ACA Blog

Joan Phillips
May 03, 2010

Clutter is Getting a Bad Rap

As with many issues, a pendulum swings between polar positions that define a territory. When it comes to “clutter” the territory has been recently mapped very well through television with shows focusing on hoarders and other shows organizing homes and clutter within 30 minutes of TV time. Both are extremes, outside the norm, and shown primarily for entertainment value with educational a far second. What does any of this have to do with counseling? A lot. Many of our clients struggle with the stuff of their lives. Things, housekeeping, organizing children to be successful in school, fixing dinner, meeting their own or inherited expectations of how to handle space and clutter.

I find it very interesting to examine this along with them. I am not talking here about the client who truly has the characteristics of obsessive-compulsive behavior and plays that out through their environment- whether in hoarding or in excessive cleaning. I am talking about the vast majority that lie somewhere in between, but who have things that mean something to them and that they must manage.

We all invest meaning in objects. In primitive cultures this may be the basis for a religion, and we can think about totems, fetishes, ceremonial objects and the like. So what are the totem objects of our culture or for your individual client? For one it might be a name-brand fashion purse. For another it might be a certain car or truck. Articles of clothing, jewelry and phones all carry the message someone is creating about themselves to some extent. Sometimes there is an aspiration expressed- as in “someday I will be able to afford more of this”.

For others objects show membership in some select group that shares secret signs or knowledge- at its’ extreme this might be gang-related but there are many lesser versions of “membership” that objects point to. Notice what books a kid is carrying around or what shoes they wear. Asking about those things may lead directly to a better understanding of who the kid is as well. Even a question to any client such as “what is the most important thing you have?” will give a window to what might work as an intervention and what they truly value. How did they obtain it? How long have they had it? What does it mean to them?

One clinical application of this thinking occurred for me in grief work with a family. The father had died very suddenly from a massive heart attack and the wife and two children were thrown into sudden and traumatic grief. All were having difficulty functioning and all expressed some sense of being paralyzed and unable to express themselves around the grief. For a family session, I suggested that each bring an object that reminded them or connected them to Dad, and they readily complied. This gave them an external focus- to find that object to bring to session- and did not require introspection. In fact I told them not to over-think this, just to bring whatever they wanted.

What followed in session has stayed with me as a striking moment in counseling that taught me a lot. While holding and talking about the objects, the words and feelings flowed. Daughter brought a slide rule and talked about Dad’s intellect and how she inherited that. Son brought golf balls and reminisced about times with Dad. But it was Mom’s object that gave us all a tearful recognition of the depth of loss they all were experiencing. She brought a small velvet bag and it it was his wedding ring. She talked of how she had to decide if it would go into the casket with him or stay with her, and how she decided to always keep it with her as a reminder he was always there.

No counseling technique comes to the fore at times like this, only “being with” someone in respect and awe. Yes, objects have meaning. Yes, we all collect too many at times. But let’s don’t let our zeal for organization or de-cluttering devalue the meaning of that scrap of paper someone saves, or the old used golf ball under some kids’ bed. You never know where meaning resides, and a healthy respect for people’s clutter can serve us well.



Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family
therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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