Not to skip right past Christmas – but a glance at the calendar tells us that we’re not far from New Year’s Day, which means a set of New Year’s resolutions. We suspect that for many of our readers, “getting rid of the clutter” is high on the list. Since the COVID pandemic started, we’ve seen plenty of articles featuring people boasting about how well they’ve used their at-home time getting organized. Some of these well-meaning writers have bragged about cleaned-out closets, emptied-out storage areas, and completion of long-postponed household projects.
If those articles were all you read, you’d probably end up feeling like we do: guilty that we haven’t accomplished more during the pandemic. But in fact, for every hyper-productive organization freak boasting of their pandemic accomplishments, there are no doubt plenty of folks who find the prospect of decluttering harder than they expected – especially when the “clutter” represents family keepsakes and heirlooms with little but sentimental value.
With that in mind, we’re bringing back this March 2021 Washington Post article in which writer Bonnie Miller Rubin confesses that, like us, her best intentions to get rid of clutter have propelled her into an emotional minefield. Maybe her perspective will help us all understand why decluttering can get so darned complicated.
Reporter Asks, “Why Can’t I Empty My Empty Nest?”
“Last March,” Rubin wrote last spring, “when most people were wringing their hands about the shutdown, I felt positively giddy at the prospect of finally getting organized. Time — the rarest of commodities — was now being served up on a silver platter. So how can it be that, almost a year since the pandemic began, the basement, attic and garage remain as overstuffed as ever? Why can’t I empty my empty nest?”
Rubin has the answer: “I have to confront an uncomfortable truth: It’s not about time; it’s about me.” While she acknowledges that today’s young people don’t really want their parents’ stuff, that isn’t really the problem. “My lack of progress has nothing to do with dining room tables with seating for 12 or display cabinets,” she writes. “It’s the photo albums, the well-loved baby blankets and the shoe boxes full of letters that have left me paralyzed.”
Some of that “Clutter” Comes with Deep Emotional Attachment
Rubin describes her predicament well. “Follow me into my cobwebbed basement, and you’ll find a museum of memorabilia still untouched, despite a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” she writes. “The bedroom set is a lot easier to shed than the 17-by-20-inch wedding portrait of my mother, who has been gone for 10 years now. It’s too massive and shrine-like to put anywhere else, and yet, how can I just cavalierly toss her in the trash?” Another example, she relates, is the scrapbook of all her articles that her father kept: it’s too precious to discard. We can relate.
“I could easily throw out the Lladró figurines and other pricey collectibles, but not so much the personal letters and drawings, which are far more valuable,” Rubin says. “What parent wouldn’t save a handmade valentine from a now 40-year-old son? The one that simply says, ‘I love you, Mom,’ written back when he was a first-grader and still generous with his hugs and kisses.”
The Core Problem: We Prefer to Avoid Negative Emotion
Writing in early 2021, Rubin asked the question many of us have asked. After a year of the coronavirus pandemic, she wrote back then, with vaccines finally turning the tide, she felt she was “still stuck. What keeps me in this perpetual state of inertia?” She consulted Canadian psychologist Timothy Pychyl of Carlton University who has made an extensive study of the phenomenon of procrastination. “It’s not about time management,” Pychyl told Rubin. “It’s about avoiding negative emotion. Putting off the task allows us to put off the emotions.”
“What appears on the surface to be just an item on the to-do list is really a land mine of complex feelings, such as frustration, anxiety and fear,” Rubin explains. Whatever we do, we’re probably going to lose something precious. “So, although it would certainly be nice to have a garage that actually has room for a car (something that has eluded me for three decades), the benefit is still not enough to offset my fear of making the wrong decisions, of losing the connection to loved ones who now live only in my memory.”
Refusal to Declutter May Reveal Our True Priorities
Sometimes, Pychyl explained to Rubin, getting rid of the clutter is just not that important, no matter what we say. If it were, we would make it a higher priority. “We started with the simple stuff — that it’s not about time, but emotion regulation — and suddenly we’re into deep parts of our psyche,” Pychyl said. “Is it any wonder why the whole body screams: ‘I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it. I’ll feel more like it tomorrow?’ Those are the lyrics of the procrastinator’s song.”
Sometimes people take their refusal to declutter all the way to the grave. Rubin writes of a friend whose parents, both in their 90s, “flat-out refused any offer to clear the clutter out of their Boca Raton, Florida, condo. No amount of pleading, bribing or cajoling could motivate the couple.” Their answer: “We did it for my parents, and when we die, you’ll do it for us.” While that degree of avoidance is tempting, “most of us don’t want to leave such a burden for our relatives, especially unsentimental adult children — you know who you are — who would blithely fill up a dumpster and roll it out to the curb.”
Is there an answer to the dilemma of decluttering? It certainly depends on your personality, age, and energy level. But in our experience at AgingOptions, anything you can do while you’re healthy mentally and physically to “clear the decks” will be a blessing to your kids. Maybe you can invite them over for a “sorting party.” Whatever you do, just cut yourself some slack if the pandemic hasn’t left you with cleaned-out closets and a well-organized basement.
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(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)