Sort Clutter: Find Yourself

Sort Clutter: Find Yourself Sorting belongings and deciding to keep, donate, sell, upcycle or toss items can be simple. Until it’s not.

Through the years, I’ve worked with clients and participated in the process of clearing stuff from homes and spaces. I’ve watched them work and proceed smoothly. And then stop. Their faces changed, and they’d either sit down, walk away or simply stare at something.

It could be anything: a gravy boat or a pet’s toy. An old book or a candlestick.

We keep stuff for a variety of reasons. As we try to sort through our belongings and figure out why we have so much stuff and why we can’t get rid of anything, we get frustrated. Understanding ourselves and the events of our lives can simplify the process.

Many of us hold onto items due to unresolved grief. The participants in my last workshop distilled this fact. They were a highly interactive group and talked about their processes of moving into smaller spaces. They’d been working on creating intentional spaces for years and were glad to talk to one another about how to deal with their final categories: photos and mementos.

The work of Abraham Maslow Ph.D. can be a good place to start grief research. One of the most influential writers on human motivation, he developed the pyramid of needs, with the deficit needs (lack) on the bottom and the being needs (surplus) on the top. The most basic need is survival (physiological), followed by safety, belonging, self-esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and self-transcendence at the top.

These needs explain us to ourselves.

Our emotional states shape how we collect items and how our living spaces feel and function. If we’ve struggled with difficult times, we may try and sort items that remind us of those events. If our sorting attempts fail, we may judge and beat up on ourselves. We give up. Our latest forward momentum stops.

Grief’s Transformative Powers

Grief is part of life. We all face challenges that stop us in our tracks.

It may be hearing a medical diagnosis, being involved in an accident, learning that a loved one is dying, losing a job, watching a child struggle with something or staring at a figurine with the sudden realization of what it actually represents.

Regardless of the actuals events, this situation changes our lives and disrupts all our hopes, dreams and plans.

As we hear the information about these events, the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure (actually two structures on both sides of our brains) is the specialist that handles emotional matters. Its job is to receive information from the environment, evaluate its emotional significance and organize fitting responses.

Depending on the outcome of the amygdala’s analysis, we run away, fight or freeze (do nothing). Many of us get anxious. Anxiety hits with surprising stealth and affects us in many ways: shallow breathing, racing hearts, cold hands and feet, scattered thinking or inability to breath. How anxiety expresses itself depends upon biochemistry and neuroscience.

Without knowing it, we start the grieving process. Depending on the circumstances, we feel our grief and process it at different speeds, depths and intervals. This process is composed of stages.

Denia, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

The first stage is denial. Denial is a smart response. It gives us time to think and talk to helpful people about the situation so we can figure out what to do.

Denial is a stage of rationality. We can still function in ways that are somewhat similar to how we were before we got the news. Being in denial allows us to talk about our situations without realizing that we’re actually researching how to handle events that have happen to us.

Denial lasts as long as it needs to and then fades into the background as anger pounces.

Anger rises up and pours over us, infusing us with energy and power. This strength can propel us forward, pushing us to complete unfinished tasks. It can help us face these situations and take actions that lead to clarity and a new sense of being alive.

Anger dwindles when we need to make last-ditch efforts to restore our “old” lives. Depending on our religious and spiritual practices, we make deals and offers compromises (bargaining) in order to restore life as it was prior to receiving the news.

Bargain is pointless as the situations unfold. Depression creeps in and sets up camp in our minds, bodies and entire beings. We feel hopeless and lost. We are scared. We cope with each moment of every day while feeling emotionally devastated. Sleeping and eating are chores. The harder we try to do these chores, the more we fail. The more we fail, the more tired and beat-up we feel.

Gray fog wraps us in blankets, muffling all aspects of living. Eventually that fog becomes a friend, keeping many of life’s complexities at comfortable distances.

Eventually, some part of us rises up and decides it’s done. It’s tired of feeling tired and beat up and wants something else. “There must be more than this” is the wake-up call that starts to diminish depression and replace it with acceptance.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that the grieving person is happy about the situation. Acceptance merely means is that the situation happened and it sucks. And that it’s time to move forward. The mechanism is unclear. The only identified goal is to move. Hopefully more forward than backward.

How Grief Relates to Clearing Clutter

Stuff is associated with memories of times – happy, sad, terrifying, angry, loving, and joyful.

If we don’t understand what our stuff represents, we use what I call “clearing questions” to remember what we were doing when we acquired items, whom we were with and the nature of our relationships at that time and now. If we hold or touch objects as we sort through them, we may feel energy. Some feel negative and we may recoil when we touch them. Others feel positive and we smile or giggle. Still others are neutral.

When we keep items that we link with painful past events and relationships, we keep those memories alive. When we see those objects, we can feel grief and loss. Processing those feelings requires commitment and trust. Grief does what it wants. We, as grieving people, have to surrender. Over time, we follow the path laid out by grief and learn, at very deep levels, about ourselves and our lives. We “finish” the process and emerge changed people.

Moving Forward

Sorting items and accepting the grief that arises is liberating. Accepting our feelings, giving them room to breathe and shift, can result in new solidity as people and clarity about our thoughts, choices, values and actions that didn’t exist in our “former” lives.

With appropriate support, people can heal from past trauma while they clear objects they don’t like, need or use and donate them to people who need them. Donating our items to others so they can re-build their lives closes the healing cycle. Future events can open the cycle again, but we’re equipped and ready to handle the events. As we learn about ourselves by clearing our stuff, we create healthy spaces that support wellness.

Sources: Toward a Psychology of Being, Abraham Maslow Ph.D. (1962); “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, William G. Huitt (2004); On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1969); On Grief & Grieving, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (2014); Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (1995); The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Michael Craig Miller, M.D. (ed.) (2005); Karen Hallis facilitated the workshop mentioned in Feb. 2017.