The Many Reasons We Rely Upon Our Clutter

Zen Habits

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Clutter isn’t an easy problem to solve, no matter how many times I might tell you to toss it out, tell you that you don’t need it.


A book isn’t just an object with words on it. A jewelry box isn’t just a container. Clothes aren’t just protection from the elements.

Each of these inanimate objects means so much more to us.

We put our emotions into them. We rely upon these objects to fulfill needs in us.

They are our crutches.
These crutches are convenient, because they save us from having to learn to cope with tough things. We’ve relied on these crutches often since childhood, and our culture has programmed them into us. If I point them out, some of you may get angry at me. That’s OK. Anger is an appropriate response — I’ve felt it myself when these issues came up in me.

What are we to do when we discover these crutches? We can’t just toss them out and think we’re done. We have to find new ways of dealing with our emotions and the world around us. Let’s start today.

The Roles of Clutter

These aren’t all true for every person, but I’ve found they’re very common:

1. Security. When we have lots of stuff around us, we feel more secure. Somehow it’s as if we can survive the apocalyptic winter, or at least an earthquake or economic recession.

New habit: Learn to combat fears with information. What’s the worst-case scenario? What could you do in that case even without the items around you? Do you have people you could rely on? Can you learn skills that don’t require clutter? Could you live without? Try it for a little while and see.

2. Self image and self worth. Clothes and jewelry and shoes and handbags make women feel pretty, feel attractive, feel good enough as a woman. Men rely on clothes, gadgets, hats and other accessories, tools, sometimes weaponry. We feel manly and good enough. Buying these things — shopping — is an activity that fills us with more self-worth, or at least staves off the feelings of inadequacy.

New habit: Learn that you don’t need external objects to be attractive or good enough. You are already perfect. Learn to love yourself as you are, without self improvement. Most people aren’t judging you, and if they are, they are not good for you.

3. Memories and holding on to the past. Photo albums, mementos, gifts from loved ones, yearbooks and other school memorabilia, souvenirs, books, trophies, plaques, framed photos, sometimes old clothes … these objects and more hold emotions and memories from the past. They represent good times, perhaps better times, perhaps love from someone special, past glory, shared experiences. But this is living in the past, and while the past is important, it isn’t your life.

New habit: Learn to live in the present. Let the past go, like an old friend who has come to visit and has now left. You can always revisit this old friend later, but there’s no need to hold onto her. Let her live her life, and you live yours. You don’t need objects to represent memories and good times and glory, because those objects aren’t those good times or glory. Those objects aren’t the love that they represent. Live new good times, make new love.

4. Love. It was mentioned above, but it’s actually a separate role. Objects that have emotional value — often gifts or something similar — represent the love of the person who gave them to us. Earrings from your husband, a hand-crafted gift from your child, a book from your parent. We hold onto them because we use them to feel loved.

New habit: Realize that things aren’t love, and that the love is only in people. Go spend time with those people, if possible, and not with things. If the person is gone (possibly dead), realize that the love is in you, not the object, and you don’t need this crutch to feel that love.

5. Possibilities for improvement. Self-improvement books or literature on our shelves we haven’t read, tools for building or making something, exercise equipment or yoga clothes, gardening tools or baking apparatuses, a dusty old bike or running shoes … there are lots of objects we don’t actually use but hope to someday. Holding on to them represents the possibility, sometime in the future, that we will be better. We will improve. We hope, and as long as we hold on to those objects, that hope is alive.

New habit: Squash every bit of hope in yourself. Just kidding. But again, live in the present, not in the future. Do things right now that make you happy, and don’t keep objects as placeholders for some perfect future that will never come. If you don’t use things, give them to someone who will. Maybe keep one, and tell yourself if you don’t use it in the next month, it goes. Mark it on your calendar.

6. Comfort. When we’re feeling lonely or depressed or stressed or frustrated, we often turn to shopping. Buy objects, because they won’t judge you, they will comfort you like a teddy bear or security blanket, they don’t require wooing or coddling in order to be in your life, just a credit card. But they don’t solve any of your problems, and in fact add to your clutter problem and possibly your debt problem.

New habit: Deal with the problems. If they seem tough, deal with them in small steps. Loneliness means we need to connect with other humans, not object. Depression can be helped by talking with people, by getting active. Stress can be relieved by simplifying your life, being active, resting. Frustrating problems are best dealt with by eliminating things or working out better ways of doing things.

7. Procrastination. Sometimes we know we don’t need things but we leave them in huge piles because we don’t want to deal with them. Clutter is procrastination, because it’s easier to leave it and let it pile up than deal with it, just like it’s easier to avoid dealing with problems. Deal with it later, I don’t have time right now. You dread the pile. But putting it off only makes it worse, and the stress of putting it off builds up inside us, deteriorating the quality of our lives.

New habit: Take one piece, and deal with that. Feel good, and take on the next piece. You don’t need to conquer the mountain, but just that first step. Get helped from a friend or partner, and make it fun and social.

8. Excitement. Camping or mountain climbing or skiing or surfing or biking gear can represent excitement in the future. Lots of other objects might also represent future excitement — computers, clothes, jewelry, tools, luggage, and more. Somehow just having these items in our lives means we might someday have more fun.

New habit: Realize you don’t need objects for excitement or fun. You can have fun with nothing. By yourself. Or with a friend. With new friends. Right now, not in the future. And when the future comes, you can still do that, without all this gear.

There are many other roles that clutter plays in our lives, but these are some of the more common ones. Once you start to look at your clutter in this way, you can see that it’s a crutch. That you don’t really need that crutch, because you’re strong enough to learn to live without it. And you’ll be better off without it.


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  • T.J. says
    Oh my, this is me!!! I swear (and I can provide references) I have kept every gift/card/letter/miscellaneous item EVER given to me as although I know I shouldn't I do associate it with the person who gave it to me and I feel that by throwing it out or giving it away that I am rejecting that person...I know it yet I still cant let things go. Anyone else out there like me??? Please let there be at least one....
  • StillMe says
    Yeah, not sure I agree with all this article, with half of it, in fact. All the points seem valid, but the 'new habits' don't all work for me. Throw all my camping gear out because I only use it once or twice a year and I can have fun with nothing? Whatever.

    I actually just started decluttering my house/garage this weekend. I have about 5 boxes of crap that I'm chucking tomorrow, and this is just the start. I hate crap. My kids have crap, and I can't throw much of that away without upsetting them, so I'm trying to minimize my own crap.

    When I moved to this house it was meant to be temporary. My daughter had been attacked by the neighbours dog and we needed somewhere asap. This was the only place available, and I hated it. But once we were settled the thought of packing all the crap up again and moving it was just too much to face, especially on my own, so here we still are, almost 3 years later.

    But after reading this article I'm ready to head back out to the garage to see what else I can move on.

    Wish me luck :)

    ps. TJ, I just threw out some birthday cards from my 21st birthday...
  • T.J. says
    Ha - I have cards from EVERY birthday! From my '0' day ie when I actually arrived, onwards! Living (then) in a small town I'm guessing there was a shortage of 5th B'day cards cos 3 of them are the same - Go Bulls Bookshop!!
  • Wice says
    Juat as I try not to forget things (throw the clutter from my mind), I don't throw away things that have meaning for me. My screensaver has amazing pictures of holidays and family events from years ago. Every time one comes up, I get enormous pleasure from it. I have books by the score. Sure, if they are rubbish, I get rid of them, but I love my library. I have cuttings from all sorts of sources in my garden. I have recipes. and birthday cards, and clothes that don't say 2011. So what! . I have things my kids gave me when they were litttle - things that meant so much to them then (if not now) and I love them. It is the human condition to be able to go back and to look forward. We don't live just in the present. Our past is what makes us what we are.

    Good memories are beautiful and useful and having things to help us remember them is something to cherish. Throw out the bad stuff but as they say "don't throw out the baby with the bathwater".
  • Dee-Dee says
    ....yeah I don't agree with most of what has been said in this article...I would never part with things I consider valuable or because I don't use them enough....that would be ridiculous in my world....

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