look time to settle, this will allow you to see the space with new eyes and can spark creativity and true change. If in a while you still feel you need the rug, go for it.

Give approaching decluttering with curiosity and self-compassion a try this spring. It is not fatal if it does not get done and beating yourself over what “should be finished” is not helpful in moving forward. Finally, decluttering our physical and digital spaces might make us more aware and mindful of our habits, but is not the “fix for our lives”. Clutter can be seen as a result of some struggles that we deal with and starting to tackle it might bring to light a plethora of challenges and this is one of the reasons why this process can be so anxiety provoking. Kindness to self, giving it all time and space to unfold and paying attention to the mental load behind the physical possessions might be helpful in promoting sustainable change.