Boxes overflowing with old phones and tangled cables, wardrobes full of clothes that barely fit, drawers crammed with letters from decades ago – when it comes to clutter, we all have our weaknesses.
But what if the items you can’t help holding onto are more than just a bunch of stuff taking up space? Turns out, they are. According to Helen Sanderson, MSc, psychotherapist and professional organiser, your clutter can help you to get to know yourself better by revealing the secrets of your personality type and mental health.
“To some, the answer to clutter is simple: just clear it. But to others, their relationship with their possessions and the clutter that amasses is more complicated. For them, possessions are ways of freezing a moment in time and holding on to it, for better or worse. I believe in clutter having a story to tell about its owner.”
Here are six of the most common clutter types and what they reveal about your personality, alongside some nifty tricks from the decluttering experts at Vintage Cash Cow to kick your clutter habit to the curb.
The fashion clutterer: Clothing, jewellery and shoes
For some, clothes represent an identity they are not ready to let go of – the person they once were or perhaps one they wanted to become but never did. Letting go of what those clothes represent would mean accepting that life has changed, that they are no longer who they once were, or may never fulfil that cherished dream.
Some experience buyer’s remorse, unable to relinquish something they invested their hard-earned money on. It feels irresponsible to let things go, somehow wasteful of their money or environmental resources. These types may be prone to guilt and regret and feel that holding on to the item somehow alleviates the remorse.
What to do about it: Be honest with yourself. Do you like the item’s look on the hanger but not when you try it on? Haven’t worn the item in over months? If so, it’s time to get rid. You could donate or recycle old clothes, while jewellery can be sold online via services like Vintage Cash Cow. If you feel guilty about letting go of things you’ve barely worn, embrace those feelings and use them as motivation to be more mindful about your purchases in the future.
The childhood clutterer: Old toys, books, and games
We keep what has a valued story to tell, so holding on to children’s things can be a way of trying to preserve the precious memories of parenthood. It is natural to want to remember the joys of their first step, word or day at school. But, when this is done to excess, it may indicate that someone takes a lot of meaning from their children’s lives rather than their own.
People who sacrificed or compromised their careers to be a parent may need to explore other ways to find more meaning in their life. Holding on to every toy and game may also be linked to traumatic loss, either of a child or in one’s own childhood.
What to do about it: Which items do you value, and which are just excess? Aim to keep a handful of the most sentimental toys and items, but donate or sell the others. Think of it as giving these items a new lease of life and allowing them to be enjoyed by another child rather than just gathering dust in your attic.
The tech clutterer: Spare phones, chargers, and cables
People with high environmental values may not want to put old tech into landfills and would rather clutter their homes than the planet. This is an admirable impulse, but if things cannot be recycled, they will end up in landfill eventually.
There is another issue regarding old laptops or phones containing information that hasn’t been reviewed, actioned, archived and memory wiped. The type of person who doesn’t get around to this is typically a ‘busy procrastinator’: someone who doesn’t want to be bogged down with details of life and the past. However, ironically, their very avoidance means they get bogged down by the related clutter.
What to do about it: Put cables and chargers compatible with your current devices in your ‘keep’ pile. Any others? It’s time to say goodbye. Some councils will accept cables in your roadside recycling. If not, many recycling centres will take them. As for phones, keep one spare for emergencies, but any extras can (and should) go after moving any precious photos and data onto an external hard drive. Most charities accept old phones, even if they’re not working.
The sentimental clutterer: Cards, drawings, and knick-knacks
Items you have kept specifically because they evoke powerful, significant memories can be the hardest to let go of. And, of course, you don’t have to let go of anything you don’t want to. The problem can be if you are holding on to many sentimental things blocking your life’s flow, productivity or efficiency.
For some, holding on to everything with a sentimental meaning may be a way of being in control of something they didn’t feel in control of in the past, the loss of someone close, or needs not met in childhood. People might need to attach to sentimental objects if they didn’t develop a secure attachment to their mother in infancy or their maturation process was interrupted.
The excess of objects can be a way to meet that need for stable connections to others they lacked in early life. Objects don’t leave unexpectedly, abandon you or reject you in the way it felt people might have in the past.
What to do about it: Go through each item individually and ask yourself: “What precisely am I sentimental about?”. Often, it’s not the item itself but a person or place associated with it. You can hold onto those memories without a physical object, so don’t feel guilty about decluttering. Place any items in a designated memory box and consider sticking cards and photos into scrapbooks. This helps to keep them safe while keeping your house free of clutter.
The entertainment clutterer: CDs and DVDs
Music is especially evocative of the good times, idealism and exuberance of youth. Yes, we can now stream all those same tracks and films on demand, but powerful associations with the excitement of trips to the record store, CDs bought after gigs or special movie nights spent with partners or friends have a strong pull.
As with old clothes, over-attachment to old media can reflect not wanting to let go of who we once were or dreamt of becoming. It may be that some losses from earlier in life have not been fully acknowledged and mourned, or some creative impulses still need expression.
What to do about it: You might feel that your CD or DVD collection sparks memories, but the memories aren’t connected to the physical disc. The songs or the footage are sentimental to you, but these are likely available online or easily digitised. Aim to keep limited edition items or stand-out discs that are genuinely special to you, but as for the rest, it’s time to sell, donate or recycle them and start streaming instead.
The paper clutterer: Documentation, bills, and letters
People who struggle to let go of old documents have often experienced pain due to missing paperwork at some point in their life: losing a piece of homework as a child or a legal case where they didn’t have all the documents needed. Events that perhaps have not been fully emotionally processed.
So, storing old documents is often rooted in fear and a need for security and control; this can be a defence against experiencing similar pain or perhaps re-experiencing something of that previous loss again.
What to do about it: Holding onto payslips, household bills and bank statements over a couple of years old or out-of-date insurance policies? You’re highly unlikely to need them again, so it’s time to get shredding and recycling. Scan future documents into your computer and store them digitally – as well as freeing up physical space, it’ll be much easier to keep to an organised filing system.