The Shame in Decluttering

Recently, a writer contacted me to do a story about my business for a local women’s magazine. I was thrilled, I asked, “What do you need?” and she said that she’d like to interview and/or take photos of the houses of one of my clients. My clients are amazing and so I thought, sure, no problem. But when I went to my clients to ask if anyone would be willing to be included in the article they said no. They didn’t want to be known in our community as “people with clutter.”

At first I was puzzled. If anything, I thought they would be proud of their decluttering because they were taking action to make their homes more livable. But then I realized that even the idea of decluttering a living space implies that the owner had first made it cluttered.

Why do we feel shame about the clutter in our homes?

Our homes are often private, personal, and deep down, we know they are a physical representation of who we are at our core. Our objects represent us. This principle was introduced to us when we were children—think about show and tell. We were asked to share with our peers the objects that were important to us. Through this exercise, we developed a sense of pride in our possessions, and possibly a sense of vulnerability if we didn’t like to speak in front of groups.

Consider how this might translate to adulthood. Say, a woman has boxes of baby items and she has no children. This might tell other people that she’s trying to get pregnant, or maybe even that she has issues with fertility. This is likely a conversation she doesn’t have with many people, or wouldn’t want people to know, so she might feel like she couldn’t have people come over to her home.

Sometimes we don’t want to show of our living spaces simply because they are messy. We often associate mess with irresponsibility (as opposed to creativity) and this can convey the wrong message to people whose respect we’re looking for, like friends, co-workers, or in-laws.

But when we feel ashamed of our living spaces, this can translate to feelings of shame about ourselves. It makes us feel like we’re not good enough, or capable enough or (you fill in the blank) enough.

In Brené Brown’s  book Daring GreatlyHow the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead she says we need to understand three things about shame:

  1. We all have it.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
  3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

This becomes very tangible when we apply it to our homes and living spaces. If we are ashamed of our lives, even subconsciously, it can show up as clutter in our living space.

Kerri L. Richardson has an excellent strategy for this. She recommends that you ask yourself what your clutter could say if it could talk. By having these imagined conversations with your possessions, you can uncover the feelings of shame that prevent you from living your best life.

This is an important process, and clearly one that most people wouldn’t want published in a magazine, so I can appreciate my clients’ reservations. And in an interesting turn of events, the writer ended up taking pictures of my living space for the article. And what did I learn? That I have shame about my clutter too!

If you are in the process of clearing the clutter in your space or making other improvements, my recommendation is this: take your time. Transition and transformation is a process that can’t be rushed. If you find yourself getting embarrassed or upset by your belongings, take a break. You don’t have to get rid of anything right away, or at all if it’s important to you. If you try to rush, shame can worm it’s way in and sabotage your progress.

And as you take your time and you do make progress, document it in some way. Maybe not an article in a magazine, but try before-and-after pictures, or write about it in a journal. Reminding yourself of the good feelings that come from decluttering and arranging your space is excellent inspiration to keep going.


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