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Jennifer Baumgartner
Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.
Executive Function

Your Closets, Your Clutter, and Your Cognitions

Organizer Regina Leeds tells all!

You walk past your crammed closet and think "I'll clean it eventually." You open your packed drawers and exclaim, "Oh what's the big deal. I haven't cleaned it because I am busy." You can't find your keys in the pile on your table and say, "So what? Doesn't everyone have a clutter problem?" But after countless attempts to change your ways, the stuff in piles remains. After each failed attempt, the disorganization worsens. So why can't you get control? Because you think it is just about "stuff", the external, and you have not delved internally to find the root of the problem.

We must analyze the internal reasons for almost all problematic behaviors, such as eating behaviors, sexual behaviors, drinking and drugging behaviors, and shopping behaviors. But often when it comes to cluttering, as professional organizer Regina Leeds has noticed, we feel that we should "just know how to do it!" Through 23 years of tireless work and authoring countless organizational guides, including New York Times best seller One Year to an Organized Life, Leeds teaches us that simply learning to organize is just a piece of the puzzle. To remove the chaos, we must examine the psychological inner workings that influence our behaviors in order to create lasting change.

In order to begin the change process, examine where you come from. The roots of our ability to organize begin at a young age through the modeling and messages we receive from our parents. Leeds believes that many with clutter contagion were "raised in homes where they weren't taught" the skills to maintain order. Parents may pass on a legacy of disorder, "teaching their children that they are incapable of organization, which lets them of the hook." Leeds believes that all is not lost if you were raised in a cluttered home, the essential organizational skills, to eliminate, categorize, and organize, are learned and can be applied to all areas of life.

In addition to generational inability to clear clutter and organize, Leeds feels that indecisiveness is a primary root of her clients' difficulties. Answering, "what is the fate?" of a CD collection in the trunk of your car, stack of flyers on your table, or pair of tennis shoes in your closet can seem impossible. Does it stay or does it go? If it stays, where does it go? These questions require a higher level of cognitive processing that can be incredibly complicated to complete. These decisions often go beyond a cognitive process and include a deeply emotional one.

Nostalgia can make clearing out a space nearly impossible. Holding onto something is acceptable when it has become a vessel for an important memory. We often infuse our junk with the spirit of a moment in time, associating the tangible with the intangible. Our junk becomes the object upon which we project our internal experience that we have yet to recognize in ourselves. What we fail to recognize is that we are the embodiment of our experience. Like a stone rolling along a shore, we are shaped by all of our interactions.

Clutter is not only a container for our memories, but can be distractor for tackling deeper issues. Leeds cites that "stuff can be a buffer from pain." It is the padding from the cold hard world, the anchor in a sea of confusion, or the dam that holds surging emotions. With a safe person, such as a professional organizer or altruistic friend, in a structured time-limited fashion, removing the clutter and confronting the pain can be a cathartic process.

The internal pain that creates the clutter and the avoidance that is achieved through the clutter is only part of the psychological puzzle. The emotional impact of the clutter further reinforces distress. Leeds states that clutter creates a "brain dance," an agitation and inability to think clearly amidst the stuff. She believes that "our clutter makes noise" keeping us "upset and churned." When confronted with the piles and junk drawers we are also haunted with the "tyranny of shoulds," stemming from our feelings of guilt about our disorganization. Leeds goes on further to describe disorganization as a "waste of time, waste of money, and waste of energy." She calls to mind searches for the keys or remote, buying products we already have, and the efforts and exasperations of these experiences.

For those of us who experience difficulties with clutter and disorganization, Leeds gives us hope. She offers "quick tips" for someone who needs relief before taking the plunge to undertake an extreme declutter project. Set your timer for a 10-20 minute increment, and begin "a speed elimination." Mercilessly move through your space tossing or recycling anything that no longer works for you. Try going into a smaller space, like your closet and remove plastic dry cleaning coverings from clothing that often hold in carcinogenic fumes from the cleaning process. Replace your wire hangers, that are "meant for transport," with inexpensive wood or microfiber coated ones. Other simple tips include checking your fire alarm, carbon monoxide alarm, and light bulbs. These seemingly simple tasks are relatively easy to accomplish creating feelings of success and positively reinforcing the likelihood that you will continue to declutter your home.

The face of clutter and cleaning of clutter has subtly changed over the 23 years Leeds has worked as an organizer. First, she says that the concept of organization has become mainstream, and there are more services and tools to help create clean spaces. She warns that those tools can turn into clutter if not used. Second, during our difficult economic times, she notices that people are buying less so the "closet is not as quick to expand." Third, due to these financial strains, Leeds' clients are now more likely to sell their possessions on Ebay and Craiglist when in the past they would have given away what they no longer wanted. Fourth, with the increases in square footage of our homes and cars, the extra space "allows for more indecisiveness." When we "don't know what to do with our items, we stash it." Even with these small shifts in the acquiring, maintaining, and cleaning of clutter, Leeds feels that not much as changed, our stuff is an external expression of our internal world.

In order to fix the outside space, we must turn inward. Identifying when, where, and from whom this clutter tendency arose begins the process. We must then move to an examination of the here-and-now, discovering the reasons and hidden payoffs of keeping our stuff. Finally, shifting those faulty cognitions to prompt a change in the way we organize our stuff. In essence, we must clear our head before we clean out our closet for true and lasting change!

*This article addresses cluttering and disorganization within "normal" limits. It does not address executive functioning difficulties and hoarding behaviors that require a clinical intervention.

About the Author
Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who examines the underlying reasons for clients' style choices and creates a wardrobe to facilitate positive internal change.

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