This article originally published in Fairfax’s Domain on 23rd January, 2017. Written by Jane Hone
In a world where we are seemingly surrounded by stuff, it’s no wonder we’re living more cluttered lives. With scores of books and articles praising the psychological benefits of decluttering, it’s worth wondering why we have clutter in the first place? Is it simply a case of buying too many material items, or can it provide interesting clues about the state of our minds?
Clinical psychologist Noah Mankowski, an expert in hoarding, says that while there isn’t any solid scientific evidence to prove that the actual site of clutter is significant, there could be some truth to it.
“The way you perceive your clutter is the way you perceive yourself and your relationships,” he says, adding that where we put our clutter usually corresponds to different emotional events.
If you have a lot of stuff in the attic or the basement, according to Mankowski, this might indicate an inability to let go of the past. A cluttered bathroom might reveal body image issues, as this is where we’re most likely to be standing in front of a mirror naked. Clutter in the living room might suggest blockages in your social life, as well as your relationship with yourself, while a cluttered bedroom might relate to issues surrounding your sexual self, fears of intimacy or gender roles.
“When you clutter things, you can’t see the surface, you can’t see the carpet, you can’t see the floorboards, you can’t see the surroundings. Which actually allows you to not deal with it – it’s a way of coping.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with this way of looking at things.
“That theory is based on a Freudian idea that everything happens for a reason – that there are no mistakes,” says clinical psychologist Dr Ben Buchanan from Foundation Psychology Victoria. “Freudians would say that everything’s got meaning, everything’s got a symbol …They would say that there’s a deep unconscious motivation, usually rooted in childhood, for not being able to let go of something. And there’s some truth in that, but I think people take it a bit far.”
Dr Buchanan does concede, however, that you might find a heavily over-stocked kitchen pantry in the home of someone who grew up in poverty, or too many clothes in the wardrobe of someone that was always given hand-me-downs as a child.
Meanwhile, psychoanalytic psychotherapist Bridget Fitzgerald points out that a too-clean house can be just as telling.
“An absence of clutter could reflect a cluttered, chaotic psyche – what Freud would have called a defence against internal conflicts or clutter,” she says. “A clutter-free environment might suggest someone who is not able to tolerate the untidiness or uncertainty inherent in life and relationships.”
Whichever school of thought you choose to follow, it can’t hurt to look around your home and mindfully ask, “what might my clutter be telling me?”