Conquering Fear of Organizing

Before beginning to organize, most people experience intense anxiety that often causes them to repeatedly move back their start date. Once they start, most people realize that organizing is easier and more rewarding than they expected, but getting to that point meant they had to overcome considerable anxiety. The idea of clearing and organizing is often a greater source of fear than the many real difficulties and consequences that result from clutter, that is problems that exist only in the minds seems more real than the physical and financial problems caused by clutter. What causes so much anticipatory distress?

Although people fear organizing for many reasons, below are the that appear most common, with some strategies for overcoming them following.

Fear of failure – people who struggle with clutter often believe that their situation is hopeless since they unsuccessfully tried many times over the years to make things better. Indeed, attempts to organize often led to the situation becoming worse with piles pulled apart, locations disrupted, confusion increased, and self-confidence reduced. Why would anyone think that trying again, with or without help, would be successful and that they won’t just wind up with the same mess and bad feelings?

Embarrassment – people with lots of clutter often fear that others will judge them for making a mess and not solving it. It’s bad enough that they judge themselves harshly – to have another person do so would be unbearable. Even having a professional who deals with these issues all the time see the mess can seem unbearably exposed for someone who fears being judged. These hurtful expectations have little basis is reality (other people really don’t care so much about what we do because they are pre-occupied with their own lives) but they usually have enormous power over behavior anyway.

Perfectionism – the most common reason for clutter and hoarding and fear of getting help for it, perfectionism results from and leads to harsh self-judgment for the supposed ‘failing’ of not being able to manage one’s belongings. People driven by perfectionism typically have demons (negative thoughts or emotions that interfere with emotional health) that constantly berate them for not living up to some unreasonable, arbitrary standard. This constant, self-inflicted, painful criticism causes perfectionists to avoid others’ potential criticism. Others might not consider extreme performance demands reasonable or tolerable, but perfectionists have difficulty setting limits on what they expect of themselves.

Negative self-judgments for any reason often causes loss of self-esteem and depression, often worsened by the belief that you ‘should’ have prevented clutter from getting out of hand and been able to deal with it on your own. All of the above states overlap and feed into each other, causing more complex problems and needs that tend to become even more complex over time.

To overcome these emotional states you must understand that none of them have any basis in the real world. Negative states distort reality by only showing one aspect of it, never produce valid information about the real world, and are a harmful basis for decision-making or emotional states. There is never any value to accepting demon’s statements as reality, but demons do not give up power without a fight. Our demons punish us for trying to break free by using our beliefs to exaggerate mental images and fears. So mere rationality is not likely to succeed in overcoming them. The most powerful tool for overcoming any demon is humor: no demon can long survive being laughed at. Their pretensions, persuasions, and lies are exposed by humor, leaving you free to make decisions that really are in your best interests. Naming your demon and assigning it a ridiculous image can help you become free.

Fear of failure
There is no such thing as failing at organizing (unless you give up), only lessons that need non-judgmental, detailed study to see what worked, what didn’t, and what will make the process work better the next time. This is why making only small changes is best – it is easier to sort out what happened, absorb the lessons, avoid drawing the wrong conclusions, and find the right ones.
           So work in small areas for limited amounts of time (such as 15 or 30 minutes), especially when you work alone. Rather than expecting yourself to clear an entire room or whole house, pick a defined area, such as a table top, and finish that before allowing any other tasks on your organizing to-do list.
         Another key to solving this problem lies in the phrase “organize clutter”. You can’t. No one can. The more possessions you own, the more work and time will be required to keep them organized, clean, and in good condition. The imbalance between our expectations and what is possible is most clearly seen with books and magazines. These seductive little information nuggets promise to make us more informed, healthier, and more active, but in reality, hardly anyone can keep up with them. It almost seems like the more magazines people subscribe to, the fewer they read. Books are a similar phenomenon.
         Write down your typical daily schedule to see how much time you spend on each of your usual daily activities (15-minute blocks of time are best). Chances are, the reason you are behind on reading magazines is because there is no room in your schedule to read them. And suppose you decide to make time – what will you give up to read them and is the sacrifice really worth it? Magazines are glossy, enticing, seemingly ‘with it’ – all very inviting but in reality, there is little substance to most of them. What you must give up to spend more time reading magazines is likely more important to your health and life than anything you could get from them. Similarly, books are enticing, make us feel good about our potential and learning, and offer many possibilities, but if we rarely actually read them, they are only delusions that we might be better off without, freeing up space for things we are more likely to use (or just to enjoy the pleasure of empty space). Finally, having lots of articles or books often means that you will be less likely to take action on the life-improving subject they propose – the material displaces the energy needed for implementation.
Anyway, once you have calculated what is realistically possible in terms of reading materials, you can apply this same time use technique to figuring out how much of the rest of your clutter can really be used. 

No one is perfect so there should be no embarrassment about not living up to unreasonable expectations: not having skills that life has not taught us, have no aptitude for, or can’t apply to our own situation. None of us are born with organizing skills. Owning our imperfections frees us from the burden of hiding. The opinion of anyone who would harshly judge us for not being perfect is not worth paying attention to (whether s/he knows it or not).
         A friend from years ago reacted to making mistakes or not being perfect by saying “so shoot me” (might not want to do that in today’s climate). Her ready acceptance of not needing or wanting to be perfect was a revelation and inspiring. She didn’t tie herself up in knots over what others might think or re-make herself to satisfy anyone else’s expectations. Her statement also revealed the triviality of perfectionism that would levy harsh reactions to silly errors: none of our errors or bad habits are worth punishing ourselves by thinking we don’t deserve for good things to happen to us or that we are bad people.

Perfectionism requires extra effort to overcome it. Perfectionists’ demons are especially punishing, impeding progress and happiness. To overcome these demons, always remember that your mind is punishing you – these demons do not exist outside your mind, regardless of what they might tell you – and therefore you, and only you, can stop the harsh self-judgment and unreasonable expectations. Whether your demons were inherited from your parents, picked up from a teacher, preacher, or other influential figure, or are a way of avoiding some life issue, you do not need to punish yourself this way forever.
        Practice letting tasks be ‘good enough’. Ask yourself where this demon came from, don’t be satisfied with pat answers, and ask whether it needs to continue occupying space in your mind. (I don’t normally espouse digging into the past to overcome demons but in this instance it can sometimes be helpful to realize that a demon had its roots in some interaction you don’t want to perpetuate.)

Some people believe that anyone could or should be able to organize their belongings. This belief flows from the assumption that if one just ‘tried harder’ the solutions would become apparent. Unfortunately, this is rarely true because dealing with clutter does mean working from different assumptions than those currently in use. Overturning the underlying assumptions isn’t easy or common and will require persistence, diligence, and honest self-examination.. Another person, preferably one with experience in poking holes in the thinking that creates these situations, can sometimes be very helpful for making significant headway.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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