Modified KonMari for Trauma Healing:
Getting to the Emotional Roots of Your Clutter
It's hard to let go of connections to the past
The story of my life is in part the story of things.
I had a recurring dream when I was in my twenties. I would be in a room in my house or someone else’s house and suddenly remember a door I’d forgotten about. I would open the door and in it would be things I used to own but had lost or forgotten: the porcelain dogs my great-grandmother had let me play with when I was at her house; an old piece of furniture; costume jewelry from my mom’s Avon collection; lost toys, tchotchkes, precious, irreplaceable things.
I would wake up awash in the emotions of nostalgia and loss. The things I lost to time are in part what made me a packrat over the years, but more on that in a moment.
Connections to My Past
When I was 19 years old, I had an apartment with practically nothing in it. There wasn’t even furniture except for a twin bed a guy from church gifted me. My mentally ill mom had physically removed me from my home the year before, bagging up a few of my belongings in thick black garbage bags and tossing them in the driveway. I’d dragged them around to a friend’s house then to my cousin’s and finally that apartment. They mostly contained books and clothing, but many of the things I loved most were lost.
That’s when I started to lose the ability to let go of things. It wasn’t about not being comfortable with simplicity. It was about the fear of having no connection to anything I knew. Every object in my life became some kind of a talisman, a sacred item that connected to something meaningful like a memory or a person.
There’s comfort in being a packrat. I fell in love with maximalism when I used to visit the home of our friends from New Orleans. Everything in their dusty home was a treasure; it was cluttered and chaotic and beautiful. I’ve never understood or related to minimalism, which feels sterile and empty to me like an absence of feeling. In maximalism, I could fill my space with moments that I’d never have to let go of again, shoved out onto the driveway or into an empty stamped-out copy-and-paste apartment.
The things in my life gave me control over my environment.
From Cupboards to Chaos
We lived in our first house for about 15 years, and in that time, we amassed a collection of too many things to count. Everything from old computers to extra pots and pans and clothing, books, toys, you name it, it was shoved in a cupboard or a tub in the basement. Things got worse when the kids came along, with their belongings changing faster than I had a chance to react to.
When we left to take care of my mom as she was dying, we left our things behind until we could come back for them, but in that time, our house was vandalized and ransacked. When we came back, everything we’d had was everywhere, and it was devastating.
I stubbornly took everything I could save, shoving what I could into black garbage bags once more. I took things I shouldn’t save, but the fear of losing what I had of my brother who died was gripping and intense. There was no time to go through any of it, so we stored it.
Inherited Trauma, Inherited Things
When my mom moved onto the land where she lived when she died, she stored everything from the house I grew up in in a warehouse. The scope of it is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say it was a massive space filled with every artifact from my childhood that she’d scooped up and placed--again, in black garbage bags--to return to, or cling to, or maybe she didn’t even know.
The first time I stood in that space, I had been overcome with emotion. It was my recurring dream made a reality. I’d lost my connection with my family for the twelve years she’d been estranged from me and with it every belonging and artifact from my childhood. And suddenly there I was in a warehouse, where boxes held every piece of my life I could imagine: cardboard boxes filled with childhood art of my brother’s and mine; my brother’s motorcycle jacket from when we got our first dirt bikes; the latch-hook rugs my mom had made when I was a kid.
Every single thing was at once worthless and precious, and there was so much of it that it was difficult to grasp.
The Connection Between Collecting and Loss
It wasn’t until my mom finally died that I was truly confronted with how much stuff we had; although I knew it logically, I’d never had to face it. When we moved into our current home, we moved everything from storage, and it filled a large U-Haul truck twice. It was so overwhelming that we were physically hurting after the move and it took weeks to unpack. I began to realize my belongings were a three-dimensional scrapbook of loss, but I lacked the emotional strength to fully address it.
I read a lot of library books, and I’d read some decent advice on dealing with clutter over the years that probably would have helped someone else. Martha Stewart suggested sorting one’s belongings into tubs. If you fill those tubs, you have to empty them, and if you’re not sure how to do that, you end up stacking them up in a corner.
My mom could never get a grip on it either. I remember a section of our bookshelf dedicated to clutter, with all of their clever titles like Do I Dust or Vacuum First? and covers, cartoon images of women juggling a broom and a Hoover. But her house was a mess like mine. It hit me like a ton of bricks one day that my kids will be the first generation in our family to inherit the bad habits without the trauma.
On one of those Hoarders-type shows they sorted things into three piles: keep, donate, trash. That’s where I learned I was halfway to being a level two hoarder. That means there’s clutter everywhere but you can get through the house and it’s not blocking any doorways, basically. Like Bette Midler on Stepford Wives. It’s true creative minds often struggle with maintaining order, but I’ve always known there was more to my clutter than just creative chaos for me.
I can’t remember which friend first told me about the KonMari method, but I realized quickly it was just another thing that couldn’t help me. The short version is that you’re supposed to go through your things and decide if they bring you joy, and if they don’t, you get rid of them.
The Limitations of KonMari
The KonMari method has worked well for people I’ve known who were close to having their act together but just needed a little push. But I’ve read and heard quite a bit of valid criticism, often from people who felt KonMari didn’t address some key reasons people hang on to clutter.
When you live in a financially strapped situation, hanging on to things that don’t bring you joy can be a matter of insurance. Or as Justin says, utility.
Clearly, Marie Kondo has never known the feeling of having a job interview you didn’t expect and being profoundly grateful because somewhere in the back of your overstuffed closet is the perfect black dress you pull out once a year for just such an occasion, or the realization that you don’t have the right pan to cook a dish and you can’t afford to buy a new one, or the feeling of gratitude when you dig out a different blanket to change up the look in your bedroom because you can’t afford new bedding.
But not everything I had was insurance or utility or joy. Over the past year, I’d gone through our belongings steadily and confronted some things I didn’t want to face, like the fact that I was hanging onto my brother’s childhood bedding, bedding he wouldn’t even want if he was alive today, because I couldn’t bear to give up yet another echo of his life. Because it feels like he’s fading away little by little into nonexistence, and it scares me and breaks my heart.
For people who have experienced loss, letting go of things can almost physically hurt. I wonder if Marie has ever turned a drawer or a Rubbermaid tub into a secret shrine to a loved one. Or a room.
KonMari also runs counter to a more bohemian aesthetic. I wish I was one of those people who find a bright, minimal space with only a couple of clever quotes on the wall and some Ikea furniture calming, but they feel empty to me, devoid of memories and warmth and creative chaos.
Give me a grandma’s house filled with too much embroidery and knick-knacks any day. Add some lacy throw pillows and mismatched mugs.
TBH Marie Kondo’s oversimplification of the emotional aspects of clutter and assumptive valuation of minimalism was off-putting to me, and so every time over the past few years a friend has gleefully declared her commitment to KMing her belongings, I had to fight back the eye rolls and sarcasm, congratulating her through gritted teeth.
I’ve known for a long time that my clutter was an extension of my trauma, the people I’ve lost and the time I’ve spent not having furniture or pots and pans or the right clothing for a specific occasion. But knowing how to address it was beyond my emotional reach.
Confronting Feelings About Your Belongings
My kids are huge fans of ASMR, slow TV, and their ilk. They love Bob Ross, baking shows, anything they can chill to at bedtime. That’s how I ended up watching Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, something I would have never turned on of my own volition. But I’m glad I did.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the first episode introduces Marie to the Friend family, a couple with two young children who are already on the path to where we’re at, overwhelmed in clutter and frustration. It’s startling how disruptive and even destructive such a tiny, unassuming woman can be--this show is decidedly neither relaxing or slow TV. In fact, we found ourselves quite emotionally wound up after watching it.
Within hours, Marie is directing the family to pile all of their clothing into a mountain and address it head-on. To read about Marie’s methods in an essay or a book is one thing, but to see someone’s belongings piled together is an emotionally stunning experience. It certainly was for the couple, who were visibly shook. Rachel, the mom, was taken aback at the scope of it, telling Marie, “I actually feel kind of uncomfortable right now.”
You know how you can know things, but you don’t have to force yourself to face them? It was in that moment that I realized the reason that I found Marie’s method frustrating was because it didn’t address the emotional connection people have to their belongings, and that’s really important for people who have collected belongings because of past trauma. Deciding if something gives me joy isn’t enough, because all of the emotional baggage associated with my belongings is so much more than just joy. My brother’s glasses don’t give me joy. They break my heart. But I’m not ready to let them go.
Adapting KonMari for Trauma Healing
I watched as this family purged their belongings and their own emotional baggage, which in their case was the anxiety and pressure of caring for small children while still trying to find the joy in their marriage. It was at that moment I realized that Marie’s method could work for me if I adapted it to address the trauma that led me to collect all of this stuff.
I also knew it would be hard both emotionally and physically. I started with my clothing just as the Friend family did, and I forced myself to confront how much of what I was hanging onto was due to emotional trauma.
As it turns out, a lot.
As Marie directed, I took each item, held it, mentally contemplated and processed it. I didn’t ask myself if it brought me joy. It was a cost-benefit analysis at its heart. I asked myself if the gross value of the item outweighed the negative emotional baggage of keeping it.
To clarify: The thing that allowed me to finally start breaking through all of that clutter, all of the things I’d collected wasn’t asking myself if brought me joy, but if I could allow myself to move on from it.
I opened up the linen closet in our bedroom. Here was a blanket my aunt gave me 11 years ago for Christmas. It was comfortable; it was comforting. It was a piece of my life. I couldn’t bring myself to thank it as Marie suggested, but I brought it to my face, felt the brown cable knit one more time, and then let it go.
Here was the sheet that I keep just in case the laundry gets backed up. Utility.
The soft gold glittery blanket I bought when Sears closed that had become dull looking after washing it twice. Nostalgia.
I purged my fabric stash too. Let’s be honest...I sew like once every six months, and since I’m not as poor as I used to be, if it came down to it, I could afford to buy fabric for a project, something I couldn’t say a year ago. I could use the space more than I could use the remote possibility that I’m going to sit down and finally use that pink vintage floral fabric I’ve been hanging onto for three years.
KonMari is a five-step process, and I’ve got far to go. But as much as I loathe to admit it, with those 25 black garbage bags of things gone, I do feel better. I feel lighter.
As a person who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, that’s important.
Like most de-cluttering methods, KonMari doesn’t work for some people because packrat behavior is often connected to emotional trauma. It was only by adapting Marie’s method that I was finally able to address the emotional trauma of fear and loss and begin clearing out things that had been slowly filling up our home past the point of manageability.
Now am I planning to give up my maximalist ways? Heck no. I love stuff. I still love a grandma house. I love the thrill of a yard sale find and lining up all of my quirky tchotchkes. But I do feel like with my clutter--let’s be real--my low-level hoarding a little more under control, I have more of a choice in what I’m surrounded by, and I’m creating an environment that’s easier to clean and straighten up. I can be intentional about what I hang on to, rather than ruled by the emotional attachments of my desire to hang on to what I can’t seem to let go of.
And I’m not teaching my kids to be afraid of letting go.