The roots of clutter — external, behavioral, and internal

There are innumerable reasons people are plagued by clutter. Most reasons, however, fall into one of three categories:

  1. External: This clutter might be from living with a cluttered parent/roommate/spouse, physical disability, or inherited clutter
  2. Behavioral: This clutter might be from mediocre decision-making skills, lack of energy, or poor categorization and classification skills
  3. Internal: This clutter might be from grief, depression, anxiety, distrust, or being overly sentimental

Clutter rooted in external causes can be tricky to overcome. Since you can’t transform someone else into an unclutterer, you may be continually plagued with clutter as long as you live in the same space as your parent/roommate/spouse. If you’re struggling with inherited clutter, the situation may be stressful as you take the time to sort through the property you’ve acquired, but the clutter will likely be temporary. It can be difficult to predict or solve external causes of clutter, but there are often ways to manage it, and sometimes even solve it.

Clutter resulting from behavioral causes can be more manageable than the other categories of clutter. You can learn and/or improve skill sets, change habits, and find ways to increase energy levels. It can take awhile to overcome these behaviors, but it is possible for people of sound mind and body to do so within a reasonable amount of time.

Internal clutter is similar to external clutter in that its solution varies greatly from situation to situation. In many cases, treatment from a licensed mental health practitioner or a doctor can be a positive first step in the process. For people who are overly sentimental, uncluttering assistance from a professional organizer or trusted friend might be all someone might need. Again, similar to external clutter, it can be difficult to solve internal causes of clutter, but there are often ways to manage it, and sometimes even solve it. Seeking help from an outside source is almost always a good idea, but the source and duration of help can vary widely.

If you’re like me, you might see your clutter issues stemming from more than one of these three categories — or even from a cause that isn’t external, behavioral, or internal. Clutter is a complex issue, but knowing why it is in your life can go a long way to helping you find a solution.

11 Comments for “The roots of clutter — external, behavioral, and internal”

  1. posted by thesuburbanminimalist on

    So true! Clutter can be such a complex problem – and very revealing! Although I’ve never had a real clutter problem per se, when things start to build up it’s usually due to some fear or anxiety on my part which leads to procrastination and then stress. So it can be a vicious cycle!

  2. posted by Dorothy on

    I’d like to address your categorization of inherited clutter as “external”.

    I think too many of us clutterers cop out with inherited clutter. If someone gives us stuff or bequeaths stuff to us we can plead innocence in the transaction and avoid facing up to the real issue — we don’t know how to say no.

    When someone offers us something, we should treat it the same way as stuff we contemplate buying — Would I spend good money on this? Do I want it? Do I need it? Do I have a place to keep it? Will it contribute to the wonderful life I want to live?

    I’m belong to a Yahoo group called Stashbuster which is dedicated to getting quilters to use fabric they already have before buying more. Some members have rooms, sheds, garages full of thousands of yards of fabric — more than a hundred quilters could use in a lifetime. Almost daily someone posts proudly that someone “forced” them to accept a huge amount of fabric — another quilter de-cluttering her studio, the family of a deceased quilter, some super sale they couldn’t resist. This is a time to channel Nancy Reagan and “Just say, NO!”

    Don’t make someone else’s clutter yours. Just because they’re trying to de-clutter doesn’t mean you need to take their clutter on your back.

  3. posted by One Backpack on

    I need to start living on this blog. I have a problem with clutter. It’s so easy for me to get cluttered. I know it’s a discipline thing and I need to just hit it hard. Thanks for the god job.

  4. posted by Melissa S on

    I LOVE this post! I grew up in an extremely cluttered home (think a step down from HOARDERS the show) and vowed that when I moved out my house wouldn’t be cluttered. Easier said than done! Cluttered was so ingrained in me that I didn’t know any other way. Over the years I have “worked through” it and taught myself how to organize and declutter. My problem now is that my mother and my sister are constantly making me feel guilty for (in their opinion) “throwing everything away”. My mother went so far as to say that there is no way in hell she would have me as the executor of their estate because I would probably just “throw everything away”. They try to make me feel guilty about sentimental items! They view almost everything as “sentimental”.

    I try to let her comments roll off my back but sometimes it hurts and occasionally derails my decluttering efforts. Luckily, my husband is there to help me back on track. I am trying to teach our 7 yr old boy how to “let things go” and how good it feels when you are not surrounded by junk that you don’t love. I love your website and I read it every day – sometimes the articles are applicable, sometime they aren’t. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate and enjoy your site.

  5. posted by Merrilee on

    I, too, appreciate this site. It took me a year to go through my parents’ home after their deaths to disburse their belongings which included fine antiques and saved sentimental items from over 50 years of collecting. Everything was carefully organized and stored, but, the task was daunting, nevertheless. I vowed after that experience I would start parting with things we don’t use in order to simplify life and make it easier for our sons one day. I have been giving almost weekly contributions to a local thrift store for several years and yesterday a truck from an auction house came and picked up extra furniture and collectibles no one in the family wanted. Our rule was, if we aren’t displaying the item in our home or haven’t used something for years, out it goes. I can’t tell you how freeing it is and how good it feels to have empty shelves and more room in each closet because of this purge. I took photos of the items I want to remember. I had a bit of a pang seeing my grandmother’s two matching rockers go in the truck, but, I tell myself that someone else will perhaps have them out where they can use them instead of being stored in our basement.

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dorothy — I agree with you about people passing things off to you. People shouldn’t make other people’s clutter theirs.

    In my external example, I wasn’t really thinking of that kind of clutter. By inherited clutter, I meant when you’re the executor of someone’s estate and have to process the contents of the other person’s home. It’s not your stuff, you don’t have much of a sentimental attachment to anything, and you just have to work through it all.

  7. posted by Ann on

    Gosh, I have external clutter issues…for sure. First, I have written here several times about the external clutter I have experienced after my brother died. I had boxes and boxes of things from my brother’s home and office that I kept because a) I felt guilty because he died very young and I am blessed with almost wickedly good health and b) because my mother was sentimentally attached to those things and guilted me into keeping them. I have successfully pared the boxes down to just one.

    Second, my husband is a collector. He believes collections are fun…so do I…but my issue is to keep the collections organized, so that they don’t become clutterish.

  8. posted by Jan D on

    I am proud of myself for a de-cluttering I did last weekend. I have several years of sheets and pillow cases that are no longer good to put on the bed, but since they were part of bed sets I did not want to toss them. Instead I tossed out everything but the pillow shams put cheap pillows in them, and now they are on my couch. Memories are in my head.

  9. posted by Judy @ Confessions of a Closet Hoarder on

    I found my way over here from My Mother In Law is Still Sitting Between Us.

    I sat there nodding my head as I read each thing knowing that I have a problem in all 3 categories. However, I’ve also made tremendous progress in all 3 categories since I realized I was a hoarder back in January. It definitely is not impossible to get through, but it does at times become a little overwhelming, if I don’t take a break.

    I’ll be back to your site as time allows. Thanks for the info!

  10. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I can say that my clutter stems from all 3 reasons. Some is setimental, some is because I can’t decide, some is because I am overwhelmed due to depression or anxiety, and then there are weeks like this one, when I physically don’t feel good. I am suffering from vertigo and can hardly tunr my head. I am determined tomorrow, however, that I am going to make some headway. A family member is having a yardsale this weekend and I want to donate stuff for her to sell. She is using the money to buy presents for her children for christmas 🙂 I was just going to cart off to Goodwill, I’d rather someone I know get benefit from it!

  11. posted by Kathi on

    I have the book on my Christmas list. I wish it was on ebook so I could read it on my Nook. Then I could take it and read it everywhere. Thanks for bringing out the inner us.

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