Clean Closet, Clear Mind
At Whering, we encourage you to keep your mind off of things. While it may sound like a rather ambiguous statement, it simply means that material items occupy too much real estate in our precious minds, leaving the more important things with enough room for a tight squeeze in our cerebral memory drive, when it really should be the other way round. This brings us to the topic of mental decluttering, and therefore physical decluttering as a whole, because believe it or not- they are very much intertwined (and thanks to the decluttering queen Marie Kondo, we’re all much more aware of things in our life that no longer “spark joy”). With Mercury in Retrograde on full blast, most of us are probably finding ourselves restless and overwhelmed by our own thoughts. One minute you’re completely fine, and the next you’re overtaken by a sudden urge to cut bangs, throw away everything you own and start a new life from scratch. Feeling stuck is a completely natural feeling that we all experience at some point in our lives. It seems like the perfect time to talk about the power of decluttering as a form of err.. wardrobe meditation?
In order to fully explain the surprising benefits of decluttering, we need to start by understanding why we have clutter in the first place. Of course, this is a complex question and the exact answer will vary from person to person. Still, after many long conversations during our Wednesday Wine sessions, I’ve noticed a common theme: A lack of clarity (aka we’re not sure what we want or need in our lives; not to be confused with a sense of failure, but rather really high expectations for ourselves). This can manifest as confusion about our personal style- you see it in our closets and in how we decorate our homes (by ‘us’ I mean you, me, Jenny from the block, your mum, grandma, you name it- we’re all recovering hypocrites all the same). When we’re not confident about what we like, we’re easily swayed by magazine articles, Instagram ads and shop displays. The result? A lot of stuff, but minimal satisfaction. When the things we own don’t represent who we really are inside (or when we don’t stop to think about who this inner person even is, really), there’s a disconnect and it leaves us searching for something more. It’s a never-ending cycle… and this is just the tip of the iceberg, so buckle up.
“Clutter is something many people struggle with,” says Dr Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit. In addition to wanting a more orderly home, she says, “decluttering is also a practical strategy people can use when they’re seeking a sense of control. Since there’s a lot of change in the world, that’s something people crave.” Look deeper and you will find confusion about personal values- who are you and what do you believe in? If your life is cluttered, then there’s a good chance that you’re not sure how to answer this question and it shows. Without a deep sense of purpose and belonging, you feel adrift and restless. You’re pulled in all directions, chasing every shiny object that catches your attention in search of something that will make you feel whole and satisfied.
A new dress, a new car, a vacation or a career change…
There’s always something on the horizon, but it doesn’t matter. There’s still a missing piece to the puzzle. But what happens when we start clearing clutter from our lives (aside from being able to finally match all your socks)?
As I’ve mentioned, there are immediate benefits. Less stuff means less time cleaning, less tripping over toys and less stress overall. But then what? As you continue to declutter, the going gets harder. You’ve cleared the “easy” stuff- old t-shirts and extra socks ridin’ solo after a trip to the washing machine- and now it’s time to challenge yourself. The expensive designer handbag you never use, a dusty sewing machine, an untouched book collection. It can feel almost painful to let go of some items… but why?
Again, it’s not an easy question to answer, but I do believe that often, there’s a fear of being vulnerable. Owning certain things can be a way of protecting ourselves from the world. It feels “safe” to hide behind clutter, using it as a mask to avoid the risk of exposure. That expensive designer handbag shows you you’re successful, even if you don’t feel that way inside. A sewing machine might prove you’re a “good” homemaker and your book collection is evidence that you’re well-read and educated. These items signal to the world the confidence that you might not feel on the inside.
There's some evidence that physical clutter can negatively impact on our emotions and general wellbeing. Research published in the journal Current Psychology found a direct link between procrastination and clutter. The researchers surveyed university students, young adults in their 20s and 30s, and older adults, mostly in their 50s. They found procrastination contributed to clutter across all three age groups and, among older adults, it led to a significant decrease in life satisfaction. In another study, from Princeton University in the US, researchers found physical clutter negatively affects the ability to focus and process information. Dr Boyes says organising our spaces can benefit our mental health and processing capabilities, as it “requires our brains to plan, order, sequence, make decisions, overcome anxiety about decisions and overcome procrastination”. She says it can also increase confidence. “People can feel held back by their mess. Long-term mess often reflects our past selves, so decluttering can make us feel we have a fresh start, which can be energising.”
The unspoken relationship with your clutter makes it hard to let go, but when you do something surprising starts to happen. At first, a decluttered life can actually be uncomfortable. You might feel bored or uneasy with your new space and simpler options, and might be tempted to fill it with something else. But sit with your discomfort for a bit and notice what happens: when you have a decluttered closet and you start dressing with a simpler wardrobe (this doesn’t necessarily mean a capsule or minimalist wardrobe, just… simpler), what do you see when you look in th emirror? For me, it was an entirely new experience. I used to get dressed while thinking about the persona that I was creating, almost like an actress getting ready to go on stage. I was “professional Jess” or “easy-going Jess” or “confident Jess”, and I chose my outfits based on the person I wanted to represent to the world. It felt safe but after I decluttered my closet, my costumes were gone. Suddenly, I had less to hide behind and I was forced to look at MYSELF in the mirror. Raw and unfiltered… I didn’t recognise my reflection and honestly, it was painful at first. Still, I resisted the urge to buy more “stuff” and in time, I was rewarded with the gift of self-worth. I started to wear less make-up, I stopped colouring my hair a new colour every month, and I learned to genuinely love the woman staring back at me. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin and confident too, in a way that had eluded me for decades. I noticed similar ripples of change in all aspects of my life.
In the past, I had purchased expensive clothes that I didn’t really want in order to signal that I was a “cool girl”. After decluttering, I realised my self-worth is not defined by my clothes. I chose to downsize to a smaller closet and this enabled me to become more financially stable for the first time in my adult life. My increased self-worth also empowered me to declutter my schedule. After a lifetime of countless of to-do lists, 24-hour schedules and subsequent procrastination caused by the overwhelming feeling of being burnt out, I found the courage to step back and allow myself to relax. I stopped worrying about what other people would think and decided to take control of my schedule. I started working less and working out more, enjoying yoga and educating myself on topics I’ve always found interesting… and this eventually led to a completely new life. New friends with common interests, new hobbies. I was no longer defined by my possessions, and this gave me the courage to be someone I never dared to be, yet played the character of through costumes.
I don’t need “stuff” to protect me, because I’m confident in my own self-worth. I know who I am and what I believe in, and this is the greatest gift of decluttering.
The good news is this is a gift that just keeps giving. Decluttering creates a positive feedback loop- the more you declutter, the more you learn about who you are, which in turn makes it easier to let go. You’re no longer pulled in a million directions because you know what matters to you. It doesn’t happen overnight. You probably won’t feel different right away, but keep going and see what happens. Every time you make a decluttering decision, you’re not just deciding to let go. You’re also making a decision about the type of person you want to be. It won’t be easy- you’ll get stuck, feel confused and probably want to give up ont he whole idea of clutter-free living. Trust me, it took me several years to make any progress with my own clutter and I wanted to throw in the towel many, MANY times. I know it doesn’t feel “magical” when you’re in the messy middle, but then one day you look in the mirror and you catch yourself smiling at your reflection… and you’ll wonder why you ever needed so much stuff in the first place.
How to start tidying: 5 speedy decluttering tips
- Consider getting rid of things you haven’t used in a year.
- Don’t hold onto possessions out of guilt – for example, because it was a present.
- Designate just 10 minutes a day to your decluttering project if you feel overwhelmed by the very thought of it.
- Keep digital memories of items you're throwing away, but would like to remember. Sometimes, looking at a photo can be just as sentimental as having the object right in front of you.
- Declutter by category, Marie Kondo style – start with clothes, then books, then papers, rather than going room by room.