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Sparking Fear: A Professional Organizer Explains How Scarcity Mindset Affects Decluttering

So many people (particularly those who have read Marie Kondo’s books and watched her Netflix series) feel embarrassed when they have a hard time decluttering on their own. It sounds simple enough: let go of anything that doesn’t spark joy. But what is rarely mentioned is how decluttering can spark pain and fear.

Letting go is hard because our relationship with things is often rooted in and entangled with our mindsets around scarcity and abundance--beliefs which can be inherited and/or formed unconsciously. My parents grew up poor, and even though they broke the cycle of intergenerational poverty, their behavior continues to be informed by early experiences of having to survive on much less. My late father used to grab stacks of Starbucks napkins and bring them home to be used as toilet paper. My mom will buy multiples of things that are cheap or on sale at the market. She inherits all of my brother’s old t-shirts (this made for some great family travel photos, featuring her in Bob Marley and cannabis leaf tees) and will take anything that is offered to her even if it is not her style or she cannot think of an immediate use for it. It would be wasteful and irresponsible to pass up anything. Here’s a story that illustrates this. Once, during my teenage years, I decided I wanted to emulate Gwen Stefani’s style, and I emerged from my room to announce, “I want to start wearing bindis.” To my surprise, my mom replied, “I have some.” “Why do you have bindi dots, Mom?” “I found a sheet of them on the street, and I saved them up. Just in case.” Just in case her daughter would someday want to misappropriate Indian culture? Believe me, my mom was not “a cool mom” who was caught up with pop culture. She had and still has no idea who Gwen Stefani is. This story always makes me chuckle, but it also makes me a little sad because I imagine it’s so stressful on the body to always anticipate crisis. It makes me want to give my parents a hug and tell them it’ll all be okay.

As hard as it is to overcome our scarcity mindset and learn to trust in abundance, I do believe it’s possible because I am living proof! Understanding scarcity mindset and being mindful of the fact that our attachment to things may predate our birth is a big step towards successful decluttering. Ultimately, to step off the consume-clutter-organize hamster wheel, our motivation to live lighter has to be greater than our fear of lack. We have to learn to bring things into our lives because they serve an immediate purpose, rather than designate a purpose for the item after the fact or passively wait for the day when we’ll need it. To manage emotions and clear out what I call “doomsday clutter” in your home, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have I used this in the past year?

  2. Is it hard to replace?

  3. Do I find this beautiful/pleasing to look at?

  4. Does this fit nice and neatly somewhere on a drawer or shelf (as opposed to being stuffed into an obscure corner or sitting on the floor)?

If the answer to all of these questions is no, put the items in an opaque bag and set the bag aside. If you cannot stop thinking about the item, then you may reintroduce it to your home, but place it somewhere where you will see it and remember to use it. If you find that it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” then give yourself permission to let go of the item. Give yourself a hug and tell yourself it’ll all be okay.


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