The Psychology of Clutter

Back in September we blogged about ‘managed decluttering’ which can feature in treatment programmes for excessive hoarders. That was alongside the news that the National Health Service now recognises that Compulsive Hoarding can be a potential indicator for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  The NHS even go so far as to give a definition to compulsive hoarding: “…excessively collecting items that are of little or no value and not being able to throw them away, resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter.”

But like many things – there’s no hard and fast rule and diagnosis is rarely straightforward – just because your house is cluttered, it doesn’t mean you  suffer from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Most districts of London aren’t exactly awash with huge properties that have acres of space, so for the majority of householders a certain amount of clutter and stuff in the room goes with the territory. So where do you draw the line?

Physical stuff takes up room. In most cases there’s some form of personal pay-off for the things we like to accumulate in our homes. Take sports equipment for example: snowboarding kit,  surfboard, or a skydiving rig …  each might only see around 2 weeks a year of actual usage – but whether you’re snaking down a powder field, carving an awesome tube or tracking across the skies  – the adrenalin pay-off  is well worth the effort of buying and storing them. They have a purpose that fulfils.  The same goes for all our music, movies and records. Even toys, shoes, clothing, furniture and antiques – in many circumstances – they either bring us pleasure or have at the potential to be worth something one-day.

In all of those circumstances you might be looking for somewhere to keep it all safe, sound and secure. If that’s a the case then any of our London stores might be the answer. Our storage advisors will be happy to help you size up a unit.  But where’s the line beyond which it is all just clutter? At what point does hoarding become excessive?

The psychology of clutter is hugely complex and even the NHS say is not fully understood. Their new guidance sheds some intriguing light on the basics of how to spot if someone is a hoarder:

  • the person finds it difficult to discard things
  • they may have problems with order, organisation and decision-making
  • they acquire more things than they throw away

The person will also have unhelpful beliefs, such as:

  • “I may need this some day”
  • “If I throw this away, I won’t be able to cope with the feelings of loss”
  • “If I buy this, it will make me happy”

But we’re sentimental beings – which means decisions on what to throw out and what not to throw are strongly influenced by subjective judgement. The need to keep some things can be down to them being objects that connect us to our past events and help retain or strengthen memories of places and people who meant a lot in our lives.

Even a moderate amount of clutter can have an impact. Allowing things to accumulate, and not having the energy to deal with them can lead to a host of self-perpetuating issues.  The overwhelmed feeling of ‘I can’t tackle this’ spreads to other aspects of life. It can affect the ability to work effectively, concentrate or sleep soundly – possibly all three combined – beginning a decreasing circle. One way to break that is to muster the will power to deal with  clutter, which is why the annual traditions like Spring Cleaning can be such a powerful psychological reset. There’s nothing that says you have to wait for spring though.

Chronic hoarding is defined by experts as when a room becomes unusable for its intended purpose. It will be filed with objects that are of no genuine use,  get in the way, take up space and – as they accumulate – increase a feeling of helplessness in tackling it all.

A number of self-help and community websites have been setup to help people get to grips with hoarding. One of the best is Help for Hoarders which we first mentioned in our September article.  They offer some terrific advice, links to some handy self-diagnosis tools and a community where you can share your experience.

If you are worried about the amount of clutter in your house or that you may have a hoarding problem Help for Hoarders and the NHS Choices Compulsive Hoarding pages are well worth a visit.

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