KonMari not working? Expert organizer identifies 7 emotional blocks that will help you finally declutter

Feel like you’re constantly trying to declutter? Expert organizer Tracy McCubbin says there’s a deeply emotional component to our attachment to our belongings. In her new book Making Space, Clutter Free, McCubbin identifies seven ‘Clutter Blocks’ that keep people from letting go of their excess stuff.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Ever tried to clear out your closet and then felt like you had even more stuff than you started with?

Or maybe you started to get rid of some old things but all of a sudden you reconsider and you realize you actually need those shoes or that handbag or vinyl record player.

According to professional organizer Tracy McCubbin, you are not alone. McCubbin is the founder of dClutterfly, an organizing company which helps people get rid of their old clutter. 

Her new book Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You'll Ever Need examines the deeper psychological reasons why we can't let go of our old stuff.

"Really early on, I realised that there was an emotional component to our attachment to our stuff," she said.

And she knows what that inability to separate yourself from your things looks like first hand. McCubbin says she grew up watching the hoarders in her own family try grapple with their excess stuff.

"My father is one so I spent my whole life watching someone struggle with their relationship to their stuff," she said. "It was just something that took up a lot of time in our family. He was always managing his stuff and moving stuff from one place to the other."

Because hoarding wasn't a widely-known disorder when she was growing up, McCubbin says she didn't have a way to process the things she was seeing her father do.

Expert organizer Tracy McCubbin says there’s a deeply emotional component to our attachment to our belongings. (Tracy McCubbin/ submitted)

Clutter Blocks

Each of Tracy McCubbin's seven emotional Clutter Blocks comes with clues to help you identify how you might be stuck.

  1. My Stuff Keeps Me in the Past. Clues: you have large amounts of children's artwork (but no more children), trophies and awards from years long past, outdated clothes that no longer fit the time or the person.

  3. My Stuff Tells Me Who I Am. Clues: you see boxes in the entryway, evidence of excessive online shopping, brand flaunting or bargain flaunting.

  5. The Stuff I'm Avoiding. Clues: you see unfiled paperwork, unopened mail, unfinished projects, a large to-do pile or list.

  7. My Fantasy Stuff for My Fantasy Life. Clues: you see items that have never been used, clothes with their tags on, appliances in boxes, exercise equipment that has never been assembled.

  9. I'm Not Worth My Good Stuff. Clues: you have a closet full of designer clothes but you only wear sweatpants or leggings. You have unlit candles, unused bath salts, packed away china or silverware.

  11. Trapped with Other People's Stuff. Clues: you have four sets of china, excessive antiques, or boxes of unlabeled photographs.

  13. The Stuff I Keep Paying For. Clues: you catch yourself saying "But I paid a lot for that" or "I might use it one day".

Now, after more than a decade and thousands of clients, McCubbin says she's identified seven emotional "clutter blocks" that prevent most people from letting go of items they don't have use for.

Each of these blocks, McCubbin said, is determined by the kind of relationship a person has to the item they can't let go of.

Take clutter block number one, for example: "my stuff keeps me in the past."

"A great example of this is guys who have all the tools to fix a car, and yet they're 80 and they're not driving anymore. This is the stuff that you used to do, but you keep everything around it," she said. 

McCubbin said this refusal to let go of items from your past suggests a person it looking backwards rather than forwards, that they believe their best days are behind them.

Or, clutter block number three: "avoiding my stuff." McCubbin said this could be anything from not opening your mail, to not reading your emails, or avoiding your voicemail. 

McCubbin said avoiding your stuff doesn't just leave you with an ever-growing stack of unopened mail or unopened boxes from your last move gathering dust in the corner. There can be a financial cost.

"I was in the IRS office the other morning because I didn't deal with something. So I actually had to go stand online to pay $32 because I just hadn't opened a letter, she said. "You've just got to deal with it."

While McCubbin doesn't suggest we get rid of everything that has meaning in our lives, she says it is important to strike a healthy balance.

"If you can't park your car in your garage because the whole thing is full of memorabilia [or] if you feel like you don't own your stuff but your stuff owns you, that means there's a problem."

And for McCubbin, that problem can only be solved by understanding our deeper motivations.

Even though there is no shortage of literature on how to declutter (a fact McCubbin acknowledges), she says what other books have missed is the real emotional cause.

"I think there are some amazing books that take design [into account] and give you some great systems. But I think that everyone's sort of shied away from the deeper level and I think that when you look at the emotional attachments, things are going to start to click for people."


Win a copy of Meik Wiking's "The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments" or Tracy McCubbin's "Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You'll Ever Need"

We're giving away three prize packs, each with a copy of Tracy McCubbin's Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You'll Ever Need and Meik Wiking's The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments

To enter the random draw, email us at tapestry@cbc.ca with "MEMORIES" in the subject line.

Read the CBC's contest rules here.