Clutter Addiction, or cluttering, is a compulsive behavior that involves living with an overwhelming and unmanageable environment that negatively affects one’s mental and emotional wellbeing. While not a distinct condition recognized medically in psychiatry, Clutter Addiction has become widely recognized and there are recovery self-help groups similar to Alcoholics Anonymous that specifically address cluttering. Cluttering involves many of the symptoms, behaviors and dynamics found in disorders which are medically recognized addictions, however. While cluttering is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is widely recognized as a condition that affects both men and women in all socioeconomic classes and is commonly dealt with in psychotherapy and community support groups as are mental health disorders that also involve compulsive behaviors.
What Is Clutter?
Clutter is anything that is kept despite not being needed or wanted. The most common definition of clutter involves having a disorganized and overwhelming amount of objects in one’s living space, vehicles or storage areas. Clutter can be anything tangible in these areas such as:
• food items
• kitchen items
• supplies for cleaning, grooming, etc
• items in ‘junk drawers’, closets, garages, basements, attics, storage bins and storage buildings
• partially used or never used objects, clothing, products, etc
Clutter is also defined in cluttering recovery circles as relationships, activities and emotional issues that no longer serve a purpose in one’s life, but that also overwhelm and debilitate the enjoyment of daily life and prevent a sense of wellbeing. Additionally, clutter can be specific to certain areas of one’s life and can sometimes involve organization of the clutter.
Identifying the Problem
Some of the characteristics of problematic cluttering are:
• Discomfort in the home due to clutter
• Having a large amount of possessions
• Embarrassment about clutter
• Being unable to clean or organize due to number of items in home
• Distraction due to clutter
• Strong emotional attachments to items of clutter
• Wasted time due to clutter
• Progressive cluttering
• Difficulty making decisions about possessions
• Accumulating more possessions without having a need or place for them
• Renting storage space
• Having problems at home, work or in relationships caused by cluttering
• Having areas in the home that are unusable due to cluttering
• Putting items in various places after use rather than maintaining a specific place for them
Symptoms of Addiction
A Clutter Addiction is similar in many ways to Addiction Disorders that are recognized medically as distinct mental health disorders. Cluttering is considered to a compulsive activity which is emotionally-driven and causes alterations of one’s mood. Cluttering causes mild to severe and often progressive negative consequences similar to those caused by Addiction Disorders. Some of the symptoms shared by these disorders and a Clutter Addiction are:
• Repeatedly engaging in cluttering behaviors even when there is a desire to refrain or eliminate clutter
• Having a mental preoccupation with the clutter
• Progressively accumulating more clutter
• Feeling discomfort or distress when living with clutter and/or attempting to resolve clutter
• Having binges of the compulsive behaviors that clutter or that unsuccessfully attempt to resolve cluttering
• Having periods of mood alteration such as feeling “high” when doing the behaviors that lead to cluttering, feeling depressed or anxious when living with clutter
• Failing to meet responsibilities and obligations due to the impact of clutter and cluttering
• Continuing the cluttering behaviors and continuing to live with clutter despite negative consequences
Environmental Impact of Cluttering
Cluttering typically occurs in one’s home and can lead to many consequences such as shame and avoidance of having someone enter the home. In the extreme, cluttering can lead to safety issues in the home such as those that result from an inability to clean the environment, provide exits in emergencies or conditions that lead to falls, infestations or fire hazards, for example.
When cluttering occurs in a vehicle safety issues can also result from compromised visibility and preoccupation with the clutter while driving.
A cluttered environment can also lead to excessive amounts of time spent in one’s daily routine to ‘navigate’ the clutter in order to function. For example, searching for clothes and other items needed to prepare for the unusual routine of work and other typical activities can greatly complicate the daily routine.
Related Psychological Issues
Cluttering is generally considered to be a reaction to feelings of emptiness, fear, guilt and anxiety. Over time cluttering leads to reactive emotional pain such as increased guilt and shame, fear, anxiety, preoccupation and depression.
Cluttering behavior is typically driven by beliefs that include such themes such as:
• Not being able to meet one’s future needs by not having the ability to access necessary resources
• Generalized fear of the future
• Moral judgments about ‘wasting’ and related guilt and anxiety about wasting resources
• Planning for future use or repairs
• Acquiring will make one feel better
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is commonly considered to be the mental health diagnosis most apt to involve characteristics of cluttering; however there are several mental health issues that can include cluttering as a characteristic. Also, cluttering can be a result of partial or full lack of illness management in many disorders.
Co-occurring disorders can include:
• Mood Disorders—depression (inattention to one’s environment or attempts to feel better through acquiring) and mania (inattention, lack of ability to organize, impulsivity)
• Anxiety Disorders—obsessive and compulsive behaviors to control distress
• Psychotic Disorders—‘breaks’ from reality that result in extreme disorganization
• Substance Disorders—compulsive behaviors and inattention to one’s environment
Recovery from problematic cluttering involves the elimination of clutter so that mental and emotional wellbeing is increased and the environment is supportive and enjoyable. Recovery or ‘de-cluttering’ reduces stress and enhances the ability to be more focused and more involved in relationships, necessary activities and leisure. Recovery efforts involve the actual ‘de-cluttering’ of the environment as well as resolution of the related emotional and psychological issues to prevent relapse.
Some ‘clutterers’ will need to work with healthcare professionals who can treat mental health conditions that are co-occurring and contributing to the cluttering. Medications to reduce anxiety, obsessive thinking, impulsivity and/or depression may be indicated along with counseling.
There are also support groups for those affected by cluttering that can be found online and in the community such as Clutterers Anonymous. These support groups use the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and begin with the premise (First Step) that We admitted we were powerless over clutter — that our lives had become unmanageable.