Decluttering and Mental Health

I wish I had a magic potion that would put me in the mood to be brutally objective about all the stuff I have managed to accumulate over the years. If I could market that magic potion just right….oh the possibilities.

There is a complex web of reasons why I hang on to items that I don’t use or don’t need. Here are a few:

  • “I spent good money on that”
  • “I want to be the kind of person who owns a…(fill in the blank)”
  • “It’s perfectly useful”
  • “But it’s so pretty
  • “I could make something with it”
  • “How would I get rid of it?”

The KonMari Method would ask us to do a “joy check”, that is, determine if the item “sparks joy”. If the object sparks joy, then we keep it. If not, then we are to discard it. (Discarding is, itself an incredibly fraught topic, one that I would like to return to later this week, if you don’t mind.)

What I have found over my last six years of concerted efforts at keeping a decluttered home is that we often misread ourselves. “Sparks Joy” and “dislodges feelings” are surprisingly easy impulses to confuse, especially for people who like to keep feelings of any kind at arms’ length, or for those of us who might be facing momentary mental health challenges.

If we are going to try to follow Marie Kondo’s advice, expecting that we can do a once in a lifetime “tidying festival”, in which we discard all the excess in our lives that does not bring us joy, we had better be in pretty close contact with our feelings. (I was not in close contact with my feelings when I undertook my first effort at decluttering.)

I’m not sure that once-and-for-all is a realistic expectation. Decluttering is something we get better at with practice. So is getting in contact with our feelings about the stuff in our life.

What does “joy” feel like?

As someone who began this decluttering project in the midst of a first bout with post-partum depression, I remember reading that I should keep anything that “sparked joy” and having the real, actual thought, “What if nothing sparks joy?”, followed shortly thereafter by, “What does joy even feel like?” You see, depression and joy don’t generally go hand in hand. (Hey, thanks Captain Obvious!)

If anything, the thought that something should “spark joy” when your world just feels dark and noisy feels like more noise and more darkness. But the other side of this was that we were three (shortly thereafter, four) humans living in the space that had been previously, and pleasantly so, occupied by only two people. We needed to make room. We had no choice but to declutter, because children and all their stuff occupy far more space than adults do.

What I discovered in that very first round of decluttering is that there are a few easy decisions and that they are worth making.

Do the easy stuff first

I only have Dana K. White to thank for this blessed formulation of what I was calling, at the time, “low hanging fruit.” Easy stuff. Low hanging fruit. Choose your own moniker for it: there are easy items for which letting them go is no problem at all.

“The easy stuff” in a first round of decluttering can be:

  • Real, genuine trash (Kleenex, broom sweepings, scooped kitty litter, the random feather brought home by a scalawag, little broken things, diapers [alleluia this no longer applies to us!])
  • Recyclable items (empty shampoo bottles, toothpaste boxes, kitty litter containers, any kind of packaging that has accumulated)
  • Things I actively hate: anything that, when I see it on a normal day, makes me angry, cringe, or swear under my breath. (Annoying toys, the socks that smell badly even before I put them on)
  • Clothes that don’t fit and haven’t for years, which have little-to-no emotional strings attached.

Then, in the “easy stuff” category, there are items which clearly dislodge feelings:

  • the t-shirt a scalawag inherited from the indulgent husband’s colleague, which has the words “Rebel Boy” splashed across it which makes me irrationally angry every time I see it.
  • the shopping bag I used to love, but has a broken handle that I have sworn for years I would fix and now feel guilty every time I see…
  • Actually, anything I said I would fix but don’t know how and know, deep in my heart, I will never bother to figure out. (These things tend to dislodge guilt.)
  • Clothes I never wear, no matter how they fit, if they remind me of a specific painful or unpleasant moment.

Decluttering and depression

Because I have been there, done that, and have come out on the other side of it, I would like to offer some hope. No, depression cannot be cured through decluttering. If you have depression or think you might, you should get professional help and quickly.

However, for all the noise and darkness that depression creates in our hearts in our minds, decluttering the physical space around us can start to create semblance of quiet and light.

Another benefit of decluttering while depressed for me was that decluttering created visible progress. Even just plucking the low-hanging fruit made a small but visible impact. And progress, when dealing with depression, was one thing that brought me some small amount of pleasure when I was in the thick of it.

This week, we are going to examine the process of decluttering as an act of self-care. No, it’s not as fancy as a bubble bath, but it can make a bigger impact on our ongoing mental health.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

One thought on “Decluttering and Mental Health

  1. Yeah, no. The once for all festival is a lie, Marie Kondo!! Unless you are her. Or maybe if you paid her a cool half mill, and never want to repeat that pain, OR you’re a Stepford wife, and only have 2 spatulas to get rid of.

    Liked by 1 person

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