Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it. – Ellen Goodman

DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO

Most of the time when I make lifestyle recommendations to my patients, I’ve already walked a mile down the path I am encouraging them to tread.

  • Give up sugar? I’ve done it.
  • No more Diet Coke? I can’t remember the last time I stopped at Sonic.
  • Daily meditation? Check.
  • Prioritizing sleep? Yep, I’m on it — I get at least seven hours every night.
  • Give up pain medications? I can empathize with the hell you’re going through because I’ve done it myself.
  • Clear out your clutter……..well, that’s still on my “to do” list

WEDDED BLISS OR WEDDED MESS?

When my husband and I got married in 2012 (each of us nearly 40) we merged two complete households — two sets of dishes, two closets full of sheets, two Kitchen Aid mixers, two fake Christmas trees, two couches, two cheese graters. To our combined possessions I contributed thousands of books, yards of papers and 3-ring binders from three academic degrees, and craft supplies spanning decades. He contributed boxes and boxes of clothes from the early nineties, shelves full of cheap Native American pottery from the years he spent living in New Mexico and Arizona, and dozens of Happy Meal toys from when he was eight (individually wrapped in newspaper by his mother).

We figured that we would get around to dealing with overfilled closets, the stacked-to-the-ceiling attic, and the cluttered garage “next weekend” but our busy life has interfered with those plans and here we are, four years later, and the mountains of stuff have only grown. Add three boys (none of them neat-niks) and eight parrots (nature’s messiest creatures, bar none) to the mix and our house could charitably be described as “lived in”.

STUFF = STRESS

This state of affairs stresses me out and aggravates me to no end. I grew up in an extremely neat household and spent most of my adult years with an effective filing system in place that enabled me to put my hands on the instructional manual for the blender I bought three years ago in 30 seconds flat. I am not one of those people who feels more creative when things are messy — clutter makes me feel frazzled and frustrated and like stomping my feet.

So when the other day I read a 2010 study in which they found that, at least for women, there is a clear link between a “high density of household objects” and elevated cortisol levels I knew that they were talking about me. According to researchers, the more stuff, the more stress women feel. Interestingly, no such link exists for men. This pretty much sums up the state of affairs in my home. I’m stressed about too much stuff. My husband and three male children are stressed about the snarling witch that I become when they buy another piece of camping equipment that has to be stored in our already overwhelmed garage or when I come home at the end of the day and find dishes with egg dried on them in the sink.

AMERICANS HAVE A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF STUFF

Here are 15 stats gathered by Joshua Becker for Becoming Minimalist that confirm the suspicion that Americans (me included!) simply own too much stuff:

  1. There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times).
  2. The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).
  3. And still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine).
  4. While 25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them and 32% only have room for one vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy).
  5. The United States has over 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. (SSA).
  6. British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily (The Telegraph).
  7. 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA).
  8. The average American woman owns 30 outfits—one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was nine (Forbes).
  9. The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually (Forbes).
  10. While the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year (Huffington Post).
  11. Some reports indicate we consume twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago (The Story of Stuff).
  12. Currently, the 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe account for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent (Worldwatch Institute).
  13. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).
  14. Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list (The Daily Mail).
  15. Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods—in other words, stuff they do not need (The Wall Street Journal).

FENG SHUI

Feng Shui, a Chinese practice that dates back approximately 4,000 years, is the study of the environment and how it affects people. Although some Feng Shui concepts seem strange or superstitious to Westerners, we have all experienced spaces that are relaxed and harmonious and other spaces that make us feel stressed, edgy, or tired. According to Feng Shui practitioner Cathleen McCandless,

The fundamental premise of feng shui is really quite simple and makes perfect sense: When you live and work in places that feel good to you, your attitude becomes more positive and your quality of life improves.

Feng Shui gives us language to describe a lot of things that we already know intuitively, such as the fact that there is a clear link between a cluttered living space and stress. According to Feng Shui, clutter can even contribute to health problems like obesity. How can we explain that?

HOW DOES CLUTTER MAKE YOU FAT?

A fundamental tenant of Chinese philosophy and medicine is that the human body is a microcosm of the universe. In every aspect of nature health is characterized by dynamic balance — constant movement and change. Inhaling and exhaling. Expansion and contraction. Growth and decay. Summer and winter. Feasting and fasting. Sowing and reaping. These principles of dynamic balance between two poles are always at play, whether we are talking about an individual human body, a backyard garden, an ecosystem, the planet Earth, or the entire universe.

Clutter in the environment represents imbalance and stasis — a state in which too much is taken in, not enough is discarded, and where change and growth are being blocked. A home with a “high density of household objects” is like a person who eats too much, sits on the couch, and poops only once a week. Under these circumstances the body (and the home) becomes bloated and unhealthy. Chaos predominates.Inertia grows. Eventually it comes to the point that shedding the excess, whether it is adipose tissue or personal possessions, feels like an insurmountable task.

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STUFF CARRIES AN EMOTIONAL CHARGE

This is particularly true when the objects that make up our mess carry an unpleasant emotional charge, as clutter almost always does. It sounds like woo-woo, but most of us understand from first-hand experience that objects carry distinct energy and that energy has the potential to affect our physical and emotional health. Those objects that have positive, uplifting, and joyful energy tend to be things that we use or wear all the time or that we prize so highly that the last thing we would do is leave them lying around collecting dust.

Things that I would place on my “items that spark joy” list include the holy medals that I wear on a chain around my neck every single day; a small collection of very special mementos that I keep tucked away in a handmade wooden box; a small shelf of the books that changed my life that sits next to my bed; the earrings that my husband gave me for my 40th that I haven’t removed from my lobes since my last birthday; the Homestead Heritage dining table and benches where we eat all our meals; a cardboard box filled with drawings, art projects, and homework papers that I have carefully selected as remembrances of each phase of my sons’ lives; my rose gold Apple 6s+ in its perfect clear case; the designer purse that my son Charlie picked for me because it is the perfect size, shape, and color; and the external hard drive filled with over 15,000 family photos that is kept in our fire safe.

The items that make up my clutter, on the other hand, spark anything but joy. The stack of bills that need to be paid. The papers I’m saving for next tax season. The clothes that no longer fit me and serve to do nothing but remind me that I weigh 10 pounds more today than I did when I bought them two years ago. The shoes that were given to me by a well-meaning family member who has never quite “gotten” my personal sense of style and always gives me things that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing but feel too guilty to throw away. The $30 lipstick that makes me look tired. The collection of cookbooks that makes me feel ashamed that we eat out too much. The gifts given to me by my ex-husband before he stopped loving me. The piles and piles of books that I really should have borrowed from the library because it turns out that they didn’t contain the life-changing insight that I had hoped they would. The cabinet full of expensive hair products that promised to solve my frizzy hair woes but turned out to be no better than Pantene.

When I start tuning into the energy that the objects in my home carry, it becomes clear that every where I turn there are dozens of bits and pieces that make me feel guilty, overwhelmed, frustrated, discouraged, disheartened, or annoyed. Any one of these items is no big deal on its own — it is the chorus of negative, discordant energetic noise that they make when taken together than weighs me down and makes me feel like sitting down with a bowl of salsa and a bag of tortilla chips instead of going for a walk, like watching Netflix in bed all evening rather than playing a game with my kids, or like snapping at my husband rather treating him with tenderness and kindness. Day after day, week after week, these small choices add up to firmly entrenched and very unhealthy habits. My clutter is shaping my life, and I don’t like it.

WHAT OTHER HEALTH PROBLEMS CAN CLUTTER CAUSE?

According to Chinese medicine, the accumulation and stasis that is characteristic of clutter can be the cause or the consequence (or both!) of dozens of physical and emotional health problems, including:

  • Seasonal allergies and sinus problems
  • Digestive problems including constipation and IBS
  • Hormonal problems such as PMS and painful periods
  • Migraine headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic fatigue
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Irritability
  • Chronic pain

Sometimes it is difficult to sort out which is the chicken and which is the egg — are you irritated and unfocused because your environment is messy or is your environment messy because you are irritable and unfocused? Or maybe some of both?

CLUTTER DETOX

Over the past decade “detox” regimes of all sorts have been in vogue. In general, Chinese medicine does not look with favor on saunas, juice fasts, purgative herbs, hot yoga, or enemas. One thing that it does advocate, however, is the cultivation a harmonious and uncluttered living environment. For most of us, creating such an environment necessitates a “detox” process that includes throwing away, recycling, or donating a substantial portion of our possessions. In many cases this can have far more impact on our physical and emotional health than any physical purge.

In 2014, Japanese author Marie Kondo published The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. The book quickly become a #1 New York Times bestseller and has now sold over 2 million copies. The people who I know who have implemented the book’s techniques gush that the experience has, in fact, been lifechanging. Many KonMari devotees report substantial weight loss as an unanticipated but very welcome side benefit of decluttering.

SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

As I stated at the beginning of this article, I don’t generally offer advice that I have not yet managed to follow myself, so I guess this article really isn’t advice per se. It is one part confession and one part commiseration, I guess. And perhaps I am hoping that by voicing these ideas that I will find the wherewithal to break out of a rut that I know is not serving me or my family.

Do you have a clutter problem? If so, have you noticed that it has an impact on your physical and/or emotional health? Or is there a place for everything and is everything in its place in your home? If so, have you always been that way or did you manage to conquer your clutter? Please tell me more in the comments!

Be well,

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