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Why can’t I let go? The psychology of clutter and hoarding explained

Most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves hoarders, but perhaps if we were a little more honest with ourselves, we would find that we actually have lots of things at home we never use anymore, but just can’t bear to throw away – which is technically hoarding! Why is that? If we generally consider ourselves to be reasonable, tidy (ish) people, how come we still struggle to totally declutter? And what about the items that we never seem to be able to throw out? There are some that prove difficult to throw away or even rehome, what’s it all about?

The hardest things to let go

Most of us tend to have a clear out once in a while. Generally considered a spring clean, we throw out the old so we can buy all the new! After you’ve worked out what’s useful and the stuff you like, the rest is all for recycling, storing or throwing away, right? Easy. Ah, but this isn’t always the case, is it? In fact, there are a few things that are particularly hard to make a decision about. See how many of these you can relate to.
  • Books – These often hold sentimental value because they are stories we have enjoyed. They might have been owned by a loved one, or gifted to us at a particular time.
  • Clothes – We keep items in the hope that they might fit again one day or come back into fashion.
  • Music – Technology has done away with the need to keep physical copies of our music, but for many of us CD’s and vinyl are collectable items and remind us of the time we first heard our favourite bands and artists. Music is an incredibly emotional thing.
  • Keepsakes – from trophies we won at sport’s day, to the art work our children make for us. Even, sometimes, the old notebooks and journals we kept from our youth, these are items that bring back memories different stages in our lives.
  • Childhood mementos – Sometimes it’s toys we collected or clothes we wore. Being reminded of a simpler time can make us feel like these things would be painful to throw away
It’s completely natural for these items to mean something to you, they are part of your life and these things often have a sentimental value. A lot of research points to our basic psychological make up resulting in us making attachments to things that we own. But how many of these could we actually live without, or not have in our everyday living space? Do you still read the books on your shelf, or listen to the old CDs you have in a drawer (or two)? There comes a point where you are keeping things that take up the space, but don’t add any real value to your day-to-day life. This is when collecting an item can turn into hoarding. Refusing to let go of stuff you don’t need can sometimes become a larger problem.vinyl book comic collection clutterAccording to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Hoarding is the compulsive purchasing, acquiring, searching, and saving of items that have little or no value. The behaviour usually has deleterious effects – emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal – for a hoarder and family members.” Of course, it takes more than a little clutter to be defined as a hoarder, but when your valuable space at home is taken up with things you don’t use anymore preventing you from living a bigger life, then something should be done about it .

Theories behind why we keep things

The British Psychological Society’s Christian Jarrett cover this in his The Psychology of Stuff and Things which explains that we start becoming emotionally attached to our things from a very young age. We decide that things might come in handy later, that if we throw them away we will feel the loss. Not very conducive to living a clutter free life though! Jarrett also explains that as we grow into teenagers, possessions start becoming a replacement for other things that make us happy, like positive feedback or feeling like we’re achieving success. Our self-esteem is at its lowest during our teenage years, and we see accessing material goods as a way of feeling good again. There are a lot of other theories on why we keep things for longer than we should. Research has even gone as far to show that people who are inclined to hoard have a different pattern of brain activity when it comes to making decisions on what to keep and what to throw away. But It’s been proven that having less stuff can make you happier. The Simplicity Institute conducted a survey of 2,500 people across various countries who said that they lived with fewer possessions and 87% said that they were happier after reducing the amount of things they owned. Having more space in our homes to enjoy the things we keep and spend time with loved ones is important for our health and mental wellbeing.Marie Kondo decluttered tidy homeProfessional organiser, Susanne Thiebe says she sees people "break down in tears of joy" during the de-cluttering process. As the physical debris is removed…people feel calmer. The best approach to according to Thiebe is "Ask yourself, 'Do I need it?' and 'Do I love it?' If you answer 'no' to both, let it go. And really question the love. If you love too many objects, you don't love them enough."

Finding joy in what you own

So how do we stop ourselves from hoarding? One school of thought to consider comes all the way from Japan. Marie Kondo knows a thing or two about tidying up. Her first book on the subject, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, explains some of the basic principles behind her now world famous KonMari technique, and we covered five key lessons from the book here.Marie Kondo believes we cannot live a fulfilled, happy and peaceful life if we carry on hoarding items that do not ‘bring us joy’ or are useful. Kondo encourages us to only keep items in our homes that ‘spark joy’ and that they must all have a designated home. Don’t panic if the sight of your blender doesn’t give you an enormous sense of wellbeing though, you also should keep things that you find genuinely useful, phew! Another idea is to, quite literally, bring in the professionals! Professional organisers exist and are out there for you to help clear up your space. This might seem quite drastic, but we are more likely to listen to an impartial witness to our clutter than a friend or loved one.

It’s not all bad news

Flip the script on how you think of the activity of decluttering your space. You’re deciding which of your items bring you joy and that you want to have in your home to share with people that visit it. It should be a fun exercise that leaves you feeling better about your space, not sad! Clutter can quickly become a bigger problem if left undealt with. Of course, there will be things you don’t use anymore that are far too precious to give away or throw out. For those there’s always the solution of putting them into safe and secure storage. LOVESPACE can store your items for as long as you need, and they’ll stay safe for when you need them again. Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 802 1018 or email us at Alternatively you can contact us online here

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