Stepping inside, I feel cramped and uncomfortable. The problem is obvious. There is too much stuff and not enough space. The room is full of oversized furniture and piles of unwanted objects. Large wooden shelves overflow with cookbooks, medical records, and toys.
A stack of blankets and old pillows gathers dust in one corner, next to three barely used vacuum cleaners.
My parents don’t seem to mind the confined feeling, but I’m feeling edgy in here. Clutter makes me anxious. Days after my dad’s cancer diagnosis, I started managing my parents’ finances. Now, I’ve taken over the task of helping them declutter their forty-year-old home.
I know I’m cleaning to reduce my anxiety over my dad’s illness. I can’t relax until my house is clean, and now it seems I can’t rest until theirs is clean either.
We need to get rid of excess stuff, rearrange the room, and create space for friends and family to visit.
Too Much Stuff
My mom keeps telling me she doesn’t own that much stuff, but the stack of unwanted possessions grows beside me.
“Why do you think I have too much?” she asks.
Rather than listing out the reasons, I ask her a few questions.
- Do you know what’s inside your closet and dresser drawers without looking?
- What about the storage containers in the basement or the cardboard boxes in your garage?
- Have your clothes taken over other closets and dressers in the house?
- Have you resorted to using storage boxes to hold the excess?
- Do you have room to put away new things after you buy them?
- Is your horizontal space overloaded with stuff?
- When you come home from the grocery store, do you have space to unload your groceries or drop off your bags before you unpack them?
- Do you have room to put down your watch, wallet, or purse when you go into your bedroom?
- When you need something, can you find it?
- How long does it take to search for the things you actually use?
- Do you have enough open floor space to walk around the house?
- Do you have to move stuff around to get from one side of the room to another?
She wouldn’t have a clutter problem if she answered yes to these questions, but she can’t. Clutter impacts her daily life.
“Ok,” she says after listening to my list, “but why is it clutter?”
“It’s clutter because you aren’t using it,” I tell her. If you own something, you haven’t used or worn within the last year, what makes you think you’ll use it in the future?”
“You don’t need to get rid of all my stuff,” she says in response.
“I’m not trying to,” I tell her. “We don’t have to get rid of any of it. I’ll put it somewhere else, so we can make space for people to visit. Right now, you have too much stuff in here to do that.”
How to Organize a Room With Too Much Stuff
Decluttering can be a painful process, which explains why ten percent of Americans pay for self-storage units. It’s not easy to part with old belongings or make peace with the amount of money we’ve spent on things we no longer need.
So I approach the process joyfully. We take the first step to decluttering rooms by reenvisioning the space inside.
“Let’s create a room where you and dad can relax,” I say. “There is plenty of medical stress going on right now. Let’s create space so you can unwind and rest.”
If you have too much stuff and not enough space, it helps to reimagine a room.
“What if we could put chairs here?” I ask. “And a TV on the wall over there. Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend time with dad’s brothers or if dad could play poker when his friends visit? Imagine reading magazines in a comfy room together or watching television at the end of the day.”
I ask my mom to create a new vision for the space rather than focusing on decluttering. My goal is to help her focus on what she will gain from the change.
If you have too much stuff, I encourage you to do the same. If you are struggling with the idea, think about making space for the joyful moments to come. Picture a calm, quiet room that evokes less stress and more cheer. Then try your best to look forward to your new space.
How to Get Rid of Too Much Stuff
If you aren’t sure how to alter things, turn to the internet for inspiration. Search for rooms that feel spacious but inviting. What type of furniture do you see? What kinds of textures would you like to feel? What would feel comfortable and cozy?
I want my fabrics to feel soft and my tables and shelves to match. I like white furniture, but perhaps you like dark shades or an eclectic mix and match of colors.
What appeals to you? What would you want to see if you could take everything out of your room and start again?
If you started over, which of the items would you buy again? Those are the things you should keep.
If you feel overwhelmed, clear the room in small snippets of time. Start with ten minutes.
Saying Goodbye to the Past
As the days pass, my mom and I dig through old boxes. As we do, I begin to understand her hesitation.
“I’m old,” she says as we sort items from an old bookshelf. The words are heavy and loaded with sadness. My parents are ill and aging. As my mom creates a pile of unwanted stuff, she glimpses at her past.
The life she is currently living is not the one she wants to live. She wants to feel healthy, young, and vibrant. When she looks at the pile of suitcases, she knows she won’t be taking any long trips. When she glances at the toys from our childhood, she grieves for the seasons that have passed.
I understand this, my kids are still small, but when I grab onto the baby toys they once held, I shed a few tears. I, too, struggle with letting go of toys, childhood memorabilia, and so much else.
Decluttering can free you of your stuff, but I see something different in my mom’s eyes. Fear and sadness in getting rid of her past.
Each time my mom declutters, she feels like she’s getting rid of the life she knows. She holds on to these objects for sentimental reasons and thinks back to a happier time in her life. Now that my mom is in her seventies, releasing the past is even more challenging. These sentimental items keep her trapped in a home with too much clutter.
As we start decluttering the house, I focus on joy. I begin by releasing my mom from the heavy burden of guilt.
“I want to give away these knick-knacks,” she says, “but I feel bad because you gave them to me.”
“Would you want me to keep a gift I didn’t want?” I ask in response. I know the answer to this question. If we don’t like a gift, my mom always wants us to tell her.
“If you don’t love an object, then get rid of it,” I say. I encourage my mom to release the guilt rather than keep an unwanted present forever. “Make space for something you do enjoy,” I tell her.
You don’t need to keep holding onto stuff you don’t love. Plus, there is a good chance someone else will cherish the items you give away. Keeping your house organized begins by releasing guilt.
Releasing Financial Fears
My parents aren’t broke, but they don’t have excessive money either. My mom is hesitant to get rid of stuff that might be worth something.
“Do you think we can sell that?” she asks as I pull item after item from a box.
“I doubt it,” I say, no matter what I pull out. A lot of things are now stained or discolored.
It’s tough to get rid of things we spent hard-earned money buying. “Surely there is value,” we think to ourselves, but often there isn’t. By waiting to sell it, we can’t release our attachments. We keep holding on to our possessions when we are better off letting go.
Releasing “What-If” Fears
“Don’t get rid of the paint in the basement,” she tells me one afternoon. “We’ll need that if we ever repaint the siding.”
I smile and say, ok, even though I’ve never seen them pull an old can out of the basement.
Later, I look at the lids in detail. Some of the labels are over twenty years old. I open the cans, take pictures, and explain that they are unusable. Only then will my mom let me throw them out.
She feels anxious about discarding her stuff. What if she makes an irreversible mistake? It’s like the minute she throws it out, she’ll need it.
I write down the color details and let her know we can match the shade when the time comes. This information calms her fears a bit. Though I can tell, it’s tough for her to get rid of something she might need one day.
Overwhelmed With Too Much Stuff
We all tell ourselves stories that aren’t true. How often have you gone into the basement searching for a spare vase or tablecloth? How many times have you held on to a tool you last used ten years ago?
Our possessions become clutter when we fail to use them. We hate to part with our stuff but rarely regret the loss once we get rid of it. That’s because real-life what-if scenarios rarely happen.
Make Space for the Stuff You Love
Decluttering is often viewed as an all-or-nothing affair. I encourage my mom to live with less but not get rid of everything. Instead, I tell her to make space for what she loves the most.
We create wall space to display beloved possessions. Then rearrange my mom’s clothes. We place her favorite shirts and pants in the top drawers and temporarily move less-loved items to the bottom. We don’t worry about folding the Marie Kondo way. Right now, the goal is to get rid of the excess.
If my mom searches for the things we move, perhaps they are favorites too. If she doesn’t, then she should get rid of them. Finding a temporary storage space for unwanted stuff is a great way to stage it before giving it away.
Getting organized isn’t easy. If you feel overwhelmed when decluttering, try boxing up your stuff without getting rid of it. Add a date to the box and revisit it six to nine months later. After that time, let go of anything you haven’t used.
Make Space for the People You Love
Right now, my mom and dad have too much stuff and not enough space for what matters. In this phase of life, people are more important than all the objects they’ve ever purchased. Decluttering isn’t just about removing the excess. It’s about making space to talk and laugh with those they love.