What To Do When the Clutter Isn’t Yours

Every week on my radio show, I get at least one caller asking what they should do when the clutter isn’t theirs but it still bothers them. The questions come in a variety of forms:

  • “How can I get my husband to clean out his closet?”
  • “How do I encourage my parents to downsize now so I’m not tasked with going through rooms and boxes of stuff when they’re gone instead of being able to grieve?”
  • “My friend’s house is approaching hoarder status and I don’t know how to help her. Should I offer to spend time clearing out some stuff with her?”

Clutter can be challenging enough when it’s your own, but when someone else is the culprit, it takes some finesse to get things moving out of the house. Depending on the situation, the approach varies a bit, but also has consistent components.

Culprit: Spouse, kids, housemates

When someone else’s clutter takes up precious space and energy in your home, there are two approaches that I’ve found work best: subtle inspiration and direct communication.

Option 1: Up your own clearing game

When you kick up the progress on clearing your own clutter, family members or housemates often get inspired to do the same. It’s subtle, yet powerful. They feel the energy expand in the environment and they witness a lightness in you, and it becomes a “I want what she’s having” experience.

I’ve had many clients over the years tell me that their spouses “suddenly” starting getting rid of items shortly after they were more intentional in doing the same. I giggle when I think about it because I picture each person doing his or her own thing while peeking in on the other inquisitively, but with no words spoken.

It’s a pretty cool phenomenon that I’ve seen happen enough times to know it’s no coincidence.

Option 2: Have a conversation about the source, not the symptom.

Your tendency may be to nag and complain about the other person’s stuff, and if it is, I’m sure you’ve seen how ineffective that is. While their clutter may, in fact, drive you crazy, talk to them about how it affects your quality of life versus how their neglect aggravates you. Something like this:

“Can we brainstorm some ideas about making our living space more conducive for each of us? When there is a lot of clutter around me, it makes me feel overwhelmed/unfocused/suffocated/drained/fill-in-the-blank. I wonder if we can have a designated area for our respective things — some place that doesn’t impact the other as much. Or I’m open to other ideas. What do you think?”

Having this conversation from a solution-oriented place instead of a blaming place ups your chances of the other person getting on board.

This approach can either be in place of or in addition to option 1.

A conversation with your children would naturally be different as you are in charge of your household and can set expectations as such. The important thing here is to be sure you follow your boundaries up with action, otherwise they’ll quickly learn that you may set rules but don’t enforce them.

Culprit: Parents

As I wrote about in the post, “If You Love Me, Don’t Leave Me Your Crap,” encouraging parents to downsize can be a delicate conversation with some real heart-connecting potential.

This conversation is different because it offers the opportunity for your parents to reminisce and share stories with you of days gone by — memories triggered by the items you’re helping them sort. Enjoy this time and be present for the sharing versus rushing through with the only goal being to empty boxes and clear closets.

While helping my mother sort through items, I learned that she thought it best to keeps boxes of old greeting cards her kids gave her so we’d know how much she loved us. I was so thankful that she felt safe enough to share that thought with me as it gave me the chance to let her know how clear she has made that my entire life.

Be patient and gentle here, just as I would encourage you to do with yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn not only about your parents’ past, but about any beliefs they hold about their stuff, as I experienced with my mother.

Culprit: Friends or family members who don’t live with you

I recently had a friend come to me for advice on how to help her friend get motivated to organize her home and take care of boxes that had been sitting in her living room for quite some time.

“She’s clearly having a tough time lately, and I think if she got her house in order, she’d feel a lot better,” Samantha told me. “So I want to encourage her to empty those boxes and handle some other things she’s neglecting such as her health. I’ll even offer to come help.”

While Samantha’s intention is good, her approach would likely be counterproductive. I commend how much she cares about her friend, but once again, when you talk about the symptom instead of the source, you’ll likely put the other person on the defensive. And what happens when you do that? The things remain. And likely multiply!

Also, in Samantha’s case, I knew part of her anxiety was that she was bothered by her friend not doing the things she thought she should be doing, so I gently encouraged her to process her feelings around her friend’s situation before approaching her; to explore a bit why her friend’s situation is affecting her so much and to get clear on whether she wanted to talk to her friend to alleviate her own stress or to truly help her friend.

When she felt ready, I suggested that Samantha tell her friend how much she cares about her and that she’s worried about her instead of talking about the things she’s not doing. Something like:

“It seems you’re going through a tough time lately. I love you and I want you to know I’m here for you. How are you? What’s going on?”

And then shush. Let your friend find that safe space you’re creating for her and see if she’ll step in. If she’s not ready, that’s ok. Back off a bit and circle around in a few days to check in on her again.

As you can see in the above scenarios, the common thread is the importance of talking about what’s behind the feelings and the clutter instead of the clutter itself. That way, you’ll be much more likely to get to the end goal faster: living a more peaceful, harmonious life in your head, your heart, and your home.

Now I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this. 

  • Can you see these approaches working in your situation?
  • With whom do you need to talk to about clutter (physical, emotional, or mental)?
  • What is one step you’ll take this week to move the needle?

Join the conversation in the comments below.

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