Spring Cleaning Shame

It’s the time of year when spring cleaning actually seems attractive. The sun is sparkling, the windows beg to be opened.

But what if you’ve got so much stuff the whole idea just makes your stomach knot up? What if you’d love to wipe down those walls, but you know you would have to spend so much time moving things to get to the wall, there’s no point in starting? What if you’d really love to have people over for a deck-side al fresco meal, but you’re ashamed of the mess – and overwhelmed by how long it would take to clean the place up? What if your recurring nightmare is that a co-worker might, without any warning, drop by your home – and you might accidentally open the door – outing your shame to people who aren’t really your friends and forever changing the way they see you?

In other words, with the sun twinkling through lime-green leaves and the world enticing you to open your home, perhaps you’re starting to wonder if, like those hoarding folks on TV, you might have a problem with your relationship to “stuff.”

The artist, David H. Cobley

“Clutter,” by the artist

Are these warning signs that you’re becoming a hoarder? Do you need help? Or should you get help now – before you need help? And how, exactly, do you go about changing your relationship to your stuff if the idea of tackling it just makes you want to sit on the floor (since the chair’s covered in clothes) and cry?

First, keep in mind that you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. Despite the intense shame you may feel about messiness and clutter, it helps to know that a whopping chunk of us struggle with these issues on a seriously impacted level – as many as 2-5% (or one in twenty people). Which means there are many, many more of us who are somewhere along a spectrum – people who could benefit from some preventive or supportive help to bolster good habits.

Second, always remember to be kind to yourself – treat yourself the way you’d treat a beloved family member or friend with the same issue. Whether a person’s life challenge is overeating, overspending, clutter or any one of our society’s many shame-filled struggles, I strongly believe that self-hate is a big part of the problem. To tackle this, or any other deep life-change issue, we should all work to accept ourselves, and then approach the problem like it’s, say, a house remodel – something to productively address, step-by-step with expert advice along the way. Something we want to do to improve our lives. And not an emotional stick to beat ourselves with.

Third, it helps to understand the components that contribute to the problem, even if you personally don’t have a clinical-level problem. The reason for this is that it helps you understand factors that can push ourselves to worse or better tendencies. Here, at NPR, is a nice interview about the topic. It’s worth a read – but one of the most useful things it points out is that there are usually at least three factors at play when someone struggles with this issue: a) a kind of magical attachment to things and their relationship to our sense of selves and our past, b) a lack of experience in feeling the discomfort of discarding things – which allows the person to realize that the discomfort is fleeting and bearable, and c) a problem with organization, probably because of being more of a visual thinker, and less of a categorical thinker. One of the reasons I like this interview and the article that follow below it, is the fact that each of these facets of the issue can be seen as tips for how to improve your own relationship to stuff.

Fourth, know some good resources for the issue. Check out this website for hoarding. And even if you don’t have a level of problem like the site addresses, it can be, again, a good source of knowledge, insight and tips. There are also numerous good sites and products for dealing with clutter.

Finally, here are tips I’d suggest for people who are somewhere along the spectrum of dealing with “stuff.” Even if it’s a big financial stretch, consider hiring a weekly or twice-weekly house-cleaner for a 3-6 month period. It’s cheaper than therapy, forces you to get things somewhat tidied before they arrive and, once the cleaner leaves, you may find yourself inspired to invite people over, or even motivated to do some deep clutter-purging. Also, consider joining forces with others. There are many support groups for clutter-busting. We’re wired to succeed when we work together. If nothing else, it greatly diminishes the toxic shame factor that overwhelms and undermines so many of us.

Does your house make you cringe? Is messiness the new criteria for excluding or shaming people? Do YOU have tips for helping deal with “stuff”? Or insight into why we find ourselves in this position? Sound off in the comments section. Doc Gurley is the only Harvard Medical School graduate, ever, to be awarded the coveted Shoney’s Ten Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing, and is both a Board-and Bored-Certified internist. You can get more health posts at www.docgurley.com, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific fun, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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