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.

4 replies
    • Kerri
      Kerri says:

      Hi Darlene,

      Thanks for your questions. Because each one of us gets to decide what in our life is clutter and what isn’t, the first thing I would recommend is finding out from your mother if she classifies the items in her room as clutter. She may enjoy the things that your sister brings her. If, however, she complains about her space being cluttered, that gives you an opening to talk to your sister and convey your mother’s wishes for simpler living.

      Keep in mind, your sister likely has her own reasons for adding things to her room. Doing so might make her feel better about your mother’s living situation. It might be how she shows love.

      You could also ask your sister for help with clearing out your mom’s space (if that’s what mom would like). That could very well open up a conversation about how each of you thinks mom’s room should be.

      The main thing here is to do your best to get to the source of the issue: primarily why this bothers you so much. And if it’s because it makes mom unhappy, then a chat with sis about honoring your mother’s wishes is in order.

      Good luck!

      • Kerri
        Kerri says:

        Hi Maia,

        I can appreciate how incredibly frustrating it is to have to live with someone else’s clutter. While the stuff in the basement is maddening to you, there are deeper, core clutter issues that likely need addressing before any of that stuff will get sorted. You mentioned feeling like it is his house versus both of yours since he inherited it. I can understand how you feel that way and how that would get in the way of you asking for what you want in terms of clutter and the condition of the house.

        I would start with a conversation about that. You can use the clutter as a lead in — “All of the electronics in the basement really stress me out, but I feel like I don’t have the right to an opinion because to me, the house feels like yours and I’m just living in it. I have no interest in being a nag but also need to honor and respect my quality of life, too. Would you be willing to put our heads together to think of some solutions?”

        Plant the seed and see what happens. It’s likely going to mean you voicing your needs repeatedly which I know can be tough for us women, but your needs matter! Your frustration isn’t about the stuff in the basement. It’s about feeling like you don’t have a say and like he doesn’t care enough about you to take any action. Those are the topics to address.

        I hope this helps!

  1. Maia
    Maia says:

    Hi, I am so glad I found this. However, I am not overly hopeful that I can get my partner to clean up his clutter. Since I have come to live in the house he inherited from his grandparents, I have gotten rid of everything I could on the main floors, but the basement is still full of stuff, and I can’t touch it, because it is my partner’s call to know what to do with it and what he wants to get rid of.

    He has to go through the stuff. If it were me I would have done it long ago. This makes me furious to say the least, and I like the comment about how it’s important that his clutter affects my quality of living.

    I don’t think there is a way to approach him without him feeling criticized or at best him seeing me as nagging. I don’t see him becoming active without me forcing it. Also, because we are living in a situation where there is a feeling that the house is his and not mine, it adds an extra layer of difficulty.

    In any case, I am willing to try. The basement is FULL of weird cables and electronics, boxes and boxes of stuff I can’t even begin to decipher. I need him to do it. I can’t. I started doing this thing where I bring one box up once in a while for him to go through, but it hasn’t been very successful. He needs to get down there and spend hours, and I don’t see him doing it.

    Is there anything extra you can offer and is it really important for me that the clutter is dealt with. Most of the time, I say to myself, why do I care so much It’s in the basement, so what…..but in reality, I HATE clutter and want to get rid of anything I can. Please HELP.


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