Why Decluttering Is So Overwhelming (and How to Overcome Feeling Stuck)

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Blog/Creating Order/Why Decluttering Is So Overwhelming (and How to Overcome Feeling Stuck)

You thought you were decluttering the right way. You pulled everything out of your closet, dumping everything on your bed. Then you started going through things one item at a time, thinking about the last time you wore it and if you’d wear it away. Item. After. Item.

Your energy flags, so you get something to eat. Your attention starts to drift and suddenly you’re putting more and more garments into a ‘maybe’ pile. Then you realize that you’re running out of time. How did it become evening? Why is this taking so long? Why didn’t you have the habit of decluttering your closet every year, so things never got this way?

Overwhelm kicks in and you find yourself putting most of your clothing back in the closet while muttering all sorts of nasty things about yourself. You’re DONE. DONE. Just done.

Not the most motivating decluttering session, was it? With that type of stress, why would you want to do it again the next day or the next week? And if you struggle with the executive function of emotional control, you may end up overreacting and getting rid of too many things or underreacting and not seeing the calm results you desire.

But you can fend off overwhelm by using one or a few of the techniques described below. Read the scenarios and see where you fit so to find the solution that will be most helpful.

You Have Too Much Stuff

I know you read that heading and rolled your eyes. Isn’t the reason that people declutter because they have too much stuff?

But ‘too’ much is relative.

Years ago, I was convinced that I should hold onto every book I bought … and that I could never own too many books. Nowadays, I hold onto physical copies of my favorite books, those that I reread every year or three. Even now, I have books that don’t fit my reread or refer-to qualifications and I plan to weed out a few more.

Once upon a time, hundreds of books felt just right; today, a few dozen feel like too much.

The Stuff That's Important to You Chages with Your Life

We change … our interests, obligations, lifestyle … which is why the things that didn’t bother you yesterday feel overwhelming today. And then a family member or friend was talking about decluttering their home and stuff. Or you read an article in a magazine or online…or saw something on television.

Some bit of information that floated around you in the past suddenly clicked in your mind. You realize, “Hmm, I don’t need to hold onto this stuff. Or that stuff. Or…LOOK AT ALL THIS STUFF I DON’T NEED!”

And then overwhelm kicks in because you realize you have xx-number of years of stuff that didn’t bother you yesterday and you’re wondering – “How did this not bother me? How did I not see this?”

Solution: Be Kind to Yourself and Support Who You Are Right Now.

Be kind to yourself. All these things in your home are connected to people, activities, events, and aspirations that filled your life. This doesn’t mean you need to hold onto all of this. It means you acknowledge, “I did this. I wanted to try that.” And then you see what your life is now and if those things still have space in your home and life.

Focus on the things that you want to keep. It can be easier to see what isn’t as important to you when you start with what is.

When you declutter from the “I need to get rid of stuff” perspective, you can trigger feelings of deprivation and stress. You can end up in a struggle – “None of these things seemed important until I tried to get rid of them. Then I thought I should hold onto them ‘just in case’ I needed them someday.”

​​That’s fear talking, not rational thought. Instead, focus on the stuff you love and use.

You Try to Declutter Too Much at Once

Traditional decluttering advice often recommends emptying out the closet or cabinets you want to declutter so you can see everything you have. (Oh, and if there’s more someplace else in the house, go get it and add it to the pile.) The theory is that when you can see it all, you realize you don’t need or use it all.

Myquillyn Smith on The Nester writes about “quieting” a room which involves removing everything from a room and then returning only what you want, need, or miss. While this allows you to appreciate a space free from excess, all that stuff has to go somewhere, even temporarily.

I’m not discounting these techniques for everyone. But if you don’t have the time, energy, or tolerance for chaos, you may end up unable to make necessary decisions with hundreds of them clamoring to be made.

​By following the directions, you now have all this stuff spread out over the floor or over the furniture and you don’t know where to start. (It’s amazing, you don’t realize how much stuff you can fit into a drawer until you take it out of that drawer and spread it over the bed or a tabletop.

Going through Everything Means Going through Everything

You started the project thinking that you’d be able to go through everything. But this technique that’s meant to show you just how much stuff you own has shown you just how much stuff you own.

​And you have to handle each and every one of these things. Oh, and make a decision about each one. And there’s the pressure of working quickly because now this stuff is everywhere and it’s in the way of doing anything else in your home. Hmm, no wonder you feel overwhelmed.

Solution: Work in a Little Space

A Little Space is a shelf, a drawer, or a quarter of a tabletop covered in stuff. Only pull out that stuff, make your decisions what to do with it, and return what you want to keep. If you have time, move onto the next shelf or drawer and then the next.

​The area you want to declutter still gets done, but you stay in control of how much you have to deal with at any one point.

You Think You Should Hold onto Stuff "Just in Case"

Maybe you haven’t seen this thing for five or more years, but the moment your eyes land on it you think how useful it could be…someday. Getting rid of these types of things can be fraught with stress. These are the things that people always joke about never needing until the moment they get rid of it.

​Has this ever happened to you? What was the thing that you got rid of? And was it really that important?

Useful Isn't the Same as Used

The Minimalists introduced what they call the 20/20 Rule – could you replace an item in twenty minutes or for less than twenty dollars? Then chances are it isn’t all that important (particularly if you can’t remember the last time you used it and can’t name the next time that you’ll use it).

Useful isn’t the same thing as used.

​Another way of thinking about this is – what else could you use if you didn’t have this item? Could you rent or borrow it? Would you rather have the space in your home or these items that you may end up cleaning or rearranging or buying storage containers for while you hope it proves its use?

Solution: Substitute.

Use the 20/20 Rule. But first, consider what you would do if you didn’t have this item. Would you buy this if you didn’t know how or when you were going to use it?

How to stop feeling too overwhelmed to declutter.

You Never Learned How to Declutter

Maybe your parents were like mine and they held onto everything. You learned this habit like it was a rule you had to follow – or else.

Or perhaps your parents were so organized that they found it easier to declutter and organize stuff for you. And maybe this made you cling to stuff because you used to hate having your possessions disappear on someone else’s whim. Or you know what organized looks like, but you have no clue how things get that way.

Talk to Someone Who's Organized.

Can you list 10 things that you think an organized person does that you don’t do? Is there someone you know who is organized and that you could ask them how they stay organized? Can you select one habit to develop – perhaps cleaning up what you were using (yes, it’s the ‘put away what you were playing with before you pull out more toys’ rule that you may have been told to follow as a kid – both of my parents probably had hoarding disorder and they still insisted on this rule).

Solution: Learn from Resources that Work for You.

Depending upon how you like learning – read directions or watch a video – there’s lots of resources available to you. However, you don’t have to jump on the bandwagon of the first book or video you encounter.

If you have young kids, you may want to follow the videos of a content creator with young kids. On the other hand, if you’re retired and live alone, you may want to find someone like you.

Or simply find someone who you’d like to hang out and chat with even if they have 12 kids and live in a huge farmhouse while you live in a one-bedroom apartment with a cat.

Instead of trying to mesh the organizing philosophies of a dozen different people, pick one person to be your guru and stick with their books, blogposts, or videos. And allow your own intuition to guide you.

Learning new habits isn’t easy. You’re rewiring the way you think. Focus on one habit until it becomes automatic and then move onto another habit.

If you continue to struggle in your attempt to build new habits, look for a smaller, simpler habit (say, hanging up your coat, putting your keys in the same place each time you enter the house, tossing junk mail immediately).

A key to developing new habits is that you should feel successful with what you are doing so you want to repeat it again. Putting your keys on that hook by the door may feel like a hassle, but when you grab your keys on the way out the door the next morning (saving you from your regular 10-minute hunt for where you dropped them), that cheering feeling will encourage you to hang up your keys when you get home.

You Get Stuck While Trying to Make Decisions

One of the reasons you may be holding onto things ‘just in case someone needs them someday’ could be because you struggle making decisions. You’re caught up in a bunch of rules that you learned from your parents, teachers, friends, coworkers, and the media.

Things worked out when you followed these rules … and you gained approval from the people you acquired them from (probably unconsciously). And so, you’ve never questioned if it would be okay to pass along gifts you never cared about, toss old bank statements, or get rid of clothing that doesn’t fit (because you don’t know, someday it might) because what you were doing seemed to work.

But now that you’re looking at things differently, you need different rules…and you need to break the ones that you have that are no longer working for you.

Know Your Rules to Break Your Rules

But first – you need to catch yourself thinking about these rules. Catching these thoughts can be tricky, but one way to notice them while you’re decluttering is to stop yourself when you find that you’re putting something back where you found it ‘just in case’ you or someone else needs it someday.

Another clue that you’re thinking unhelpful rules – you decide to box something and put it into storage – whether that’s your basement, a shed, or off-site storage. Pause and question how and when you see yourself using these items.

​But first – you need to catch yourself thinking about these rules. Catching these thoughts can be tricky, but one way to notice them while you’re decluttering is to stop yourself when you find that you’re putting something back where you found it ‘just in case’ you or someone else needs it someday.

​Another clue that you’re thinking unhelpful rules – you decide to box something and put it into storage – whether that’s your basement, a shed, or off-site storage. Pause and question how and when you see yourself using these items.

Solution: Advise a Friend

Another technique to try is to imagine what you’d say to a friend if you were sitting beside them as they were decluttering these very items. If your friend said, “You know, I should just hold onto this because, well, because” what would you say to them?

It’s amazing how our thinking is always clearer when it comes to offering others advice about their situation than it is to mull through our own issues.

Make Decluttering Less Overwhelming

If decluttering feels overwhelming, you are not alone! Remember, starting today brings you one step closer to achieving a peaceful and organized home.

To limit some of the stress –

  • Focus on what you want to keep - what you know you love and use.
  • Declutter Little Spaces. Yes, empty those five shelves, but one at a time, to keep the mess under control.
  • Remember, useful isn’t the same as used. If you didn’t have this item, what else would you use?
  • Practice a tiny organizing habit until it becomes automatic and then add a new habit.
  • Consider the advice you’d give a friend if they couldn’t make up their mind about what to do with these things.

Overwhelm comes from a feeling of too much … too much stuff, too many decisions, too many doubts, too many “what ifs.” When you’re overwhelmed, this is a sign to look for what you find to be too much so you can take the appropriate actions to calm those feelings.

Stop feeling overwhelmed when decluttering your closet or other spaces in your home and live a less cluttered life.
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Hi, I'm Susan McCarthy

Professional Organizer

After years of organizing ... and wondering why I was never organized ... I realized I needed to declutter. But that wasn't the entire solution. I also needed habits so I could stay organized. Wondering why the clutter keeps returning? Let me show you how to become organized. 

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