How I Conquer Clutter (When it’s Emotionally Difficult)

I understand the emotional attachment to stuff

I love the idea of minimalist living. I strive towards it, in fact. (At a snails pace, yes, but still – I’m striving!)

Those who are naturally minimally inclined don’t quite understand the emotional turmoil that some of us feel when we try to take on the (should be freeing) task of de-cluttering. So this post is for all you emotionally attached clutter bugs out there. The ones who WANT to live in a clutter free space, but struggle because you feel controlled by your stuff. 

I get it. I am high-anxiety, seriously over-sensitive, and easily overwhelmed. Or at least I can be (I’ve really come a long way in learning to deal with anxiety). I work everyday to bring my Sane Self to the surface. (That’s what I like to call the little voice of reason that allows me to function – when I choose to listen to her – and I do that more and more these days).

Related: Bathroom Cupboard Organization: Facing the Truth Under the Bathroom Sink
Related: How to Clean Your House When You Feel Paralyzed by THE MESS


I’ve learned 4 little tricks to make de-cluttering easier

De-cluttering is something I have worked on a lot the past couple years and man do I love how it feels to live in a home with less stuff. It hasn’t been easy.

If anyone can benefit from these tricks I’ve learned to make it easier – well that’d be the icing on the cake. So let me walk you through a typical (for me) de-cluttering session:

(First I tell myself that I will do it no matter how hard it is, because I can do hard things.)

# 1 – Get Permission

The first drawer goes ok.

I get the un-used, broken, don’t-even-know what this is into a box and I feel pretty proud of myself. Then I pick up something that I KNOW needs to go… but it can’t because (insert ridiculous reason here).

In the past I would have become discouraged, given up and probably drank some wine. But now I do this:

GETTING RID OF THE THING TRICK # 1: I call someone who I know values a tidy house and understands the burden that excess stuff can be (usually my mom, because she also understands how hard this is for me) and I explain that I need permission to get rid of the thing.

I’m no psychologist and I can’t tell you why this works, but having someone else’s permission and support to get rid of the thing helps immensely.

Related: A Simple Solution to Clutter & Disorganization

# 2 – Turn the tables

So then I continue, encouraged.

Until I pick up something that someone gave to me. (This totally derails my de-cluttering train.)

I WANT to get rid of it (oh the guilt)!

But I can deal with it because I’ve learned:

GETTING RID OF THE THING TRICK # 2: I imagine that I was the one who had given this thing to someone else and I know that if the thing I gave them was causing them this much stress, I would feel terrible! I would WANT them to get rid of the thing.

I never gave it to them to burden them. So chances are (very) good that whoever gave me this thing wouldn’t want me burdened with it either. They would want me to get rid of it. Plus it helps to remember that I am emotionally attached to stuff, and other people ARE NOT. There is also a good chance that the gifter doesn’t even remember giving me this thing and just sees it as a thing. 

# 3 – Ask for help

Then I get to the thing I can not get rid of.

There is no way. I sort of want to, but my resolve is going and I need this thing for absolutely no reason. I can’t.

GETTING RID OF THE THING TRICK # 3: I get someone else to get rid of it for me. I have to say, I don’t do this very often, and I do it less as I get better at allowing my Sane Self to be heard.

But sometimes, I call my mom (‘cus really, who else am I gonna admit this level of crazy to?!) and I ask for help.

# 4 – Get rid of the thing… NOW

I’m done for the day, so I set the box of stuff on the spare bed. I’ll donate it next time I go to town. I feel ok right now about the things I’m getting rid of, and even if some of it was difficult to imagine parting with, at least I got it in the box so I can start coming to terms with the fact that it’s gone.


I’ve noticed that 89% of the time I never even think of the thing again after it’s out of the house.

(Ok I made that # up, but it’s A LOT of the time.)

I’ve also noticed that if the box stays on the spare bed, the stuff will get out of the box.

Related: 7 Tangible & Life-Changing Benefits of Decluttering

GETTING RID OF THE THING TRICK # 4: get rid of the thing. Now. While you feel determined, while you have permission, while you understand why it needs to go.

Drive that box right to the thrift store, to the donation bin, to the dump if it’s stuff no one else will use. Do not let all your hard work go to waste.

You can do this. You can conquer the clutter. Your stuff does NOT have to control you. (Plus once you have conquered clutter it is SO much easier to stop being messy.)

Also, consider addressing the disorganization in your home – FOR GOOD. Sometimes just decluttering isn’t enough.  

Addressing the disorganization in my home took me a LONG way towards keeping clutter at bay.

But I didn’t know where to start, with getting organized and I actually needed someone to TEACH me how to do it.

If your house is constantly buried in clutter and mess, check out The Organized Home Course by Hilary from Pulling Curls. It is created just for people like us, who need to be given  bite-sized tips & lessons on organization so we know where stuff is, save time & feel more peace at home. (Because we do ACTUALLY deserve to feel at peace in our homes!)

This is the perfect course for organizing a messy home if:

  • You always need hours of notice before having guests because you’re embarrassed about the state of your home.
  • You’re always worried you misplaced an important document or won’t be able to find things when you need them.
  • You’ve ever wondered why can’t YOU enjoy peaceful time on the couch or enjoying your family instead of always stressing out about the state of your home?

If you need someone to TEACH you how to address clutter and get organized, Hilary is your girl, and you can get 10% off the course here with the code MOP10. 

I have had to be very intentional about making sure stuff leaves my house. (I’ve also become very intentional in making sure stuff doesn’t come into my house.)

(My Sane Self gets to celebrate with a glass of wine. And when my Sane Self is happy, everybody’s happy.)

More from Mommy on Purpose:
For the Exhausted Mommy
10 Things I Quit Buying to Save Money
Tackling Clothing Clutter: Confessions of a Clothes Hoarder



clutter organization ideas how to have a clutter free home

declutter when you are emotionally overwhelmed

60 thoughts on “How I Conquer Clutter (When it’s Emotionally Difficult)”

    • Yep – it’s a dangerous thing! we need to learn to be content with less!

      • Hi Carly! Boy do I wish you made house calls! Almost 5 years ago I passed out in the shower, landed on my head and got a traumatic brain injury. I passed out because I was not yet diagnosed with Gastroparesis which along with the brain injury is a killer combo for my brain. I used to be organized! But my brain injury took away to organize and declutter, I just can’t wrap my mind around this incredibly difficult task. It’s just my husband and I and our little schnoodle Tigger, yet our house is just trashed! Everything is so out of order that I can’t find thing and there are too many piles and the piles cover in front of dressers and closets so I can’t even get to them! I’m so ashamed of our home now, that I don’t let people come over to visit me. This has caused a great loss of friends and families that would have come over but I’ve refused them so many times they don’t even ask to come over anymore. So I’m anxious and depressed and just cry…cry and stare at piles. I really have to conserve my energy as I don’t get much nutrition because my stomach can’t really digest food well. I’m also tired, which comes from some of my medicines, and I also have no energy. I want to do it, but I physically handle it at all. I have visual perceptual problems from my tbi that make it nearly impossible for me to find anything in this overly cluttered house! I’m so depressed from the lack of visitors especially when Bill has to work. Because of the gastroparesis I have a very wide range of sizes and seasons of clothing. I have huge weight swings back and forth from vomiting and more. I can’t read too well, but with enlarging these posts, I’m hoping how I can do this in an extreme way! But, I typically end up feeling so frustrated and depressed on what to Do first and how to organize it.Really, our home is now a maze! I wish there were people like you that could come to the rescue, and pick me up out of this messy place and back into my regular cool home!

        Thanks for your time! No one understands me anyways!

        Wendy Harron

      • Wishing you all the best Wendy <3 (I think there are people who DO make house calls!)

  1. Great, helpful post. Thank you, from this anxious, recovering stuff-holder.

    • HI Susan! Thank you for reading! I feel your pain… congrats on being in recovery from “stuff” – you can defenitly do it, and the other side is sooooo much better 🙂

  2. Loved reading this…
    It was not dry and official. It was me. I think I will be able to approach it this way.
    Thank you!

    • HI Katherine! Thank you so much for your kind words!! And thank you for reading! I know exactly what you mean – I’ve read a few “throw away all your stuff books”, and they can be a bit…heartless. Good luck with your de-cluttering 🙂

  3. Hi Carly,
    I loved hearing about your techniques! I’d never thought about how it could help to ask someone to “grant permission”, but you’re right! My biggest struggle with holding onto stuff is in 2 areas: teacher stuff & gifts and momentos from grandparents & my mom who have passed away. Sometimes I’ve been able to part with something after I’ve taken a photo of it. This worked well with stuffed animals from childhood & the set of luggage without wheels that I got for graduation 20+ years ago. I liked your suggestion to read minimalist blogs before a declutter session. I’ll give that a try because my inspiration usually comes from watching a couple episodes of Hoarders! Thanks again 🙂

    • Hi Karen! Thanks for reading and sharing your struggles! Emotional attachment to stuff from my “people” is probably my biggest hurdle. I have allowed myself to choose a few things that I would never declutter, or never ask myself to declutter. I chose them carefully based on memories and not practicality. I have a cowboy hat and a jar of ball bearing from my grandpa, I have gifts from my parents and sister and husband, and while I know they are just things, for as long as I have them I enjoy them. I think that’s ok too if you can be sure to limit yourself to just a few of these mementos. I’d love to hear how it goes for you, if you can find inspiration in the minimalist blogs! Good Luck Karen 🙂

    • Hi Karen, your comment at the end of your message made me think, I have learnt over the last few years that what we focus our attention on is what we will see more of. Have you ever thought about something say a red volkswagen that you haven’t noticed for ages, suddenly everyone is driving red volkswagen cars! Your comment about either reading a minimalist blog or an episode of Hoarders made me realise that we need to focus on what we want, not what we do not want
      ! Thanks for helping to remind me of this.

  4. Hi Carly
    Thank you for putting into words so clearly the thoughts in my head that l haven’t been able to articulate myself , one of the things I struggle with having worked as a volunteer in countries where people have so little and yet seem happy is the guilt and stressing over ‘my problem ‘ which is simply having too much and not being able to let it go. Your ability to share and lend voice to my thoughts has given me the confidence that l can overcome this habit of hanging on to stuff and l look foward to sharing my successful journey with you.

    • Hi Julie! Thank you for reading! And thank you for your kind words 🙂 It’s always wonderful to know I can be an encouraging to people dealing with the same things I have struggled with. I would LOVE to hear an update on how it goes for you… It is SO hard when you are consumed with guilt over others who have less, but we need to remember that our burying ourselves in more does not help them to have more, and stuff does not equal wealth OR happiness. Just like you said – some people in poor countries with fewer things are happier than some of us here who have too many things, and this should make us want to be more like them! Good luck on your journey!

      • Thank you for your reply Carly l have started on my linen press today and its been a nonstop conversation in my head why have l hung onto this , do l really need a towel that has seen better days,l was given a collection of aprons by an older lady in our family and l have come to the conclusion that l was hanging onto them for sentimental reasons and l should pass them on to someone who would get some practical use from them, l will keep one or two to use and love and you know what l was surprised at how good l felt making that decision, it seems silly to have had such an attachment to something like a pile of aprons but its nice to know l can share that with you and you wont think that lm just a little bit weird. The journey continues …….

      • I DON’T THINK YOU’RE WEIRD AT ALL Julie! And great choice, deciding to keep a few aprons and give the rest away. YAY! (And just in case you need to hear it from someone, no you don’t need to keep the towel that has seen better days. Don’t feel bad letting it go! It’s served it’s purpose 🙂 )

  5. Thank you Carly,l really appreciate you taking the time and care to reply to my post. This is the first time l have interacted with anyone on a pinterest site and its lovely to feel so welcome.

    • 🙂 I am just learning about the online community too Julie! This blog is only about 5 months only and it’s a totally new experience for me – but one that I am LOVING! You are most defenitly welcome, here, and I look forward to having you!!

  6. Thank you for such a great article. It truly provides a great insight into the troubled mind. I have read many articles and books (yes, I still own them) and not once has the information really related to how emotionally attached I can be to my clutter. I’m too often overwhelmed by the stuff. I don’t think of myself as a hoarder but I currently have two and a half rooms that I don’t use because of the amount of stuff in them. I have been working on smaller areas that seem controllable until I feel ready to attack a whole room.

    Again, thank you for your insight, and for actually replying to comments. That’s something I don’t see enough of.

    • Hi Carolyn! Thank you for reading 🙂 I’m so glad you found it relate-able! Good for you for working on the smaller areas, and I believe you can tackle the bigger rooms. You already said that they are “overwhelming” so that is enough reason to believe that you can do it. Try to focus on how it will feel after they are tidy and free from the weight of the stuff and once you have a clear picture of that in your mind to motivate you, call in re-reinforcements and get some stuff in a box!

  7. Thanks for posting this. I want to make a print-out of the 4 steps, make it pretty and laminate it. But that would give me–yet one more thing to keep up with. 😛 So I’ll just pin it so I can revisit it later.

    I too look at the minimalist blogs, and day-dream about how lovely it would be… then I turn around and see the pile of free–helpful–books I’ve accumulated that I don’t know how to part with. And, don’t get me started on my junk drawer, “Everything in there is useful!” or the counter-tops, “If I put things ‘away’, I’ll never find them again…”

    It’s just nice to know there are plenty of us that aren’t quite hoarders, but are still in destructive, complicated, emotional relationships with our stuff. 🙂

    • HI Megan! Please defenitly come back and re-visit! I want you to be free from the stuff and I’m really sorry to hear about the pile of free-but-helpful-books. I can totally relate. (And I will totally confess to a junk drawer that I have absolutely no intention of getting rid of. It’s not bothering anyone 🙂 ) If you recognize that your relationship with your stuff is destructive then I believe you can conquer it too! Good Luck!

  8. Hi,

    I loved this post.. I also feel overwhelmed at times, I have read tons of books about decluttering, minimalism,… I feel I want it, I need it (I’m depressed), but those books are so cold. I am an emotional person, letting go is difficult… Books, kids toys, clothes, gifts, kids craftwork,… I have friends (and even my mom), who are so sane and clever about letting go… I’m glad I’m not alone, struggling with “letting go”…

    • Hey M 🙂 I’m sorry you’re struggling… you are DEFINITELY not alone! Can you rely on your mom or some friends to encourage you gently? I find that soooo helpful. Getting rid of the overwhelming feeling of being squashed by stuff could take you a long way towards feeling better about life in general, so don’t give up.

  9. What would you do if you never had seen or heard about it? Consider taking a picture of it before letting it go.

    • Great point Sandra! So much of the stuff we have doesn’t add to our lives at all… we just THINK it does!

  10. THANK YOU! I am a sentimental emotionally-attached-to-things clutter bug living on a budget, in a small house, with a husband and three kids and no one seems to get how hard it can be to stop the cycle! I WANT to be decluttered, I’m drowning in stuff, but it’s overwhelmingly difficult. People around me say, “just throw it out” but I can’t bare to be wasteful. I might have a use for it. The repurpose/creative/frugal side of me scorns the thought of ever being wasteful!! I’m working on it, though. It’s great to have tips (there are lots of them around, trust me, I’ve read them!) but it’s gratifying to my soul to have my feelings acknowledged. I’m not in this battle alone! LOL!

    • Aw Vanessa, you are absolutely NOT alone! It is such a difficult thing, though, to want to get rid of stuff and just not be able to. All I can say is keep working at it! It’s worth the effort, and you CAN do it. You need to really want to though 🙂

  11. Hi Carly I just stumbled across your blog and happy that I did. I’m in the middle of trying to get rid of ‘stuff’ AGAIN! You’ve given me fresh inspiration and when I have finished writing this I am going to go and get on with it. As I & you know it is still going to be difficult but it gives me some comfort knowing that others are going through the same thing. Thanks for your inspiration. Kind regards Marilyn x

    • HI Marilyn 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post- and I have absolute faith that you CAN get rid of your stuff. It just takes some determination! Good Luck!

    • Hey Susan!! Any good recommendations for bible studies that focus on emotional ties to stuff?

  12. Hi Carly I found this post via some insomniac Pinterest browsing and it’s one of the most insightful things I’ve read on this subject. I too have that whole “high anxiety overly sensitive” thing going on. And I’m also at that stage of life where parents are passing and I am dealing (or not dealing) with their stuff too. Talk about emotional minefields! Anyway, thanks for writing this.

    • HI Nancy! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post… “emotional minefields” is EXACTLY they way I would describe it! Good luck on your journey of dealing with your parents stuff. You can do it!

  13. Hi Carly, I know this post is several months old, but I just found it today. Do you have any advice for someone who suffers from depression, and has a hard time getting rid of stuff, just because there is so much of it? I am not emotionally attached to most of it, but I see clutter and it paralyzes me. I can’t start to throw/give it away because I feel like I can’t finish the task before I will get burned out. Also, much of the clutter is necessary, because I have a large family, and each person has his or her own stuff. Our house is not quite big enough for all of us, but we can’t move, and we can’t fit more furniture into the house to hold all of this stuff. So it ends up in piles, and it is depressing.

    I don’t have enough storage for the things I DO need to keep. For example, I do not have enough money to make my sewing room really efficient, and it depresses me to walk in and see stacks of bins full of stuff that I WANT to use, but can’t because there is no good place to open a bin and work. I have 2 tables set up in there: one for my sewing machine & one for cutting and hand work. They are covered with boxes and bins and piles of fabric and notions. Above the tables I have cabinets on the walls which are full of fabric, notions, patterns, etc.

    Unfortunately, this room has to be emptied whenever we have overnight guests, because we do not have a sleeper sofa or another place they could sleep. Every time a guest comes, I have to pile all of this in my bedroom (depressing me more) and then return it to the sewing room when the guest leaves. Of course, since there is no real place for each item to go, it gets piled up again, not always where it was before, so I can’t find the things I need. A vicious circle, for sure.

    I am not sure what you could tell me, but I just needed say it. I can’t see a solution, but maybe you or one of your readers can.

    • Hey Paula – you have made me want to write an entire post on this! I know it sounds harsh… but I would have to say you need to get rid of alot of the sewing stuff. We think of it as things we DO need to keep but truthfully it sounds like you aren’t using it AT ALL – so why do you need to keep it? On the other hand if I’ve misunderstood a little, and you need to just get rid of stuff that you aren’t emotionally attached too and then you will have ROOM for the sewing stuff, I say, start one thing at a time. Take ten minutes today to throw things / donate thing. And ten minutes tomorrow. And do it with no thought to it! Just grab things and GET THEM OUT! I will be writing a whole post about this soon… Thank you for sharing!

    • I totally relate to Paula. My sewing room is also the guest room. I stash it all in bins in my bedroom or the garage and sometimes, it is months before I find stuff I need. I used to sew a lot, but don’t have time now. I would love to and intend to ‘redo’ many clothes, but never get to it. I know I could give it to someone, but no one wants just ‘stuff’; bits of ruffles, scraps of lace, ribbon, etc. It drives me nuts, but I keep trying to organize it, like I see others do. Useless. I just stuff it in the totes & put it away. When I die, someone will garbage it. With most other stuff, I have an antiques shop on the premises that is turning into a ‘junk store’, as I can take it out there hoping someone will want these little nonsense items that I can’t throw in the garbage. I have hundreds of books I want to read, should I live so long. (I am 77). I also watch an episode of ‘Hoarders’ occasionally just to get motivated! I’m not as bad as I could be, but my garage is awful. House, not so bad. I need to learn to box it & drive it to the thrift shop or Goodwill-immediately!!
      Thanks for the help, I will keep trying. Pat


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