When Clutter Is a Convenient Distraction

This week, I’m sharing an excerpt from my book What Your Clutter Is Trying to Tell You: Uncover the Message in the Mess and Reclaim Your Life. I have a sense the message might be just what you need. 

My client Samantha talked about putting her house on the market for months. She and her boyfriend had been dating long distance for two years and had decided to move in together, with Samantha relocating to his area. She loved where her boyfriend lived, and she sounded excited to make it her home.

She knew she needed to clean out the garage before she could list her house—her real estate agent had made that clear. She had twice rallied friends and family to help get the space organized, and each time they had made some real progress, yet the space had filled up again.

“It feels like I take one step forward and two steps back,” Samantha told me.

She and I talked about what kinds of things ended up back in the garage, making it cluttered again.

“Well, I let a friend put some boxes and lawn equipment in there, just for a few days, while he figures out what to do with it.”

The “few days” turned into two weeks.

I shifted the conversation and asked her to tell me about her plans for relocating. How did she feel about it? Was she ready for this next step in the relationship? What was it like to think about no longer living where she currently did?

She started with the expected answers about how much she loved her boyfriend, how she was excited about this new chapter, how she was stressed about the logistics of moving.

And then she mentioned it—the key to the clutter.

“I’m a little hesitant to be so far from my parents. They’re healthy and independent, but they’re no spring chickens.”

As we talked more about her parents and her relationship with them, I learned she was the child who tended to take charge and organize when they needed something.

We spent the rest of our conversation brainstorming ideas on how she could still be intimately involved with their needs and care even from a distance. She talked to her siblings about her concern and asked for their help so they could all be more involved with their parents.

Once Samantha had that conversation and got support from her siblings, she couldn’t believe how much easier it became to clear out her garage.

It wasn’t about the items in the garage. The part of her that feared change kept filling up the space to make her stay put. Her inner critic was sabotaging her progress not because she didn’t want to move, but because there were unaddressed fears. When Samantha took the courageous step of asking her siblings for help, her critic felt supported and stepped aside as Samantha cleared the garage.

The combination of listening more deeply to what your soul is telling you and taking small steps to show there’s nothing to be afraid of are keys to clearing the clutter that keeps you stuck. But when you let the resistance prevent you from taking action, you’re telling your fear that it’s right, that it is best to stay stuck. You hand your power over to it and continue running on the hamster wheel of your life, exerting a lot of energy and getting nowhere.

The best way to handle your critic, no matter how persistent or bratty she gets, is with love and compassion. When you join forces instead of fighting against her, there’s no stopping you. You become a powerful team!

To best partner with your critic, focus on well-defined steps. “Winging it” doesn’t work for her. She is easily distracted, and therefore so are you. Eliminate as many distractions as possible and work within the parameters you set. To help her get comfortable with change, take things in super small steps.

If you find yourself procrastinating, break down the action you’re trying to do; chances are it’s still too big for your critic. She needs evidence that she’ll be safe to get on board, so don’t expect her to take big leaps out of the gate.

The other thing she needs is to feel heard — hence the persistent squawking. This part is key. If ever she feels dismissed or ignored, chaos ensues. This chaos can take many shapes — more clutter, a nasty head cold that knocks you down for a week, a distracted mind, aches and pains, a family member or friend telling you not to get rid of this or that, or a sexy invitation for the exact time you had scheduled your clutter clearing—anything that will stop you in your tracks and throw a wrench in your clutter-clearing plans so she can continue on her merry way and not have her status quo disrupted.

When you do finally settle in to tackle your first bit of clutter from this perspective, you’re likely going to feel a lot of pushback from her. Instead of ignoring it and diving in, take some time to acknowledge what’s coming up as you consider starting the sorting or clearing. The first clutter you may need to clear is your resistance. Sit with it. Journal about it. Speak to someone safe. Give it a voice. This is what helps her settle down. 

You may be the one doing the heavy lifting in the relationship, but that’s not to say you’re in charge all the time. You need each other. Your inner critic needs structure, commitment, and strategy, and you need her creativity, playfulness, and inquisitiveness, so when she’s raising the red flags, take a moment to acknowledge her. Doing so will make you much more successful in your clearing.

In fact, I suggest you make it a regular part of your clutter-clearing routine. Each time you get ready to sort physical clutter or take steps to address emotional clutter, take a couple of minutes to check in with your resistance and see what’s going on. Oftentimes, that check-in is all you need to remove the current block.

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