Do you struggle with clutter, or do you have a loved one who does?

The odds are pretty good you do – recent community surveys suggest as many as one in twenty people may suffer from excessive acquiring, saving and clutter (also known as hoarding). 

Clutter can slowly and insidiously disconnect us from what matters most, and transform our physical surroundings – closets, drawers, storage compartments, offices – into non-functional places. The spaces and the items that clutter them no longer function as we intended. They have lost their original meaning and purpose. 

When we let the chaos of clutter take over even little areas of our lives (like a utility drawer in the kitchen that is just a confusing mess of random stuff), we often feel disconnected and unintentional about how we are living. Taken to the extreme, unchecked clutter and hoarding can ruin relationships, health, homes, and even lives.

Whether you are a clutter bug or just somebody who loves one, connection can offer you a positive path forward. By focusing on building and maintaining connection to your most cherished and important values, you can motivate yourself to take constructive action. You can also help minimize the frustrating conflicts that plague and immobilize many hoarders and their loved ones. 

In short, connection is one of the best tools available to help you start cutting through the clutter.

When You Create the Clutter

The first step away from a clutter-filled existence is getting clear on what your values and priorities are. (This also happens to be the most effective first step for overcoming most chronic problems.) 

What really matters most to you in your life? 

Take the time to seriously think about this question. Is it your family? Is it your health? Is it something else? Write down the top priorities that occur to you, and then rank them from most important to least.

What’s at the top of that list? 

Whatever it is – and I bet it’s not the papers piling up at home – set an intention to connect to it. Think about whether (and how) your daily activities and clutter help you achieve this value – or prevent you from achieving it.

If your top priority is your family, but your cluttered house prevents you from having them over, and every conversation is an argument about cleaning up your clutter – then you may not be living in alignment with your priority. If your top priority is helping others, or finishing a project, but your cluttered space makes it difficult for you to take care of your health, or find the things you need to finish the job, you’re also probably not on the track you want to be. Your life is disconnected from your values in an important way.

To overcome ingrained clutter or hoarding habits, experts agree it really does take something as powerful as your #1 priority in life to give you the motivation you need. I’d suggest you write down your top priority on a piece of paper and post it up on a wall or doorway somewhere you will see it every day, and reconnect to it. This life priority will be your guiding light, to remind you why you want to make a change. It will help you find the strength to push through the discomfort and hard work of habit change.

Buried in Treasures is a helpful, research-based book with detailed step-by-step instructions to help people with excessive acquiring, saving and clutter overcome their hoarding habits. Once you’ve connected to your life priority, this book offers a compassionate and practical road map out of a clutter-filled lifestyle. It also provides an enlightening look at common motivations for clutter and hoarding that non-hoarding loved ones will benefit from, as well.

When You Love Someone Who Clutters

Connection may be the powerful force you need to help your messy loved one, whether they are just a clutter-prone person or someone struggling with a true hoarding disorder.

For most of us, it feels intolerable to see someone you care about living in conditions you would never accept for yourself. Many people feel intense anger and frustration, as well as anxiety about their loved one’s lifestyle. These strong emotions can make productive conversations difficult. But connection theory can help guide you to a place where change is possible – by nurturing a more positive relationship between you and your loved one.

Instead of making it about your values and standards for living space, let your connection with the other person be your priority. 

If this strikes you as hypocritical (or even impossible), ask yourself this:

Is it more important for you to have a positive relationship with your loved one, or for you to be right?

Do you value your own clutter-related beliefs more than you value this person?

I doubt it.

Focusing on nurturing a positive relationship doesn’t mean you will become an enabler of their clutter. It just means you’ll make an effort to understand your cluttering loved one’s viewpoint, just as you would with anyone you care about. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand their perspective. Don’t judge. Don’t argue. Just listen for a while.

People with hoarding tendencies often feel that keeping their objects promotes something they value – whether that’s thriftiness, responsibility, sentimentality, entrepreneurialism, or some other self-image they have for themselves. This is why they typically become very upset when others remove their items. The objects represent an essential part of who they are, and what they value.

For example: someone who saves news or informational clippings may define themselves as a knowledge resource for others. Someone who saves screws and random bits of twine may do it because he values himself as someone who’s thrifty and always prepared.

Many clutterers believe they have a terrible memory, and that they can’t put important things away out of sight without forgetting them. Many struggle to throw an object away because they want to be sure they are disposing of it responsibly – placing it in the hands of someone who needs and will use it, or recycling it appropriately – not just tossing it in a landfill. 

The most common motivations for hoarding and clutter tend to be very relatable, human ones. And once you open your heart to see that humanity, true connection can flood in. 

A respectful, compassionate relationship is truly the only way you can help hoarding loved ones stay safe and healthy in the long term – which is, of course, the ultimate priority. Without a close and trusting connection, you will never be able to help them overcome their cluttering tendencies.

If your loved one has serious issues with hoarding, but is not willing to work on resolving the root causes, you may want to consult the book Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter. It offers detailed advice and game plans for harm reduction, helping minimize the risks to your loved one’s health and safety. It also helps walk you through the challenges of building and maintaining a close connection to your hoarding loved one, with suggested dos and don’ts for ensuring productive conversations and enduring trust.

Hoarding is an immensely difficult issue to overcome, for both the hoarder and their loved ones. But connection helps us take that first, important step – identifying what truly matters most – so that everyone can move forward together.


2 responses to “Cut through the Clutter with Connection”

  1. Alisa Hagenberg says:

    This is a very helpful article. I’m curious, my partner isn’t a true hoarder but there are A LOT of papers around in piles they have been there for a very long time. I’ve had several conversations with him around it. In this you share to be more compassionate. I get that. And how can I show up for him compassionately while helping him sort through? 
    Thank you 🙏 

    • Kristine Klussman says:

      Hi Alisa, and thanks for your comment. The key to being compassionate is to listen and acknowledge the other person’s feelings without judgment, but avoiding judgment is often quite challenging in hoarding (or messy paper pile) situations. Ideally, you can engage with your partner in a kind, non-judgmental way about why he has been keeping these papers — what he hopes to achieve with them. Supporting him — instead of challenging him — as he thinks through his “why” may help him see and accept that it’s time to let them go… or to file them somewhere tidier and more useful for what he wants to accomplish with them. I hope this is helpful to you both. Good luck!

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