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Psychology of Clutter vs Closet Organization

Just as you are what you eat – you are what you keep. Behind the things you own are powerful emotions that compel you to acquire and keep those possessions. You buy another pair of black jeans because purchasing them makes you feel good. You hang on to that dress or old football jersey because they connect you to memories. Jennifer Baumgartner, a psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear says, “Our closets are windows into our internal selves.”

If people only saved a few special clothing items as mementos or bought only what they needed, that would fine. Problems arise when people tend to save too many mementos and buy excessively. That’s when mementos and purchases start to morph into clutter and closet organization issues arise.

When working with clients on clutter problems, a professional organizer recognizes they are dealing with problems deeper than closet organizing. In order to help clients de-clutter, their clients need to first understand why they buy so much and collect what they collect because if they don’t, clutter will inevitably return.


There are various forms of clutter including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual clutter. When you hang on to things that no longer serve you or have a purpose in your life, whether they be material or emotional, you are prevented from being your best. The psychology of clutter directly relates to how we feel internally, how we view change in our lives, our feelings of safety and our belief in our possibilities.

Your outside environment reflects your inner environment. Therefore, if you live in an environment that is cluttered, messy and stressful, what does it say about how you are feeling inside? Surrounding yourself with lots of stuff is also a convenient way to stay distracted and hide from dealing with bigger issues you would rather ignore. Hanging on to something also signifies a fear of what might happen when you let it go.


The good news is that when you start facing either your external clutter, you will impact internal clutter or vice versa. It’s easier to start dealing with external stuff because it’s visible and tangible. You can also start experiencing results immediately. Here are some closet organization tips by the experts you can apply to other external places in your life:

1 – One thing at a time: It’s overwhelming to think about how much you have to do, so just tackle one part of the closet or even one shelf at a time. Start small, and see how much you can get done in 15 minutes. Then, see how much you can get done in another 15 minutes.

2 – Donate items: When you give to the needy, it not only makes you feel good but it can ease separation anxiety and erase guilt about throwing useful things away.

3 – Keep photographs instead: Take pictures of nostalgic items like a prom dress and other sentimental items you don’t need to keep. Grandma’s wedding dress that’s been in the family for generations – keep. The state fair T-shirt she gave you when you were 6 six years old and you wore all summer – take a picture.

4 – Take inventory and follow 80/20 rule: People generally wear 20% of the clothing they own only 80% of time. Take an inventory of your clothes and shoes, and set limits on how much you want to keep. Decide what to do with the rest – donate, throw out, give to friends.

5 – Mindful shopping: Will you really wear this? Do you really need it? Answer those questions, but not with the word ‘want’. Ask yourself, are you shopping to fill an emotional void?

6 – Temporarily break-up: If getting rid of an item seems especially painful, then store it temporarily somewhere else, perhaps another part of the house or at a friend’s home. If you really miss the item, after a month, you know it’s a keeper.

Remember, every time you’re willing to let go and clear clutter out of your life, you’re making space for serendipity, creativity and opportunity – in your closet, and your life.


— Don’t forget to check out our other National Organization Week tips.

Pantry Organizers: A Purrfect Solution

Organizer Systems: Parse that Purse

How to Organize Your Messy Car

How to Clear Virtual Clutter


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