We all stream renovation and makeover shows and scroll through organizational influencers’ posts on social media.
If you’re like us, you hope to feel empowered and connected to the streamlined home life these pros create. But studies and anecdotal evidence increasingly show these visions of (supposedly) achievable perfection can often lead to increased rates of poor self-esteem and lower life satisfaction.
And it’s little wonder that the idealized vision of home organization online and on TV might seem impossible to attain in your own home. Especially when lifestyle gurus such as Marie Kondo and her imitators are constantly urging you to cleanse, declutter, make over, or reorganize every single nook and cranny in your home.
The result of all that pressure to purge is an under-reported but prevalent side effect: the overwhelming feeling of clutter shame.
“Celebrities and influencers often post videos and photos of their impeccably clean and minimalistic home,” says life coach and mental health advocate Ashley Chubin, chief operating officer of FlyHi in Aurora, CO. “The implication is that, if you don’t live like that, you lack self-respect and hygiene.”
But you don’t have to fall victim to clutter shame. Read on for pointers about how to combat it.
Give yourself a break
The first step in a journey toward shedding any shame is by being kind to yourself.
“Ever since Marie Kondo asked, ‘Does this spark joy?’ clutter shame has been on my radar,” says Stacy Cason, CEO of Colorado’s Planetarie. “In my work as a Realtor, I’ve encountered many clients who felt shame about their homes, their organizational skills, and the sheer number of possessions they had.”
So you should ask if your possessions are clutter—or a collection of things you value. If it’s the latter, Cason suggests practicing self-compassion as an antidote to shame, especially when it’s externally imposed by current cultural priorities.
Self-love improves confidence, resilience, and strength—and it will also help you differentiate between real and imagined clutter.
Overcome clutter shame by curating decor
Even the most restrained hobbyists and collectors can occasionally let their passions get the best of them. So if your fly-fishing trophies or adorable ceramic pigs have suddenly taken over every surface in your home, ask yourself if it’s time to organize them—without purging anything. (It’s OK if the answer is no.)
“If the clutter starts to feel overwhelming, there are many ways to manage it without getting rid of things,” explains Sarah Barnard, a leading designer of personalized and sustainable spaces at Santa Monica’s Sarah Barnard Design.
“Group like with like, because visual order can prevent things from feeling overwhelming,” Barnard advises.
If you want to go a step further, focus your collections in one area of a room.
Overcoming clutter shame with small projects
Every home occasionally needs a small reevaluation and cleanup.
But when clutter shame strikes, anxiety often follows. So instead of panicking, think about what you can eliminate to help your life run smoothly, then start there.
“Clutter shame can lead to feelings of being trapped or stuck,” says Ben Soreff, a professional organizer at H2H Organizing in Connecticut’s Fairfield County. “I create a specific time to finish a project, and I find that this works for people who feel overwhelmed.”
Soreff suggests setting a timer for 15 minutes with a specific goal in mind. Or plan on tackling another small project on a set date.
Banish clutter shame by embracing it
One of the most counter-intuitive ways to combat clutter shame is by owning it.
“Clutter shame is definitely behind the rise of the minimalist style,” says Stefan Bucur, interior designer and co-owner of Rhythm of the Home in Lewisville, TX. “But what goes up must come down, and I think we’re seeing that.”
And so, after years of surging popularity, the unrealistic quest of minimalism is on the wane.
“I’m seeing a new style called ‘cluttercore’ emerge,” says Bucur. “It went viral on TikTok and is now popular as a way to embrace organized chaos. People no longer need to feel shame. Instead, they can use clutter to beautify what’s already there.”
The difference between clutter and hoarding
There’s a world of difference between loving knickknacks and hoarding. But in rare cases, clutter shame might be a sign of real issues.
“Severe clutter can be a sign of deeper-rooted mental or emotional issues,” says Claire Grayson, a psychologist and co-founder of Personality Max. “For example, someone with ADHD may have an overwhelming need to have many of their things around them while they sleep. They find safety in having bags, clothes, food, and drinks within arm’s length.”
A sudden rash of new clutter—or enough clutter to impede a safe exit from the house during an emergency—might be a sign of depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue.
If that’s the case for you, or someone close to you, she suggests seeking professional help.
And if you ever scroll through Instagram and find yourself staring wistfully at the barren, gleaming kitchen of a celebrity home, remind yourself of the team of cleaners, cooks, stylists, and assistants who likely made it that way.