When decluttering becomes a distressing obsession, people throw everything away

You’ve KonMari-ed your drawers, cleared your cupboards of clothes you haven’t worn in the last month, and made your living room match the minimalist one you found on Pinterest.

There’s nothing more to do, but you don’t feel satisfied. You want to keep clearing, keep decluttering, keep paring back until you have nothing left.

There’s an emotional itch to scratch. You look around and objects feel like they’re looming large, suffocating you simply by existing.

This is compulsive decluttering – a symptom of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder that The Atlantic describes as ‘the opposite of hoarding’.

The behaviour is also known as obsessive-compulsive spartanism, which describes the experience of being unable to handle mess.

When you’re a compulsive declutterer, you want to live a life that’s as minimalist as humanly possible, and experience intense stress when confronted with unnecessary physical items.

The behaviour isn’t officially recognised as a medical disorder, or even as a symptom of OCD, but online many of those dealing with anxiety disorders share their experiences of feeling trapped by the presence of objects.

It’s difficult to have compulsive decluttering recognised as an issue, as its effects are considered socially acceptable. While hoarding is shamed and excess is criticised, a tidy, minimalist home or working space is generally considered something to strive for.

Plus, there’s a reluctance among those with OCD to open up about their experiences, wanting to avoid playing into the cliché that having OCD simply means you’re ‘really clean’ or to have the intense mental distress caused by clutter dismissed as just being bothered by a bit of mess.

In a time when decluttering is a trend and the whole world is tidying up, admitting that you’ve cleared out every possession from your home is more likely to attract applause than cause for concern.

But how can you know when your decluttering has crossed the line from normal tidying to something compulsive?

Amelia, 26, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder last year, and feels compulsive decluttering offers an explanation for her previous behaviour.

‘I walk into my parents’ house and see piles of books, tens of coats loaded on to hooks, and cupboards filled with more mugs than two people could ever use,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It automatically makes me feel overwhelmed and like I’m about to have a panic attack.

‘My inability to live with that much clutter was a big part of why I moved out, and why I was so irritable with my parents.

‘I think people would be surprised that I feel so uncomfortable with clutter, because I’m naturally quite a messy person. I prefer doing big tidies rather than day-to-day stuff, so you’ll spot piles of clothes on my floor most days, then a spotless place once a week.

‘My compulsion is more apparent when it comes to those big tidies. I suddenly want to throw absolutely everything away, even if it has a purpose or it should have some sentimental meaning. I don’t feel connected to my stuff and its presence feels claustrophobic. I’ve thrown away photo albums, diaries, and gifts from friends and family because I just have a sudden need to get it out of my space.’

‘Also getting rid of items might give them a feeling of being in control of their lives. Maybe they feel they have not been able to exercise much control in their lives previously.

‘Belief that certain items have been contaminated and need to be thrown away might also trigger this condition and provide the sufferer with some relief – albeit temporary!’

That’s the trouble with any compulsive disorder – while the behaviour might make you feel safe and soothed for a moment, that feeling quickly disappears. Then you have to either continue with the compulsion or find another one to chase some relief.

Then there are the practical effects of compulsive decluttering. There’s the obvious issue of throwing away things that you may later need, such as important documents of items that can’t be replaced.

Aimee tells us that a previous ‘purge’ of her wardrobe left her ‘scarred’: ‘I got rid of loads of clothes a few years back. I still think about some of those items.’

Natalie has had the same issue, telling us she regrets chucking ‘boxes, instructions, receipts’.

‘My instinct is to throw any things like this away instantly – only to find that I need to return an item and I don’t have any of the paperwork,’ she explains. ‘Also clothes. I love creating space in my wardrobe but I am definitely too brutal. I will go to find that sparkly vest I haven’t worn in a while and then realise I chucked it – but now I have a new skirt that goes perfectly with it.’

The behaviour can also cause issues with friends and family who don’t have the same drive to clear their personal space.

Amelia still struggles to visit her parents’ house, while Aimee has found herself offering to tidy her desk neighbour’s stuff before because it was ‘getting’ to her.

If a compulsive declutterer is in a relationship with someone with similar views on minimalism, living together can be plain sailing, but problems arise when the urge to clear leads to the discarding of things someone else deems meaningful. Differing levels of tidiness can be tricky in any relationship, but when someone clutter puts you unbearably on edge, what can you do? And from the other person’s perspective, is it fair to let them lead on the tidying, despite knowing it may be an unhealthy compulsive behaviour?

The key, as with any mental health issue, is to find the line between standard behaviour and patterns of action and thought that are damaging physically and mentally.

Lorna explains that the border between ‘just being tidy’ and compulsive decluttering can be tricky to see, but it comes down to how the person is feeling.

One person’s treasure is another person’s trash, so it’s not as simple as declaring that an object is something that shouldn’t be chucked away, and defining someone’s behaviour based on what exactly they’re discarding.

Lorna says a sign tidying has gone to far is ‘when the need to be tidy reaches an extreme level and an individual is even throwing away useful items, possessions they like or gifts, because they believe that their environment if becoming cluttered.’

‘Warning signs include when the individual experiences excessive anxiety and the quality of their life is affected, when they are consumed by feelings of guilt at the amount of their possessions, or they believe that something negative is attached to that item,’ says Lorna.

‘If a person becomes totally consumed by thoughts of clutter and they think about little else, or, if the person already has a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety or experience other forms of OCD, [these are causes for concern].’

Psychologist Catherine Huckle echoes this, adding that a sign that decluttering could be a symptom of OCD lies in a person’s thought patterns, and what they’re trying to achieve by clearing out their personal space.

‘When someone feels that they have to declutter and remove items from their home it is a compulsive behaviour, and often follows an obsessive thought pattern,’ says Catherine. ‘The thoughts could vary enormously but could range from a sense that if they have too much stuff they’ll be burgled, there’ll be a fire and they won’t be able to escape, through to the idea that if they have too much stuff others will view them as slovenly, messy or dirty.

‘Decluttering in this context might mean limiting items that come into the home, clearing things immediately after they have been used (for example putting packets straight to the bin outside), throwing out half used items like shampoo or soap bottles, having rigid rules about where and how items are stored and tidying [or] removing items that others leave lying around or that they bring into the home.’

Having a resistance to clutter is common. As Catherine explains, a lot of us feel a need to declutter because of the ‘extra cognitive burden’ excess possessions can have. When you have an anxiety disorder, this can cause overload.

Obsessive compulsive spartanism happens when the threshold for mess and clutter drops below the norm and troubling thought patterns linked to possessions emerge.

‘It becomes more than “just being tidy” when there is a high level of distress associated with mess, when it preoccupies thoughts and when it impacts on your ability to function,’ says Catherine. ‘In practise this might mean becoming very anxious if someone makes a mess in your home orbeing unable to stop thinking about the bottle that’s been put back in the “wrong” place.’

Continuing to declutter isn’t the solution to that sense of unease – it’s a temporary answer that fades quickly and can leave you sitting in an empty room without a mattress to sleep on.

So what are you supposed to do when your need to tidy goes too far?

It’s not as easy as watching a Netflix special or learning a new folding technique, unfortunately. As with any mental issue, professional help can be a lifeline.

CBT has good evidence of being helpful for obsessive compulsive behaviours, while exposure and response prevention therapy could help with feelings of fear when confronted with clutter.

Catherine recommends that while pursuing therapy, a declutterer can take small steps to challenge their urge.

‘This might be practising leaving things in a different place, and noticing how anxiety rises, reaches a peak, and eventually falls,’ she explains. ‘This is called habituation and over time it means that we experience less and less anxiety in response to the same changes. Having a success with a small change can help to motivate and give confidence to try bigger changes.’

Get a throw cushion that fulfills no purpose, but you love regardless. Keep hold of something that brings fond memories when you look at it. You don’t have to submerge yourself in clutter or turn your back on tidying entirely, but it’s vital to learn that you are allowed to have things you care for.

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