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How to Start Decluttering When You Feel Anxious or Afraid [Episode 9]

Have you ever felt paralysed by the idea of decluttering? Does it take you hours to mentally prepare (and then by the time you begin, you’re too exhausted to get anything done)? Do you feel fear and anxiety about the thought of letting go—to the point that you can’t get started? If so, this episode of the Simply + Fiercely show is for you!

In this Episode:

  • Why you can’t get started with decluttering
  • The importance of rebuilding your relationship with decluttering
  • Why too much exposure to blogs or social media can hold you back
  • Two thoughts that will change how you feel about decluttering

Featured In this Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

How To Start Decluttering When You Feel Anxious Or Afraid

Hello, everyone, it’s Jen here, and welcome to Episode Nine of the Simply and Fiercely Show.

Today, I want to talk about my favorite topic, decluttering.

Specifically, how to start decluttering when you’re feeling anxious, or afraid.

The reason I chose this topic is because I’ve come across people who find it hard to take that first step of getting started.

For example, I remember working with one person who told me that sometimes it takes them hours and hours, just to mentally gear themselves up for decluttering.

By the time they start, they’ve either run out of time or they feel so mentally exhausted, that they can’t get anything done.

So, I thought this would be a really good topic for a podcast, because I think everyone, to some extent, feels this kind of fear and anxiety from time to time. And that holds us back from doing the things that we want to do, whether decluttering or just even other things in life.

If you think about it, when we’re talking about decluttering, I can give you all the advice in the world. I can give you a whole book full of decluttering tips. 

But if you find that you can’t even bring yourself to begin, if you can’t get your foot in the door, then it’s not going to do any good.

It’s kind of like, let’s say that you have the best personal trainer in the world, but you are too afraid to even go in the front door of the gym, and you can’t get started, then it doesn’t matter, does it?

You’re still stuck on that first step. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about today.

How do you begin? How do you get over that fear and anxiety so that you can start using all the decluttering advice that you already know, you know, maybe from my blog or others? How do you get to the point where you can start to put that into action?

One last thing, before I dive into that, I just want to point out, sort of like as a disclaimer. As someone who has personally struggled with anxiety at various stages of my life, I want to remind you that sometimes you need professional help.

If you think that your struggles are about more than decluttering, please don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor or you know, someone just more qualified than me to advise you on mental health.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Let’s talk specifically about decluttering and why it can be so hard to get started in the first place.

Where is the resistance coming from? Why do some people have resistance to getting started in decluttering?

When you have strong fears and anxiety or find that there’s a bit of resistance to getting started, where’s that coming from? Why is it so difficult to begin?

I guess that for most people, the struggle is a result of a past negative experience, whether this is conscious or not.

For example, you know, you’ve tried to declutter in the past. And if you’re anything like me, you probably started out feeling hopeful and optimistic, right?

But then things didn’t go quite as planned. It was harder than you expected. Over time, these fears and anxieties have started to build up. And now when you go to declutter, you feel this increased resistance to the point where it feels almost possible to begin.

Alternatively, if you’re saying that’s not me, I don’t have a lot of experience with decluttering, what you might find is that you have a really good imagination.

So, you’ve thought a lot about decluttering, to the point that it’s become this big, scary monster in your head.

What are some examples of the negative experiences and the physical and emotional manifestations that build up your fear of decluttering?

Either way, I believe that the key to overcoming these feelings of fear and anxiety is to rebuild your relationship with decluttering.

Let’s talk a bit about what that means.

The example I like to use, which hopefully isn’t triggering for anyone, is to picture someone who has previously been bitten by a dog.

I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine that if you’ve been bitten by a dog, you’re going to have this deadly fear about going near dogs, which of course is understandable, right?

You have these memories, this negative experience that is weighing heavily on your mind. When you see a dog coming, that’s what you’re thinking of it. 

You might have this physical reaction, like you have butterflies in your stomach, or you might feel frozen. Or you might even feel like running away.

You’re going to react if you see this dog, and you may not consciously be thinking of the memory. It’s almost like muscle memory, you just instinctively feel afraid, and you know that you don’t want to go anywhere near the dog.

I think for some people, this is what it’s like, with decluttering, you’ve been ‘bitten’ by an experience.

Or you have such a vivid imagination that you can imagine what that bite would be like and now you’re afraid to get started.

And it makes sense, because, again, whether conscious or not, you’re imagining all the ways that it might go wrong.

Now, I want to point out that this isn’t always obvious.

For example, I know from my own experience, that as it started to get harder, I wasn’t necessarily going to declutter and think, oh, yeah, I remember the last time I did this, I remember how hard it is, and now I feel afraid.

My brain wasn’t making all those connections consciously. But what I did feel was frozen and not knowing why.

For me, when I’m anxious, I have really strong physical symptoms. It can be a little bit hard to explain, but it’s almost like a dead weight on my chest.

It’s almost like I can’t move. I have things that I want to do, but I can’t make myself do them. I just feel stuck.

I think that’s often the case with people who struggle with decluttering.

For example, I’ve had people tell me things like, I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to begin. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I just can’t follow through, something’s holding me back.

Or sometimes even worse. It’s like, Oh, I’m so lazy. I keep procrastinating. I don’t know why I can’t start.

Like I said, if you feel that way, I absolutely understand. There’s this fear and anxiety.

And I would argue that whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably also got some type of negative association with decluttering, that is holding you back.

Now obviously, I want to point out that with decluttering, your negative experience is not likely going to be as traumatic as getting bitten by a dog.

Instead, I think that it’s not usually one traumatic event. But it’s the accumulation, the buildup, all these multiple negative experiences that are gradually adding up and building on you.

Jen’s personal experience with decluttering.

I’m going to share some of my own experiences with decluttering to show you how I got to the point where I found it almost impossible to begin, where I felt anxious and afraid.

Let me just say that right off the bat, when I first started decluttering, I knew very little about it, except what I had read online. 

I have to say that I was very optimistic. I loved the idea of living with less, I wanted to have less stress.

I expected that it was going to be this one-off project that I would get done and then I just move on with my life. Kind of like how you might think about spring cleaning. 

I expected that it would be a lot of physical work, but I felt completely confident that I’d be able to manage it.

But of course, if you’ve heard my story at all, what I didn’t anticipate was the emotional side of decluttering and all of the struggles that I was going to face.

Because of that, I went into decluttering, thinking it was going to be easy, like just physical labor, but not mentally hard.

When that wasn’t the case, it was a really big surprise.

The best way to describe it was that it was humbling.

I had set up all these goals for myself thinking I’d be able to get everything done in a certain timeframe. When it became evident that there was no way that that was going to happen. And that honestly, I maybe achieved like five or 10% of what I’d set out to do. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

I think in the very beginning, I felt a bit low about it. I felt let down because nobody feels good about failing to complete the goals that they set up for themselves.

But, I kept going and the same thing kept happening.

With each successive round, I would set these big goals for myself, I would fail. And it felt horrible. The more attempts I made the more failures I had.

I went from feeling humbled to full-on dejected. Then I started having negative thoughts. For me, it was things like what’s wrong with me?

Why is rebuilding your relationship with decluttering, the key to overcoming fear and anxiety?

The key, as I mentioned before, is rebuilding your relationship with decluttering.

To explain this, I’ll go back to that example with the dog.

If you were bitten by a dog, and now you’re scared of dogs and you want to overcome that fear, there’ll be some things that you have to do, right?

You’d have to rebuild trust. You’d have to ease your way into being around dogs.

To do this, you wouldn’t just walk into a room full of dogs, right, you wouldn’t just sit down next to a dog and start petting it.

You’d have to be in an environment where you feel safe and then you would probably ease your way in.

For some people, the first step might even be just looking at photos of dogs, and getting comfortable with seeing them.

Then once you feel a bit more comfortable and safe looking at their photos, you’d probably go into the room and you’d start maybe 10 feet away.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about overcoming fears with dogs but I think you can see where I’m going through this.

It’s almost like you’d have to retrain your nervous system to feel safe around dogs again.

To some extent, that is what I’m recommending that you do with decluttering.

I know some of you might be thinking, ‘Well, this sounds silly’. And if you’ve never really felt a strong level of fear and anxiety I get it.

Take what you can from this episode, everything might not resonate.

But for those of you who have felt almost physically stuck with getting started, for those of you who have felt frozen, to the point where you can’t implement any other decluttering advice, because you can’t even get your foot in the door to begin, then this is for you.

Some tips to move forward from fear and anxiety when decluttering.

Here are some tips for moving forward.

First, let me say that everything I’ve talked about so far, the way that these bad experiences are adding up and weighing in our minds isn’t always a conscious thing.

I’ve mentioned that before, but I want to point it out again because I think that there’s a narrative if we’re not stepping back and looking objectively, we risk thinking that there’s something wrong with us.

You know what I mean? We might start thinking, ‘Why do you keep procrastinating? You’re so lazy, why can’t you make yourself do this?’ 

The first tip is to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with you.

The first step is acknowledging that it’s not you.

That it’s not something fundamentally wrong with you. You’re not a failure. You’re not broken. There’s nothing about you as a person that’s making it hard to declutter.

Instead, we need to practice self-kindness and compassion and say, hey, look, I’ve had these negative experiences, I recognize that they were difficult. And now I’m going to have to take another approach. I’m going to have to start slow.

And you give yourself the grace and sort of say, it’s okay to start over. I need to do this by rebuilding my relationship with decluttering.

It’s really important to do this without judging yourself. Culturally, I think, for most people listening to this, it almost feels like doing things slowly is a failure.

We put so much emphasis on being quick and efficient and getting things done, that sometimes taking our time, almost feels like a moral failure.

But I want to let you know, if you’ve ever had those kinds of thoughts that there’s nothing wrong with you.

If you take the time now to rebuild your relationship with clutter, so that you have a strong foundation, it will then save you a lot of time in the future.

Have you ever heard the expression that sometimes you need to slow down to speed up? I think that is the case here.

The more compassion that you show yourself, the kinder you are about decluttering, the better you’re going to feel, and that positive experience will just compound with time.

Okay, so we’ve talked so much about how the negative experiences compound into this giant fear and anxiety, the opposite is also true.

If you take your time and you’re gentle with yourself, and you take more of a holistic approach to decluttering, it’s going to feel better.

You’re going to feel accomplished, you’re going to have good, positive feelings about decluttering, which will build up and make it easier to do again. 

That’s going to make it so that you can finish decluttering and quickly.

That kind of roundabout way, that’s my tip number one. It might sound obvious, but sometimes the first step is just acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with you. And you just need to step back and try again, you just need to start small.

The second tip is, you need to start small to get started.

And actually, starting small is the second tip.

Not just with decluttering, but with almost everything in life. 

We have this tendency to overestimate how much you can get done in a period of time. I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, but it’s like that biting off more than you can chew saying.

It’s as I said, what happened when I first started decluttering and I do it all the time with all sorts of things.

When it happens, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you’re trying to do more than what’s reasonable for you, based on your past experiences.

For example, if you have spent years struggling with decluttering, and you create a plan that you’re going to declutter your whole basement in one afternoon, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I don’t mean that in a mean way. I don’t mean to be negative when you can’t do it but just being realistic.

We don’t want to ‘fail’ because that reinforces the cycle, and makes it even harder for you to start again. 

What you need to do instead is to start small.

Let me just say, that for those who have a deep anxiety about decluttering, you might find that you need to start with just facing your clutter.

For example, I’ve worked with quite a few people who are dealing with a lot of stuff that belonged to a loved one who’s passed on.

There’s going to be a lot of emotion attached to these items.

Maybe you’ve got a lot of it hiding in a closet, maybe your whole basement is full of boxes.

A common thing I hear is that they’ve been down there for years.  I don’t even want to look at them, because I feel so overwhelmed.

If you’re experiencing something like that, your first step might not even be decluttering, you might have to go down to your basement, and sit with your stuff, and just let those emotions wash over you.

Again, I know that might sound a bit silly, but maybe what you need is to have a big cry before you begin.

If you think that’s you, plan for it. Instead of saying, I’m going to go down today and declutter and then end up crying.

Instead, say that I’m going to go down today, and I’m just going to spend some time with my stuff, and deal with those emotions, let myself cry, get that out of my system.

Then the next time I come down here, I’m going to start small, and we’ll start working through a few things.

That’s going to be a much kinder approach to decluttering and you’re acknowledging that you need time to grieve.

I want to point out that when I talk about grieving, that’s not always in the traditional sense. You’re not always grieving the death of a loved one.

Sometimes when you’re struggling to declutter, you’re actually in a way grieving yourself, you’re grieving dreams that were never fulfilled, and you’re grieving the person that you used to be.

There are all these different aspects of ourselves, of our identity that we sometimes have to let go of, and that can be hard. It’s like grieving.

I believe that everyone has grief that’s associated with decluttering. Unless you acknowledge it, you can’t work through it.

What are the two simple thoughts that you can embrace as new ways of thinking to replace the old ones?

Another thing I recommend that’s going to help you rebuild your relationship with decluttering is to try out some affirmations.

Maybe affirmations aren’t the right word. And I’ll be honest, I generally don’t resonate with the idea of affirmations.

If you feel the same way, you could try new ways to think about your decluttering.

Here are some that I highly recommend.

Now, I’ll tell you where I learned about these. As some of you may know, I teach a group decluttering program, it’s called Clear Your Clutter.

We have eight live Zoom calls. What’s great about these calls is that they enable me to talk to my students so I can get feedback in real-time.

What I’ve learned is that there are two simple thoughts a lot of people struggle with. But, when they accept them, when they embrace these new ways of thinking, it is like a breath of fresh air, and decluttering becomes so much easier.

I’ll tell you what they are, and then I’ll break them down.

One, it’s okay, if decluttering takes a long time.

And two, it’s okay, if decluttering is hard.

I know these might seem obvious, at least they felt that way to me.

But at the same time, what I found surprising was just the impact that this truth had on some of my students.

The more I thought about it, the more that it made sense.

A lot of people are learning about decluttering from the internet, and bloggers like me. 

The truth is, no matter how transparent you try to be, when you’re reading a blog, or following someone on Instagram, you’re only seeing a little glimpse of their journey.

You’re not there, when there are tears. You’re not there when they’re tearing their hair out while digging through boxes.

They make it look simple.

I’ve seen it. I do it myself with blog posts like how to declutter your home in a weekend, for example.

When it takes you longer, or when it’s harder work than what you see online, again, it can feel demoralizing.

You can get that sense of what’s wrong with me and that’s not going to help you get started at it.

No one wants to think of things that you’re going to feel before you can begin.

In case you need to hear this. It’s okay for decluttering to take a while and it’s okay for it to be hard.

Just setting that expectation for yourself, instead of comparing yourself to people online is a step forward to creating a kind and compassionate relationship with clutter.

Another way you can be kind to yourself is in the way that you set goals.

What most people do is, they’re like, Hey, I’ve got this afternoon free. I’m going to declutter my closet, which sounds normal and good in theory.

But what happens when you don’t finish? What happens when you know it’s harder than you expected, and you realize that there’s no way that you’re going to accomplish your goal?

As we’ve talked about so much already, when you feel like a failure, when you don’t do what you set out to do, it feels like crap, to be blunt.

Then you’re just contributing to the cycle of negativity, fear, and anxiety.

What you can do instead is set time-based goals.

For example, you don’t say, Hey, I’m going to declutter my whole closet this afternoon, you say, I’m going to spend an hour declutter my closet today.

It doesn’t matter how much I get done. If I just show up for an hour, and do what I promised myself I was going to do, then I’m going to be proud of myself.

That’s powerful, because that’s something that you can, for the most part, control, right? There’s a lot less pressure, you just have to show up and do your best.

If you get to that hour mark, and not everything’s done, fine. You can still say, Hey, I showed up, I did what I said, I’m going to do. I’m proud of myself.

Let’s contrast that, you know, before you felt like a failure, now you’re feeling proud.

That pride is going to carry you forward because what happens when you start meeting your goals is that you regain confidence.

The more confidence you have, the more that you start to believe in yourself.

The fear and anxiety start to go away.

Why is it important to do the mental work first before you do the physical work of decluttering?

This final tip is probably one of the biggest and it is making time to do the mental work for decluttering before you do the physical work.

Now, this is so important, and it’s what I teach in my program, but honestly, I think that in general, it’s not talked about nearly enough. And here’s why.

Imagine again that you’re sitting in your basement, and you are surrounded by 40 boxes of things that remind you of someone from your past, from your mother, your grandmother, or someone else.

How are you going to feel? It’s different for everyone. But for a lot of us, it’s like an emotional minefield, right?

You’re not necessarily in a place where you’re thinking super clearly when you’re surrounded by all of these items, which represent thoughts, feelings, and memories.

But what if you did something different? What if before you went down to your basement, you got out your journal, and spent some time anticipating your emotions, and exploring your fears?

Perhaps just being with the memories you’re expecting before you even go into the room.

What happens is that gives you some space to work through the difficult stuff, whatever that might be for you.

There are tons of reasons why we feel attached to a clutter. I teach that in my program, but you just work through whatever feels difficult for you.

You write it down, and then you bring your journal with you when you are decluttering as a reminder because I can almost guarantee that when you are surrounded by stuff, you’re going to feel overwhelmed.

But, if you have something to ground you, a reminder of who you are, what you care about, just something that helps you step back and see the bigger picture. That clarity is going to help you overcome the fear and anxiety. 

You’re not going to feel as lost and overwhelmed. Instead, you’re someone with a purpose and you feel like you can do this, even if it’s going to take a while.

Those are my thoughts on rebuilding a relationship with decluttering and hopefully minimizing your fear and anxiety.

To be clear, this isn’t a magic solution.

You’re not going to feel completely different overnight, at least not likely. But it is a starting point.

I believe that if you start to break down some of those initial walls and follow it up with a more compassionate approach to decluttering you’re going to start making real progress.

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1 thought on “How to Start Decluttering When You Feel Anxious or Afraid [Episode 9]”

  1. Jen,
    I appreciate how you point out the emotional side of decluttering.
    Whether I feel regret and embarrassment from having spent money on things I never used,
    or an emotional attachment to something from my past, or something that belonged to my mother- whatever it is.
    Emotions are involved in decluttering. Just knowing that ahead of time helps so you’re not blindsided by an onslaught of emotions.
    I sometimes just make mental notes of things I see in the house that I either want to take to Goodwill or give to a friend.
    Then when I’m ready to get them out of the house, I gather them up and take them to whoever I think can benefit from them.
    I make mental notes of stuff I want to throw out, then I gather them up the day before, or the day trash is picked up, so I won’t be tempted to retrieve them out of the trash.
    It helps to realize some things were in my life for a season, and when that time frame is over, I need to let them go.

    I don’t need to be surrounded by seeing unwise purchases.
    Get them out if your house, forgive yourself for buying them in the first place, and move on.
    I don’t need to be surrounded by a lot of things that remind me of people in the past, especially if there was friction in that relationship.
    If I see things in my house that remind me of past negative situations, or negative comments from people, I need to get them out of my house and out of my sight.
    My house is not a warehouse for everyone else’s things.
    My closets have been so full of other people’s things that there hasn’t been room for my stuff.

    Many years ago when our kids were small, I was a stay at home mom, and we didn’t have much financially.
    A thrift store was nearby, and a woman donated some really nice ladies’ clothes and suits that were my size.
    I was so grateful to have something nice to wear.
    I have never forgotten that.
    I love to give clothes away, because remember how nice it felt for me to have something nice to wear.

    I’ve had trouble paring down on cookbooks.
    To me, reading someone’s cookbook is like sitting down with a dear friend, and sharing in their life, but when I took a good look at my cookbooks, some I kept because of ONE recipe that I liked in the whole book.
    So I started making a copy of the recipe I liked, and then giving many of my cookbooks away.

    What I am finding as I continue this lifestyle of decluttering is FREEDOM.
    The mental freedom is something I did not expect, but oh, what a wonderful feeling it is.
    Yes, I’ll have less things to maintain and clean, but I had no idea the mental FREEDOM would be so awesome.

    I know everyone is different, but I have had tremendous freedom in getting rid of a lot of pictures.
    I don’t need anything that will try to drag my mind into the past.
    I want to live in the present, and look forward to the future, and I don’t need the mental clutter of too many things from the past.
    Getting rid of some things, especially pictures, was gut wrenching.
    BUT, I don’t have the physical space in my house to let it be a storehouse for other people’s things.
    Some people may not be able to relate to this at all, and that’s okay.
    I used to have no boundaries in my life, and I did what everyone else wanted me to do.
    It’s a new day in my life now, and Jen, your approach to getting to the root of why it is so hard to declutter has been liberating for me.
    It’s okay to be me.
    It’s okay to say No people, and say No to all the encroachments on my time. It’s okay to be me.
    The more I get rid of, the more I am freed up mentally to REST, and enjoy where I am on this life’s journey.
    Thank you, Jen.
    You’re helping a lot of people find freedom, and be at peace with who they are.


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