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?

Dogs Aren’t the Only Ones Who Hate Mail Carriers

If it were “allowed”, would you too chase away the mail carrier by barking and growling? Would you sacrifice the possibility of receiving checks and beautiful cards if it meant you would never again have to deal with the mail? You are not alone. In fact you might be surprised to know how many of my clients struggle with the mail. I have seen coping strategies that include leaving it in the mailbox until nothing else will fit, going to the mailbox every day and only pulling out the interesting pieces, putting all the mail in a bag or box and putting it in the closet, and leaving it all in the car. The interesting thing about these strategies is that none of them involve throwing out, recycling, or shredding. None make an attempt to reduce the amount of mail that comes in. Fortunately, most of my clients have already established electronic bill paying so there are not financial consequences to their disdain for and avoidance of the mail.

Why would some people choose barking and growling at the postal workers to keep the mail away? It’s fear – fear of making the wrong decision about what should be done with the mail. Can the junk mail  be recycled or does it have to get shredded or thrown out? The retirement fund constantly sends prospectuses and notices of privacy practices, so they must be important, right? Am I the only one who doesn’t understand all the numbers other than the part that says what I used to have and what I have now? And the coupons! Am I going to go to that store or restaurant before the coupon expires?

Imagine being afraid of making the wrong choice and not knowing if there will be dire consequences. It’s paralyzing. Now imagine that the thing igniting your fear happens every day…except Sundays and national holidays.

What can you do if you are a person who cringes at the sound of the mail truck?

  • Recognize your fear. Don’t try to be less afraid, and don’t berate yourself for it. Just notice it.
  • Establish some guidelines you will follow. For example, shred anything with your social security number or account numbers; recycle anything addressed to “neighbor’ or “resident”; and keep anything tax related.
  • Realize that even if you discard something you shouldn’t have, the consequences are not usually dire. Unpaid bills generate second notices, and you can request a copy of many other documents.
  • Establish a home for papers you need to keep long-term. Scan and save an electronic copy or establish a filing system.

If these step are too challenging for the level of your fear and avoidance, ask for help. Sometimes having another person review your decisions for a while can make it easier. Seek out professional help if the anxiety is debilitating, and consult experts in record retention guidelines. Take steps to reduce incoming mail by getting important information sent to you electronically and getting your name off junk mail and catalogue mailing lists. If all else fails, ask a friend to mail you cards or notes of encouragement and compassion. It might just have the same effect as a mail carrier giving the barking, growling dog a bone.