There’s a rather famous self-help guru/talk show host who made the phrase “How’s that working for you?” his daily mantra with guests. This question implies that everyone chooses behavior because they get something out of the behavior. When that ‘something’ is no longer working, change can happen. Of course, the guests on the show needed help to change, so it’s OK that the rest of us might need a bit of help to change, even when we know that keeping clutter isn’t working anymore.
At some point, getting things felt good. Otherwise, nobody would do it. It was working! Maybe it soothed worries about being poor or not having enough. Maybe it helped hide ugly feelings for a bit, or appeased a relationship wrought with stress. I believe that every clutterer started collecting because it met a need—yep, at some point, having clutter was working for you. And because it met a need (even just temporarily), it seemed like a good plan to keep on keeping things, and getting things. This usually isn’t a conscious thought process. It ‘just happens’ and then keeps happening.
It looks like science agrees with this idea. The accumulating and keeping of stuff may be connected to a ‘rewards circuit’ in your brain. It felt like there was something about getting things that was good, and your brain got used to this idea. The more you collected, the more you saw clutter as a reward. So, even though clutter may be destroying your life now, since it rewarded you in the past there’s a part of your brain that is used to believing that it’s working for you to keep your clutter and get more.
This does not mean that your entire brain believes that clutter is all good. Chances are, there’s a pretty big part of your brain that recognizes the stress that clutter is causing, and maybe even wants the clutter gone. But this part of your brain isn’t getting any rewards or positive feedback for thinking this way. Which can make it really hard to stop collecting and start letting go.
Fortunately, you can change your brain, and it starts with a single thought: I love myself. Wait!!! Don’t close your browser yet!! I KNOW it seems like there is NO WAY saying, “I love myself” has anything to do with what I’ve said about clutter. But please, just give me another minute or two, OK? Phew! Thanks for not leaving yet.
The thing is, you don’t even have to love yourself for it to start working. And being a clutterer you know that loving yourself seems impossible. But this magical little phrase can be used to start changing your brain so that it becomes easier to let things go. So go ahead and use the thought “I love myself” in place of all your clutter thoughts. (ANY clutter thoughts, including ‘I might need it’, ‘I’ll always be messy’, ‘this declutter coach person is crazy’, ‘I can’t do this’…. you get the idea.) It’s really important to interrupt the clutter thoughts so that your brain can start making new circuits.
Next, start to connect rewards to the action of letting go of clutter, or not acquiring clutter. Doing this is part of retraining that part of your brain that connects clutter with rewards. You can start with a simple phrase like “I did it!” or “Yay!” (another personal favorite). And then tie the word in with a rewarding action. So, decluttering can become a little bit of a fun process. (Honest!) Start small where you can let something go. Then reward yourself with words and actions. Do you love reading? Perfect! Find 3 or 4 things that you can take out of your house. Set your house free of them, and then congratulate yourself and sit and read a chapter or two. And then repeat!
Hate washing the dishes but love that new show? Start the dishes early enough to get them washed, and then tell yourself what a fantastic job you did and reward yourself with your favorite show. Even if doing the task/letting go does not FEEL good at all, that’s OK!! Your brain is probably not going to instantly decide that you now love decluttering and can’t get enough of it. If that was the case we’d be set! But slowly and steadily those tasks will become less painful and easier to start.
So, maybe right now getting clutter still feels really good. (At least, until you get home and look around at all the clutter.) But you can change your brain to find other things that are rewarding. That’s not to say you’re going to turn into a minimalist or anything. But you can get to the point where the reward for clutter is much weaker, and the reward for creating a peaceful home is really strong. Once this starts to occur, you will find it easier to make headway. You begin to create a virtuous cycle spiraling you towards a better place—Three Cheers For You!!!
Got questions? Put them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Chances are, you’re not the only one who has that same question and they’ll be glad you asked.