Decluttering the Mind

Decluttering the Mind

February 24, 2022

Written by Life Insight

This past weekend, my husband and I rearranged our bedroom. We cleaned up the messy corners of the room, the closets, and under the bed. I whipped up a homemade Pine Sol (because, oops, I didn’t have anything for dust – what does that say about me right now?) and we dusted, vacuumed, swept, and mopped. We flipped the furniture around, decided we need to find a bigger rug now, and when we sat down on the bed to take it all in, I swear I felt like a new person. My brain felt about 30 pounds lighter.

We were inspired to rearrange the room by the fact that we are awaiting the birth of a baby, and while the “nesting” urge has come a little bit early this time, I am aware with every kick to my bladder that we have to figure out where this kid is going to sleep.

There is just something about major life transitions that make us want to deep clean, rearrange the furniture, swap out a rug, or paint a wall. I started to wonder if there is something more to that. What is it about spring cleaning at the end of winter that makes us feel so good? How are our brains connected to our living spaces? And what does it do for our mental space if we organize our living space?

What’s the connection between brain clutter and house clutter?

Your home is more than a physical space where you live. It’s a collection of experiences, sentimental treasures, and dedicated practical spaces where you can create, explore your past and future, define yourself, and experience family culture. The way you keep your home has the power to impact your life, relationships, and mental capacity. Our homes tell our stories.

We know that living with clutter and messiness in the home has been shown to release cortisol (a stress hormone) in the brain which can lead to higher levels of anxiety, lower productivity, weakened interpersonal relationships, and even memory problems. Brains love order, so living and working in a clean and organized space improves concentration and efficiency.

Oftentimes, emotional connections to objects or what they symbolize to us make us hold onto items long after we need to. Sometimes it’s guilt. (That not-quite-right Christmas gift from your mother-in-law you’re afraid to get rid of? It’s taking up more mental space than it’s worth. Get rid of it.)

A very big part of many people’s clutter is passed-down heirlooms that may or may not fit your taste, needs, or preferences. That feeling of guilt or duty to hold on to items because they were from your grandmother is heavy. Curate your collection of family heirlooms, and part with what you don’t need or want. Someone will find that collection of framed pressed roses to be a treasure. Allowing it to be appreciated by someone else is another way to honor your family history, and only keeping what you love will give you space to appreciate it more.

Getting rid of things isn’t always the answer. Although everyone has several boxes worth of items that they could part with to make organizing the home a bit easier, it’s really more about making sure everything has its place. Ease your mind by making it easier to find things so you won’t feel overwhelmed by a “junk drawer” full of chaos every time you need a couple AA batteries.

“Everything you own is an item on your to-do list.”

Is there such a thing as a “good mess”?

Yes! A study by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs shows that people using a disorganized workspace were more likely to think creatively and go against the status quo. Allowing your space to get a bit messy can help you see things in a new way. Don’t be afraid to dump out the craft supplies or make a mess on your desk. Just be sure to put everything back in its place once the project is complete.

Cleaning up during life transitions

Preparing space for a new chapter of life or saying goodbye to old patterns or habits you want to leave behind are common times to purge, organize, and clean up. Expecting parents experience the “nesting” instinct. Nesting, however, is not just baby prep. This instinct is rooted in the desire to create “safe space” during times of transition and uncertainty. The desire to create a safe, beautiful, organized space in the home can help manage symptoms of anxiety during transition by giving the nester a sense of control when life might feel a bit chaotic.

Let’s take a minute to discuss a very specific transition time: grief. Loss of a loved one, relationship, job, pet, pregnancy, or any number of things, is an incredibly sensitive transition time. Sometimes a specific room of the house is locked away for a period of time when the grief is hardest to hold. This is not the time to purge or organize, although it can be tempting. So when is the right time? Everyone is different, and the path of grief is not linear. More and more, we know that grief is not something that ends, but rather something you learn to live with. In some instances, object attachment can be a healthy part of the grieving process, and in others, cutting ties with objects that remind you of something lost is essential to continuing forward.

Sorting through mementos of a time past or a loved one’s personal items is heavy and should be done carefully and thoughtfully. Sometimes we need to allow the rawness of the loss to pass before beginning, but it is also important to not avoid the process of sorting and organizing (and maybe repurposing the room at the right time). Avoiding this can sometimes lead to feeling “stuck” in grief. If this is where you are, working with a therapist and a professional organizer who specializes in grief can help.

Purging things that hold emotional attachment

Clearing out and purging items that you no longer need can also spark feelings of grief due to a strong attachment. Many of the objects in our home are actually tokens representing something more than the item itself. As an incredibly sentimental person who feels sad about changing my contact lenses after important life experiences (it took me WAY too long to change my lenses after my wedding – they are literally the window I experience my life through!) I tend to make attachments to even the most mundane objects in my home.

When my first child was a baby, I bought a glider for the nursery secondhand, from Facebook Marketplace. When I arrived to pick it up, the mother was in tears. Her three kids were all elementary aged or older, and she clearly did not need this rocker anymore, but it wasn’t just a chair to her. It represented years of cuddling her babies, nighttime feedings, bedtime book reading, and more. We talked for a while, discussing motherhood in a way that felt like she was passing a torch to me.

As I left with the glider in the back of my truck, I waved goodbye to her and watched as she took some deep breaths before turning her attention back to the three kids running around. When I got the chair settled in the nursery, I sent her a short video of my son playing with some board books in it. She sent me back this message, “This makes me very happy. Thank you for sharing. I’ve had a heavy heart all day, but knowing it’s with y’all and it’ll be cherished warms my heart.” I know I’ll never delete that message – her sentiments toward the glider made it more special to me, too. Sometimes a chair is not just a chair.

“So many of the objects we collect through life are imbued with the energy of the giver, the event itself, and the recipient’s own emotional cognitive state. As such, the physical item may seem to have an energy or presence of its own.” -Dr. Carla Manly

If it is really time to part with a sentimental object like this, take a moment to say a proper goodbye, or honor it in some way that is meaningful to you, even if it feels a little silly. There are so many reasons why decluttering, cleaning up, and organizing can be difficult. It is important to regularly tidy our home spaces to keep our mental health in check, but it’s important to do so in a way that honors our emotional attachment, family legacy, memory making, and the practicalities of life.

So, are you ready to organize? Start with something small. Organize the cabinet under the sink, or maybe your fridge. Dump out that junk drawer and toss out the pizza coupons that expired in 2016. Buy yourself a label maker and some drawer dividers and go nuts. Your brain will thank you.

Need something to listen to while you’re at it? Check out this episode of Ologies with Alie Ward on the science of keeping things tidy:


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