How Cluttered Am I?

Why do we have so much trouble judging our own situations accurately? When it comes to clutter, some of us believe we are in one of the worst hoarding situations imaginable because there are some things left out and we have 40 pairs of shoes. Others climb over piles to get from one end of the room to the other and describe it as “not that bad”.

Some of this is simply a matter of perspective. If all the homes we enter and see on TV and in magazines are models of order and simplicity, our homes look like disasters by comparison. And some of this is related to our abilities to tolerate clutter; what I like to call the Clutter Tolerance Factor (CTF). We all know someone who becomes stressed when there is a dirty dish on the counter; they have a low CTF. Someone with a high CTF is comfortable sifting through piles of mail to find a bill that is due. I think nature and nurture work together to create our CTF.

Our distorted views of our own clutter is protective. Believing that our clutter is not that bad protects us from the certain pain of really seeing our clutter…seeing it the way others do. It also protects us from the feelings of guilt and shame associated with letting things go this far. And imagine that we had to see it every day and feel powerless to change the situation. The down side is that not seeing the clutter accurately means we will never take action to address it.

And what about those people who think their situation is worse than it is? They are driven partly by fear. Fear that their appraisal of the clutter is off and that others will see it differently. It’s criticizing yourself before others can. Seeing our situations in a negative light may also be indicative of our harsh inner critic, but that is a subject for a different day.

If you aren’t sure “how bad” your situation is, try looking at one room as if you had just entered a friend’s home. Now what do you think? Or take pictures and evaluate those. It is amazing how we can judge a photo more accurately than we can the real thing. Or you could use the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale or the Clutter Image Rating Scales. If all else fails, ask the opinion of someone you respect; someone who is not afraid to tell you the truth and who can be objective.

Even if you can judge your situation relative to that of others or on a scale provided by the experts, the only thing that matters is if the clutter is a problem for you. If you are not losing things, living things in an unsafe environment, or distressed about the amount of clutter in your home, then it doesn’t really matter how it compares to others. Do you have a different opinion?

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Denial

Let’s divert a little from the subject of cognitive distortions to a coping strategy that Hurricane Sandy has me thinking about. After talking to family in Connecticut and hearing debates on the radio about whether the New York City Marathon should be held so soon after the storm I have thinking about denial. First there is the denial so many people had that a disaster like this could happen to them. How many of us do not have a family disaster plan, safety kit, and grab and go box with important information and documents?

ESPN broadcaster Colin Cowherd of all people alluded to denial on his radio show today. Regarding the marathon he commented something like “people deal with grief in different ways”. Denial is seen secondly in a way we cope with grief and tragedy. Denial has a way of making other people angry, but it serves a very important purpose. Denial protects us from experiencing the full force of our emotions. It is a primitive coping strategy, but it will work for a lot of us who are lucky enough to escape disaster. Some might argue that having the marathon would allow those runners, workers, volunteers, and spectators a chance to escape the realities of what happened. They could use some denial time to begin to cope with their emotions. I am not arguing that the marathon should or should not have been held; I can see both sides of the discussion and I am glad I did not have to make the decision.

Denial can also be seen in the professional organizing industry. People often ask how someone who hoards can live like that, and my first answer is ‘denial”. Can you imagine if you didn’t employ denial as a coping strategy and you were able to truly see, feel, hear, and smell, the situation in which you were living? And to know that you played a large role in creating that environment? Challenging people to work their way out of hoarding environments can be met with resistance and anger because the challenge goes head-on into the denial.

So how do you help someone change their hoarding behaviors when they are in denial? I think you start by finding small opportunities, by opening the door a crack rather than breaking it down. Sometimes people can recognize a need to increase their own safety or gain a little counter space to prepare a meal. If you can respect their boundaries and just help clear a path or counter, you might get another chance later to open the door a little more. You can share your worries about their safety that come from a place of caring and not frustration and control.

Helping someone dig out of a hoarding situation is likely to be a long and emotional journey. When someone uses denial as a coping mechanism they need time to learn to experience their emotions without getting overwhelmed by them. Whether the denial is about a risk, loss, or a living environment, it serves a protective purpose. If you are stuck in denial, see if you can open the door a little to ask for some help to find another coping tool that might be more effective. If you see others stuck in denial, offer your compassion and understanding. Remember that people deal with grief and pain in different ways.