What Do Cognitive Distortions Have To Do With Clutter?

Isn’t it fascinating the way the human brain works? I love trying to understand the way people think and how they get from point A to point Z in their brains; it’s like driving a car from one place to another. Most of the time people’s brains drive them safely to their distinations. Sometimes, however, cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, drive people into a ditch.

Cognitive distortions are faulty, irrational ways of thinking, and many are frequently demonstrated by people who need to de-clutter and even more so by people who hoard. The one I hear most often in coversations with my clients is black-and-white thinking. Examples include:

  • Thinking that it is a failure if they didn’t de-clutter the whole house
  • Believing they must not really care about the environment because they did not recycle every piece of paper
  • Not being able to let something go because they cannot find the perfect charity

We all display this and other cognitive distortions from time to time. The problem arises when we believe these un-helpful thoughts are true and we cannot move ourselves from them. I have a great bumper sticker from Northern Sun Enterprises that reads “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.

So what can you do if you frequently drive into the black-and-white thinking ditch?

Step 1: Just notice it. Monitor your thinking and catch yourself thinking in this polarized fashion. Don’t judge yourself for it, just be aware that you are thinking that way.

Step 2: Try to discover if there were factors led to faulty thinking. Were you tired, hungry, or already upset about something else?

Step 3: What was the result? Did you end up content and closer to your goal? Or more likely, did you end up angry, sad, or anxious?

Step 4: Fight to stay out of the ditch! Challenge black-and-white thinking with rational and more helpful thinking. Ask yourself questions to see if your thinking is accurate. For the examples above:

  • Are you really a failure if you only got part of the house de-cluttered? In order to not be a failure (never mind successful) do you have to do everything 100%? Would you judge your friends by the same standard?
  • Can you care about the environment and not recycle? Are there other ways to show you care? Is recycling most things better than recycling none?
  • Who benefits by your generous donations if they never leave your house? Is it better to get donations to a charity that is good enough or to no charity at all?

What other questions do you ask yourself to help your thoughts stay on the road? Do you agree with the bumper sticker “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”?


References: Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D.D. (1989). The feeling good handbook: Using the new mood therapy in everyday life. New York: William Morrow.