Clutter never starts with shopping, collecting, or freebies. Clutter starts in your brain. If you’ve always associated happiness with getting things, that association happened in your brain. If you’ve always felt that getting rid of things was wasteful or painful, that feeling developed in your brain too.
So, it makes sense that any change also needs to start in your brain. It also makes sense that any force for change that comes from outside your brain may not be a good long-term strategy. That’s why some people who have a massive forced decluttering weekend can fill up their home again in a matter of months. It’s also why threats, coercion, bribes, and begging don’t work on hoarders. Well, those things aren’t good strategies for getting anyone to do anything, and they especially don’t work for hoarders!
The great news here is that you can change the way your brain works! We’ve all spent most of our lives believing that we are who we are, and nothing can change that. Fortunately, that’s not entirely true. YAY!!! And, training your brain can start right now. Here’s how:
The first thing to do is make a choice. If you want to have less stuff, make the choice to want to have less stuff. Stay with me here! See, wanting something and choosing to want something are a little bit different. There are all sorts of things we want. But when you make the conscious choice that you want something, you can begin to make it happen. Between you and me, you may not actually want to choose less stuff. If you’re not there, that’s OK. But if you want less stuff, take that virtual step in your brain and say, “I’m choosing to want less stuff”. And don’t let thoughts about how you will do this get in the way. Right now, it’s just about one choice.
OK, when you make this choice you are beginning to unlock potential in your brain!! Now it gets exciting!!
Next, let’s hop into our brains for a bit. There’s something called a rewards circuit (pathway) that impacts nearly everything we do every day. For example, when we feel hungry, we eat, and it feels nice to eat, and then we don’t feel hungry anymore. So when we eat it’s pleasurable, and it makes an uncomfortable feeling (hunger) go away. Your brain starts to make a circuit: hunger—food—pleasure—satisfied. Every time you are hungry and you eat, you reinforce this pathway.
Now let’s look at how that might happen with clutter:
Perhaps the circuit is sad/bored/lonely—go shopping—buy stuff—happy. When you feel sad/bored/lonely you go shopping and ta-da here comes happiness. Of course, it doesn’t make you happy forever. But the next time you feel sad/bored/lonely and you go shopping you feel happy for a while—again! Your brain doesn’t need anything more than that to create a pretty strong circuit. And you shop more and more often.
Here’s another possibility:
Someone in your life decides you have too much stuff. They ‘help’ by taking stuff away. You experience loss. You feel sad, angry, or violated. Now the circuit looks like this: stuff—loss—sad/angry/violated. Maybe that first experience with loss happened in childhood. Many clutterers can look back and identify events where this circuit started in their brain. Now, the idea of letting things go gets routed through this circuit and losing stuff (or letting stuff go) always makes you feel sad/angry/violated/other painful feelings. This is terrible!
Since nobody wants to feel like crap, it’s natural to look for something that will help feel better after a loss. Fortunately, you have this other circuit to help you out. The sad/angry/violated—get stuff—feel happy circuit we talked about earlier. Do you see what’s happening? Two circuits, one associated with getting things and positive feelings, and one associated with letting things go and negative feelings are creating a perfect storm in your life. And…hello clutter!
In the simplest of terms, training your brain to declutter is about changing those circuits.
I’m just going to focus on the ‘declutter’ circuit for now. In some future blogs we’ll chat about the ‘acquiring’ circuit.
Right now, your ‘declutter’ circuit associates letting go with negative feelings. So, let’s work on changing that circuit by giving ourselves a gift every time we let go. Start with something you are ready to get rid of. It can be anything from a newspaper to a dead plant. Let’s think through the process first. Imagine taking that item out of your home (maybe to the outside garbage or recycling can, or to a donation drop off, or your mother-in-law’s doorstep). In your mind, after you do this you smile, and stand a little taller, and go do something absolutely delightful. Got it? What’s your delightful thing? A really good cup of coffee? A cuddle with your cat? Reading a chapter in a good book?
Now, go and do all the actions you imagined. Finish off with your delightful thing. See what you did there? You made a new circuit!!! Stuff away—smiling and standing taller—delightful thing!! Of course, we want that new circuit to become really strong in our brain. Stronger than that old circuit that never worked for long. The key is just doing it over and over, with the smile, and the pride, and the delight that follows every time you let something go.
Everyone’s different. Maybe you’ll literally take one thing at a time out of your house and follow all the steps in your new circuit. Maybe it will be a bag or a box. Whatever it is you can do, do it without letting any negative thoughts interfere. This is the way you begin to make a new circuit that’s going to change the way you live your life! It can start as small as you want, because it will still start to create a new circuit. And every time you reinforce that circuit, you make it stronger!
Do this at least once a day. (Except for your STOP day—more about that here.)