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Packrats and Clutterbugs

When collecting = hoarding

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Packrats and Clutterbugs

Many of us are clutterers, but about four percent of the population are compulsive hoarders. Find out if you're a clutterer and what you can do about it.

You walk through the front door and immediately encounter the clutter–a stack of unopened mail sitting on the hall table, along with a tangled heap of gloves, scarves, hats, keys, maps, umbrellas, and shopping bags.

The clutter continues throughout the rest of the home. In the living room, the chairs, sofa, shelves, and coffee table are piled with books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, knick-knacks, pictures, and papers.

The dining room resembles a shipping and receiving depot, and in the kitchen, the counters are covered with so many jars, baskets, bowls, bottles, and small appliances that there is nowhere to prepare a meal.

Move on–if you can–to the bedroom where the closet is so tightly jammed that nothing more can be squeezed into it. Clothes are draped on chairs, chests, and the bed; shoes spill across the floor amid collapsing stacks of unread newspapers. Gifts received months ago collect dust unused on top of the dresser along with a rat’s nest of belts, ties, jewellery, and socks—you get the picture.

Is Clutter a Problem?

“Yes,” says Paul Talbot, “if it negatively affects our productivity, our relationships, and our well-being.” Based in Vancouver, Talbot is a clutter therapist, simplicity coach, and author of three books, including Clear the Clutter and Simplify Your Life (Trafford Publishing, 2007). Through lectures, courses, workshops, and individual consultations, he has been assisting clients and students to declutter for 14 years.

A former career counsellor, Talbot suggests that clutter reflects both personal and social conditions. “As a society, we’re encouraged to entertain ourselves by shopping,” he says. “We have easy access to credit and we may use it unwisely.” Overconsumption may be a way not only of keeping up with friends and neighbours, but also of filling emotional voids or providing an escape from other aspects of our lives. As a consequence, we accumulate far more stuff than we need, use, or have room for–stuff we find difficult to let go of.

Clutter Compulsion

Just how difficult it is to let go of our clutter depends on the severity of the problem. Many of us are clutterers, but some–about four percent of the population—are compulsive hoarders. A health alert posted in Depression and Anxiety (2007), a bulletin of Johns Hopkins Medicine, reports that compulsive hoarding is an anxiety disorder, related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“It may be driven by an irrational fear of losing items that you believe you’ll need later or eventually find a use for (a magazine article, a garment that may someday fit again, a broken lamp that you’re meaning to get fixed,” Talbot says).

Compulsive hoarders are inordinately attached to objects that others see as worthless, the bulletin says. Their homes may become so crowded with junk, and so difficult to move around in, that they become completely non-functional. Hoarders are distressed about their clutter, often refusing to have visitors, but they are even more distressed by the thought of getting rid of things.

Irrational Attachment

To varying degrees, clutterers may also have an irrational attachment to their clutter. Talbot recommends that his clients examine their childhoods to find the origins of their need to accumulate stuff. Clutter often relates to your sense of self-worth, he observes. Birth order, the attitudes of your parents toward finances and material possessions, a perception of emotional or material deprivation–all of these factors may have influenced you.

“Some people felt they were not valued,” Talbot says. The accumulation of far too many things may be a compensatory behaviour.

Talbot doesn’t charge into people’s homes like a television cleaning team and shovel out the clutter with a backhoe. Instead, he works with his clients, demonstrating strategies for overcoming inertia, disposing of unnecessary things, and reorganizing their lives. He sets assignments for them and checks back with clients by phone between visits.

“If you do it all for them, what is the client going to learn?” Talbot asks. “They need to uncover, as they go through the piles, what they’ve hung onto and why.” Certainly Talbot shares his practical, decluttering expertise with clients, students, and workshop participants, but his ultimate mission is more philosophical.

“Really what I think I do,” he says, “is give people permission to let go of their stuff.”

Am I a Clutterer?

Three or more “yes” answers may indicate that you are a clutterer or on your way to becoming one:

  • Do you have more possessions than you can handle?
  • Do you rent storage space to house items you never use?
  • Are you embarrassed to have people over because your home is never presentable?
  • Do you waste time looking for things that are hard to find because of clutter?
  • Do you find it difficult to dispose of things, even if you haven’t used them in years?
  • Have you tried to clean up from time to time but were unable to stick to it?
  • Do you use distractions to escape from your clutter?

Adapted from Clear the Clutter and Simplify Your Life by Paul Talbot, Trafford Publishing, 2007.

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