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Peter Walsh: Dealing With Extreme Clutter

Date December 29, 2011
Peter Walsh: Dealing With Extreme Clutter

My life's work is helping people deal with their clutter. I know that sounds a little odd -- that I've fashioned a career out of basically telling people they should make their beds and pick up after themselves. But, that's not how I see it. To me, clutter is more than just the physical stuff that fills our homes and our personal spaces (the kids' toys we trip over in our living rooms, that stuff that's been sitting in boxes in the garage ever since we moved in to the new house, or that pile of magazines that just don't get thrown away).

For me, clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living. While that can be the physical stuff, it can also be the stuff in your head that's a hurdle for you -- the 'negative-speak' that destroys your self-esteem, or the quick reflexive rush to judgement or the out-of-proportion angry response. It can be repeated poor communication or some behaviour that you know you should change but just don't seem to be able to. In my world, all of these are clutter and -- just like the physical stuff -- can be things that stop you living the best life you can.

And, so, for me, my career has been incredibly rewarding. Not only do I help people live in environments that are cleaner, healthier, and which make them feel better -- but I also help them deal with changing the negative behaviours which have gotten them into this state. At the heart of what I believe is the idea that you'll never get organized if you don't understand what's keeping you from getting organized in the first place.

When it comes to the physical stuff, generally people accumulate clutter of two types -- and you may recognize yourself here. The first is what I call 'memory clutter' -- this is the stuff that reminds you of an important person, or event, or achievement in the past -- things like those old college papers from 20 years ago, or your adult children's baby clothes, or that soccer trophy you won in kindergarten -- things in a drawer or cupboard somewhere that you just can't seem to part with. The other kind of clutter is 'I might need it one day clutter' -- this is the stuff you hold onto in preparation for all those possible futures that could eventuate. Neither remembering the past nor preparing for the future is a bad thing in itself. The problem only arises when the stuff you own begins to take over and interferes with the life you could be living.

The reasons people hang on to both of these types of clutter are complex. Clutter can be a response to fear or to some trauma from the past. It can also be the manifestation of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.

For many of the people I work with, the primary relationship in their lives is not the one they have with another person. Instead, it is the relationship they have with their stuff. Think about that. They look to what they own to provide something it simply cannot -- support, love, respect, communication, warmth, care and so on. If you're investing too much time in the acquiring and retention of stuff, I can guarantee that your relationships with family, friends and yourself are suffering. If you're not careful, what you own ends up owning you. That's a place no one wants to be.

I find people are more motivated than ever to get rid of the excess of stuff. As we recover from the hangover of the holiday season gift-giving (and receiving), most of us look around and feel a slight bit of nausea at 'all of the stuff' that's filling up our homes. We've heard the line that living with less can make us happier; but, until we understand what forces (both internal and external) are driving us to over-consume, we'll never get on top of our mess.

Your home is a reflection of your life. It's impossible to make your best choices for your most authentic life in a cluttered, messy, disorganized space -- it just doesn't happen! When we talk about our overwhelmingly messy basements, garages, or guest rooms, we say things like that room makes me feel 'suffocated' or 'unable to breathe' in a space. Clutter robs us of life -- physically, psychologically, socially, emotionally and usually financially. Decluttering opens your space, allows you to focus and feel motivated. By surrounding yourself only with those things that are beautiful and useful, you are able to truly create a space that reflects your best life.

Being organized is about so much more than neat files, color-coded clothes or a tidy garage. Being organized changes the way you live your life. This is what makes my work so exciting and fulfilling. I hope you'll watch how decluttering and getting organized can transform homes and lives on this season of my show Extreme Clutter on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Two Night Premiere: January 1 at 11 p.m. ET/PT and January 2 at 10 p.m. ET/PT

 

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