Understanding is the first step towards change. While we know first hand how frustrating it can be for family members, friends, as well as the person struggling, before you start trying to improve your situation, it’s critical to understand how you got here. If you are the support person for someone struggling with stuff (like Robin)–we hope you come away from this article more humble and ready to come alongside rather than judge. If you are the person struggling with stuff (like Tim)–we hope this helps you to let go of the shame and judgement and move forward.
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In this article we will talk about
Every person has their own idiosyncratic preferences for what they keep or discard. And so long as their preferences fall within some range of what our society at large considers acceptable, no one really thinks much about it. Once you fall outside that range, because of the type of stuff, volume of stuff, or condition of stuff, all of a sudden you’re slapped with the label of hoarder and told that you need to conform.
Let’s do a self-check here. I, Robin, am going to write more in this article than Tim and will tell about my own stuff because most people consider me a minimalist. I have one pair of nice sensible black shoes that I wore to work every day because they go with everything. I manage to keep a family of five (including my brother, who lives with us) in a 950 sq ft house and still have lots of clear surfaces and open spaces. Tim struggles with stuff and we have first fought and then accepted and then nearly ended our marriage over and finally found solutions for how to live and work together.
Robin went through a period when she wouldn’t admit that there was any relationship between her stuff and Tim’s stuff and if you read this article and say, “Yeah but…” to each example, well, Robin’s been there. She did a lot of “yeah but” for a long time. We’ll tell you upfront that if you are trying to help someone with their stuff and intend to actually make headway, the first thing you have to do is admit that you aren’t a saint yourself. You can actually relate. You may be afraid to admit it, but unless you’re an extreme minimalist (in which case, I personally believe you’re missing out), you have some stuff issues, too.
We propose that the first problem we need to address before we address how the stuff is affecting our lives, is the judgements that we place on the situation and the person or people involved. We can see the same situation differently depending on our judgement of it.
Robin says: Think about a hobby you really enjoy and whether you have strictly what you need or if maybe someone who isn’t as passionate about it might consider your supplies to be excessive. One of my hobbies is knitting. Do I strictly need every needle, ball of yarn, and book about knitting that I own? Absolutely not! I can get instructions for everything I need from the internet and I really only need the yarn I’m actually knitting at this moment. Certainly I have reasons for why I keep everything I have–I like to be prepared to start the next project, my books and extra yarn are inspiration, it’s common to have to try a few sizes of needles to find the right ones for a particular project–but to a non-knitter, these can sound like justifications.
The reason Robin gets away with it is that all of her knitting fits into two moderate sized bins and there aren’t any infestations. What if we told you that she had an entire room of my house filled with yarn in bags and bins and piles and was plagued with moths that were slowly destroying it all? Maybe you’d think she was a hoarder. But then what if we told you that she’s a knitting designer as a career (she’s not!) and she’s distressed about the moths because they are threatening my livelihood–maybe then you’d feel sympathy for me. So your judgement of the situation changes depending on the story you tell yourself about her. Is she a hoarder or a knitting professional? It all depends what information you are told.
Robin says: Think about something you’re keeping because you’re hoping to one day have the skill or time. I have friends who keep their snowshoes, fishing gear, cake decorating supplies, or a nice outfit for going out. During the pandemic, most of us are keeping our luggage in the hopes we’ll feel comfortable traveling again someday. I kept all my piano books when our son was born in the hopes that I’d be able to play the piano again someday. Then I had multiple small strokes but I still kept them. Here I am, finally getting out the books over a decade later and I can’t play anything in them. But I bought an adult beginner book and I’m making progress. While we can stand outside the situation and say that a person storing glass bottles to build a bottle house someday is completely different…is it really? Between a high-needs child and a disability myself, was there anymore reason to think that I could play the piano again than to think another person could build a bottle house?
Robin says: Think about something that belonged to a person you cared about. I have a number of things belonging to my grandparents. I have an entire shelf of books from my maternal grandma. I would love to read them all and I fully believe that I will someday but my current life doesn’t provide the leisure. I have a number of lovely things from my paternal grandma including her china dessert set and gold plated flatware that I dream of using to host gatherings with my friends. But between the kids and our small space, those are safely packed into a couple bins in the basement. Where do you draw a line between me and someone who has rooms filled with stacks of boxes filled with their keepsakes? Is one stack okay but three stacks are not? Are china and books acceptable but not newspapers or clothing? Is it okay to keep things that are in good condition? Displayed properly? Stored carefully?
Tim says: Think about how many clothes you have. Do you strictly need that many? I’m sure you can justify them. But be honest. The drawers and closet rod in the photo hold all the clothes worn by the four of us. This includes all of Charlie’s dance clothes, all of Eleanor’s gear for activities from jujitsu to swimming, professional and casual clothes for both Robin and me. We would definitely like to have the money to fine tune our wardrobes…but we have far more clothes than we need for any situation we’d find ourselves in. Not shown is a single shoe rack that holds shoes for all of us. You may LIKE to wear a different outfit every day for a month or have shoes that match your pants…but to people with as few clothes as us, those preferences seem honestly just as crazy as some of the collections of stuff we see publicly shamed.
Robin says: Think about something you have from your childhood or young adulthood that you cannot imagine ever giving up. For example, I have my two favorite doll houses and all my doll house furniture. I did give away my largest dollhouse many years ago–but I still have all the furniture for it. So I easily have 3-4 times as much furniture as will fit in the good sized Victorian dollhouse I still have. The furniture is all wrapped in tissue paper in bins and the house is wrapped in plastic in the garage. Will I someday have a place to set up a three story doll house? Does it make sense to keep it for all these years just in case I might? Do you have something you’ve kept from your childhood that you can’t give up? I have friends with baseball card collections, action figures, dolls, figurines, all sorts of things.
When you’re ready to start working on the stuff issue, the first step is to realize that this isn’t some bizarre problem that only extremely crazy people have–this is something we all do. At the same time, a complex interplay between executive functioning differences, right brained functioning, and lack of systems for coping can lead to significant life disruptions. Keep reading and find the next steps for addressing this common problem.