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Guilt, messiness and forgiving yourself: What I learned from being a professional declutterer

Reformed hoarder and clutter expert Emma Gleeson looks at what her work has taught her about how we run our homes – and our lives.

Emma Gleeson

OVER THE PAST seven years I have been in and out of people’s houses (remember that?!) helping them declutter their lives and get a handle on their stuff.

My clients have ranged from empty nesters, to parents of young children, to older single people reflecting on their colourful lives.

I’ve learned three important things:

  1. No two households run their homes the same way
  2. The reasons we hang on to clutter are universal
  3. No one is talking about how clutter gets into the house in the first place (well, I am, I wrote a book about it!)

Let’s take the first point. Most decluttering books offer a clear-cut one-stop-shop method for decluttering and organising. This, to me, falls short of capturing the actual reality of people’s lives. Each one of us has a different view of organisation and it’s so important to understand your own tidying personality before you start a clear-out.

Often people can write themselves (or family members!) off as “messy”, when in fact they simply need a broader system of organising than what we’re used to seeing on perfectly Marie Kondo-ed Instagram posts.

A household containing clashing organising personalities can of course cause conflict, but I hope that my book Stuff Happens! can give readers an understanding of why we are all different and how best to work with these differences to make a home run smoothly.

Guilt is a huge reason for clutter building up within a home. What’s very important is to be able to understand what the root of the guilt actually is instead of just shutting the door of the spare room in shame, unable to face it.

If you can sit with the discomfort of your clutter, or more specifically each item that you’re struggling with, the guilt can relax a little and a more clear-headed decision can be made. Below is a list of the broad categories that clutter guilt can fall under, and how best to tackle these trickier decisions.

It was expensive

A very common reason for keeping something you don’t need or like, especially clothing. Forgive yourself for past spending mistakes and recognise that keeping the item will not bring that money back to you (in business lingo, it’s a “sunk cost”). Keeping it just reminds you of a past mistake and passing the item on will set you free and hopefully motivate you to make wiser purchases in the future.

It’s “useful”

Irish people tend to have a thrifty gene that can get out of hand when it meets the amount of stuff anyone with access to the middle aisle in Lidl can accumulate. You have to be really honest about whether this item is useful for you. Passing it on to someone who will actually use it will make you feel so much better.

It’s sentimental

This is very personal and therefore hard to give specific advice on. For larger memory items like school projects or furniture, I would suggest taking good quality photographs before giving the stuff away. You need to really sit with these items and unpick whether they have actual emotional value for you or whether you are keeping them for someone else … which leads me to …

It’s inherited

I often get asked about what to do with unwanted larger inherited items like furniture. I’d advise photographing them to hold the memory of the person who owned them, and to practise gently refusing items you don’t want before they enter your home. Once they’re in, they’re very hard to budge!

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The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my years of decluttering is that we are not facing the elephant in the room when it comes to how stuff gets into our homes in the first place. Clutter is the symptom but how we shop is the root of the problem. 

I believe that if we can understand why we have so much stuff and change our shopping habits for good, our homes will remain clutter-free long term. Not altering how we shop as we declutter is like going on a crash diet — it will never stick long-term and we’ll be back to Square One in six months.

I’ve had clients in desperate need of my help who still had online shopping parcels waiting unopened in the hall, and more on the way.

During lockdown, online impulse shopping has skyrocketed as many of us search for a little bit of comfort but be warned — your future self will have to deal with all that stuff you barely wanted and just bought out of boredom.

So many of us are caught in this clutter cycle — we do a clear-out once a year, dump everything on already overwhelmed charity shops, and steadily fill our house with stuff only to rinse and repeat the following year. This has to change. It’s bad for the tidiness of our homes, our wellbeing, our wallets, and this rate of consumption is wreaking havoc on our planet.

In my book I not only give decluttering and organising advice, I delve deep into the psychological traps that keep us buying more and more, and how we can learn to buy less and buy only what we really love and need. From there, it’s far easier to build a home filled with only what is beautiful or useful (hopefully both!).

Stuff Happens! By Emma Gleeson, published by Penguin Ireland.

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Emma Gleeson

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