Feeling Cluttered? Here’s Some Help…

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Janet Becker, LCSW, Ph.D.

April brings the beginning of spring, often associated with new beginnings and fresh starts.

Not surprisingly, many people also engage in some sort of ritual of spring cleaning.

In addition to dusting, mopping, washing and polishing, many also sort through piles of accumulated stuff, much of which gets discarded, the rest becoming organized for future use or reference.

Sounds simple enough, right?

And yet, so many of us resist facing our household messes, and have all kinds of complicated emotions which paralyze us in our efforts to get organized.

As procrastination and avoidance continue, these unpleasant emotions mount and create an ever-growing sense of self-disappointment, if not embarrassment or guilt.

Given the frequency and magnitude of this issue, it seems useful to examine the nature of clutter, the psychology of accumulating unneeded stuff, and some ways we might approach and get control of it.


Accumulation of clutter is a very common problem, perhaps especially for those of us New Yorkers who live in confined spaces.

Each day, we open our mailboxes to deluges of paper, often too much to read thoroughly, and so we push it aside into existing piles of previous mail and papers which we hesitate to throw out.

We will read them later, we tell ourselves, but more often than not, these stacks of newsletters, bills, notices, advertisements, and personal correspondence grow higher, and remain unread.

Before we know it, there may be no counter or table-top space remaining for other uses.


At this point, some readers may be saying to themselves, “So what? Who cares if my apartment is cluttered?” Well, certainly, this is a personal choice.

And if you feel unbothered by your accumulations, who is to say you should fix a situation which you don’t find problematic?

Nevertheless, many people do find excessive clutter a source of stress, although not always in a fully conscious way.

When we come home from a stressful day out in the world, many of us would prefer to see our homes as a refuge, a place of safety and relaxation.

But if we return home to a chaotic environment, we may find that just sitting in a cluttered room causes stress.

Whether one perceives this as too much visual information for the brain to process, or as a reminder of how much work needs to be done in order to get cleaned up and organized, we may find that the messiness creates a constant low-grade stress that subtly but steadily drains our energy.

Conversely, being in a space which is orderly and tranquil can soothe and help to release stress.

Coming home to this kind of environment can help one to feel like you’re entering a haven, removed from the stresses of the outside world.


On a practical level, we may have difficulty finding things we need — keys, money, shoes, cell phones, glasses — and waste a lot of time in our efforts to locate them.

If we don’t have an organized system for filing bills and other important documents, we may end up sending late payments, resulting in unwanted additional fees.

This can become a major obstacle to filing income taxes in a timely and organized manner.

Falling behind in bills and tax payments not only costs us more money, but takes its toll in additional stress.

On a psychological level, clutter-prone folks often feel depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed by their life circumstances.

These emotions leave them feeling unmotivated and incapable of taking charge of their clutter, which begins to take on a life of its own.

The messy, chaotic environment becomes a reflection of their inner mental state, which is equally disorganized and unruly.

This can eventually take the form of a “chicken and egg” riddle, in which it seems impossible to determine which came first and caused the other, and even more impossible to rectify.

As people’s feelings of shame and guilt about their inaction build, the volume of clutter increases exponentially, and they feel increasingly immobilized and powerless to make a dent in the growing chaos.

They may avoid having visitors, or even needed repair or service workers, come to their homes, as they are ashamed of the mess and of their inability to tackle it.


Some people may choose to engage a professional service to get them started in their de-cluttering process.

You can contact the National Association of Professional Organizers whose members, for an hourly fee, help clients to sort through, discard, and organize their accumulated belongings.

Or one can check out the 12-step support groups, such as Clutterers Anonymous or Messies Anonymous, as well as any number of how-to books and instructional DVD’s to help people become more orderly.

There are also TV reality shows such as “Clean Sweep” or “Clean House” which show how professional teams enter into and organize someone’s hopelessly messy domicile.

However, sooner or later, most people will need to learn how to clean up and manage clutter on their own.

If you would like some support and helpful guidelines in your efforts toward a more organized lifestyle, or, if you feel stymied by the very thought of embarking on this task, please call the MAP office and make an appointment.

Together, we can come up with a suitable plan to help you to organize your belongings and gain control of your life! 

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