The Childhood Roots of Adult Clutter

The tendency to hoard objects is often passed from one generation to the next. Clutter is never just about “stuff.” Your possessions represent essential links to other people, and to ideas you have about yourself. Most people are pretty oblivious about the messages they unconsciously received as children that continue to influence their actions today.

Clutter can have a negative effect on your social life, especially if the fear of letting others see your home keeps you from entertaining. As you begin to bring order to your home, your confidence will grow and you might be able to widen your circle of friends as well.

For those who experienced trauma as children — such as the death of a parent, a divorce, or extreme poverty — material possessions may be loaded with far more meaning than their mere physical value. A person might be tempted to hold on to items they no longer need because at some point in their lives, they lost something (or someone) they deeply valued. The pain of this loss may cause them to think that the only way they can protect themselves from more loss is to accumulate things. The stuff they accumulate becomes an armor of sorts, creating a kind of insulation from the ravages of the outside world, but also keeping a person trapped inside.

What's Divorce Got to Do with It?

In the book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt interviews numerous adult children of divorce to see how their childhood experiences impact their lives today. One of the chapters is entirely devoted to questions surrounding “stuff.” For many adult children of divorce, the experience of having their parents separate meant more than a change in family structure. It may have caused a move from a large house to a two-bedroom apartment. It may have meant that quickly, without warning and under extreme pressure, these children had to give up multiple items that they treasured. This kind of experience can cause a person to believe that no matter how much stuff they have, they need to hold on to it all, because they never know what change is around the bend.

If you find yourself holding on to items long after they've outlived their use (for purely emotional reasons), consider taking a photo of the object to be stored in your digital files. That way, you retain a record of the person or experience associated with the object, without retaining the burden of the object itself.

Just as trauma can sometimes be passed from one generation to the next — as can tendencies toward alcoholism, emotional or physical abuse, or mental illness — the tendency to hoard material objects can easily pass from one generation to the next. If your parents (unconsciously) taught you that hoarding was necessary, they may have also conveyed to you that no matter how many possessions you owned, you would never have enough. These kinds of messages can be a huge stumbling block to a person who hopes to live in an orderly, serene, and uncluttered environment.

The Need for Abundance

The first step on the path to overcoming these messages is to learn what they are. So often, people, especially children, receive messages uncritically. From your adult perspective, try to think about what your parents conveyed to you through their relationship with stuff. If they had a deprivation mentality, you might also feel a great need for abundance.

In Julie Morgenstern's book Organizing from the Inside Out, she writes about a deep-seated need that many people have for abundance. It is her theory that these are the people who consistently buy in bulk and struggle to let go of things even when they are no longer useful.

Does having clutter around make it more difficult for me to clean my house?

Yes! Professional cleaners estimate that by eliminating clutter, cleaning time can be reduced by as much as 40 percent.

Morgenstern does not believe that pack rats must become purgers. Instead, she feels that it is most ideal to work with a person's need for abundance instead of trying to thwart it. In contrast to most philosophies of home organizing, she does not demand that her clients immediately purge. Instead, she tries to help them bring order to their environment, and expects that as the order improves, people become more discerning about their possessions.

In contemporary consumer culture, it is often far easier to acquire things than it is to purge them. If your parents hoarded multiple useless items because they “might need them someday,” you might have inherited a similar attitude toward possessions. To be fair, there are many purgers out there who do manage to get rid of possessions they still need and may be forced to go out to the store to replace items that they once owned. Blind zeal can be as dangerous for the purger as it is for the pack rat.

Still, it is often easier to replace certain items when necessary than it is to manage multiple unused items in your home. Keep this in mind if you want a clean, orderly home — clutter resists clean. The first critical battle for the home organizer is the war on clutter. If you can begin to develop a strategic approach to clutter, you'll be in a much better position to bring order to your home.

While people may disagree about how streamlined a home needs to be, it is clear that finding ways to simplify your life does help with organization. As Victoria Moran wrote in her book Shelter for the Spirit, “Be forewarned: If you organize before you simplify, things will be disorganized again in no time. This is not because you're a hopeless slob without a prayer for redemption. It is because excess cannot be organized. If it could, it would not be excess.”

What kind of relationship did your parents have with material possessions? How does their attitude toward material objects influence the way you see these things today? Take a moment and write down some of the messages that they consciously (or unconsciously) conveyed to you.

After you've begun to put words to the messages that influence the way you manage your possessions, you'll be in a better position to begin to change. Self-awareness is the key to transformation in every area of life. Before you can change how you are, you must first understand how you became that way and what hidden factors might be behind your actions. As you begin to know yourself better (and identify the messages that have influenced you for years), you might find that you are in a better position to begin to combat clutter. Now, instead of just blindly living by these messages, you can begin to let go of those messages that weren't helpful, while still holding on to the ones that were.

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