On more than one occasion, I have made the mistake of accepting jobs with clients who have been referred to me by family members. In one case, a woman hired me to work with her adult daughter, a single mother of four. On another occasion, a son and daughter-in-law (who lived out of state) asked me to work with his parents who were in their nineties.
In both situations, there was a clear need for the assistance of a professional organizer, and I completed several sessions with good result, but the results were short-lived. I would return each week to find that little effort had been made in my absence to maintain what had been accomplished on my previous visit. Both cases ended with me contacting the referring family member to tell them I no longer felt comfortable taking their money. Why? Because both the adult daughter and the aging parents lacked the most essential requirement for successful, long-term decluttering: desire.
While it was clear to me, and to their loved ones, that they could assuredly benefit from a decrease in clutter combined with an increase in organization, neither felt particularly compelled to embrace the process. In all honesty, I suspect that both felt a tad resentful at having their space invaded by a stranger in order to quell the unwelcome judgments of well-meaning (but meddlesmone) family members.
I could have helped the elderly couple and the single mom. I could have made their lives easier and their spaces more comfortable. I could have saved them time, and money, and frustration. None of that mattered, though, because they didn't really want my help. They liked their spaces the way they were. They liked their stuff and didn't feel a need to part with anything. Because they had no desire to declutter, any efforts by outsiders to help them do so were destined for eventual, if not immediate, failure.
One person's clutter is another person's comfort. This being the case, it is impossible, not to mention inconsiderate, to inflict decluttering on another adult person. It won't work. The minute they are left to manage their space as they like, the clutter will return. They will, in all likelihood, seek it out in order to restore a sense of normalcy and ownership to their space.
This reluctance (or downright refusal) on the part of family members to clear away the clutter can be frustrating to say the least, but think of it from their perspective. Would you want someone telling you what you should do with your things? Do you not consider yourself the authority on your stuff?
What appears to be clutter to some seems entirely appropriate, and even desireable, to others. This point is reinforced to me a couple of times a year when we visit my father-in-law whose relationship with stuff is completely foreign to me.
My father-in-law loves stuff. Personally, I take Marie Kondo at her word. If an item - in and of itself - does not bring me joy, I find it a new home. For my father-in-law, simply obtaining things brings him joy, and having them fills him with comfort. The nature or quality of a particular thing has no real bearing on its ability to bring him satisfaction. It isn't the thing itself but the possesion of it that seems to bring him pleasure. He just loves aquiring and having things. Let me share an example (or two) to illustrate my point.
On our most recent visit he couldn't wait to show me his latest acqisition.
"Check out this desk I found on the side of the road. It was free." (It looked free.)
It was obvious from the enthusiastic anticipation on his face that he was waiting for me to congratulate him on the procurement of this amazing find, but I couldn't. I just couldn't. Instead I said, "Do you need another desk?" knowing full well that he does not. He has seven desks. I counted them.
"No," he smiled, unperturbed by the failed attempt at affirmation. "But it was free."
This exchange is only too common between us. Ask me about the second sewing machine. - he does not know how to sew - or the bicycle he paid to have resurrected after stumbling across it at the dump (yes, the dump). He is 77 years old, and one has to traverse no less than a minimum of four miles of gravel roads in any given direction in order to get to his house. Members of our family (my husband and I included) have had flat tires on three occasions driving on those gravel roads. What on earth does he want with a junkyard bicycle?
Dad likes to think that he will ride the bicycle or learn to use the sewing machine (both of which he has had without using for over a year now), but in all honesty, he isn't the least bit concerned about whether or not they actually earn their keep. He just likes having them.
As a person who loves order, I used to cringe a little encountering all the loose screws and empty plastic containers and other odds and ends my husband's father insists on keeping. I used to grumble to myself every time I opened the ridiculously heavy drawer in his kitchen where he keeps his 17 frying pans (two or three of which he actually uses). It used to bother me terribly thinking about the fact that some day my husband and his brother are going to have to deal with all that stuff.
How am I able to make those statements in the past tense? Because I've come to a realization. His stuff is his stuff. It's his life, and his house. He isn't a hoarder. His place, while not as orderly and neat as my own, is perfectly presentable. Most importantly, though, it brings him joy. It makes him happy to have his things about him, no matter how unnecessary and lacking in value some of those things may seem to others.
While the professional in me wishes that all the world would embrace the wisdom of living a clutter-free life, the daughter in me has come to realize that it's just stuff, and for now it has a happy home with someone who values it.
Possessions are highly personal in nature. There is no sense in trying to define the worth of someone else's belongings for them. For this reason, those of us who are inclined toward order must sometimes learn to be patient and accepting of those who happily inhabit the other end of the clutter spectrum.
8/16/2021 09:38:12 am
This is so true, for organizing belongings and for other things. It is important for me to remember, even with clients who have hired me to help, that I am there to make things the way they want them, not the way I want them. We are all different! Some people really love having the stuff around them, and that's all there is to it!
8/16/2021 03:00:09 pm
You are so right, Seana. Even people who think they are ready to part with things can have their struggles. To others, those struggles can seem trivial or silly. When clients make comments about being embarrassed to show me their space, I always tell them, "I'm here to help, not to judge!" And I mean it. Everyone of us, including me, has a unique and personal relationship to our belongings. What seems worthless to one person may have deep sentimental value to another. It's funny because I've never had a problem letting clients be the guide with regard to what should be kept and what should not be kept, but when it comes to my father-in-law, it's taken time for me to let go of my judgments. Perhaps that is because it is more personal...
8/16/2021 10:54:44 am
I totally agree! Early in my career, I learned this too. Desire is so important. If people want to get motivated to declutter, they must do it themselves. They need to say "I am sick and tired of being this way" for them to get the drive to keep the areas decluttered and organized. Thank you for bringing up this important topic to share with others.
8/16/2021 03:01:57 pm
Thanks, Sabrina, for your comment. It is very true that people have to come to the conclusion on their own. It isn't something that can be forced on you. Doing so only results in hard feelings.
8/16/2021 11:13:24 am
He actually sounds rather organized -- all 17 frying pans are together in one drawer!
8/16/2021 03:03:59 pm
Hazel, you've hit the nail on the head with regard to managing expectations. This was particularly true in the case of the mother of the single mom. She considered herself my client even though it was her daughter's home I was working on. She expected lasting results, but her daughter had very different goals for her space. Not a good situation!
8/16/2021 11:49:12 am
You make such a good point. Desire is key to motivation. Though I know that to be true, I think of someone like my daughter who has a two-month-old and a three-year-old. If I didn’t witness with my own eyes, it would be hard to believe that she hardly has a minute to herself. It could be hours before she eats or takes a shower, let alone return a phone call or write a thank - you note. There are those times that it’s not just a desire thing as it has a lot to do with time and pressing responsibilities.
8/16/2021 03:08:53 pm
Great points, Ronni. Thanks for sharing. I, too, have a daughter with very small children who struggles to stay on top of things. She does way better than she thinks, and I try to reassure her that tending to the needs of little people is the most important thing she can do at this stage of life. There will be plenty of time for organizing later.
8/16/2021 11:53:14 am
I'm impressed by how much growth you had and that you shared your experience so openly with us. It's not for any of us to judge what "enough" is for someone else. We only have agency over our own stuff and lives.
8/16/2021 03:14:17 pm
You are absolutely right. In both the cases I shared, I let my own desire to help overpower my better judgment. As you say, I knew going into such circumstances that I was entering a sticky situation, but I wanted to believe that my enthusiasm for the process would be enough to inspire a desire for change. It never is. That is the sort of thing that has to come from within. Live and learn, I guess. I'm glad to have had the experiences. I think they've made me a more compassionate organizer, at least I hope they have.
8/16/2021 02:22:28 pm
This is simply a great perspective to have when interacting with anybody about anything! Everyone is different. Some people like clutter, some don't. Some people like ketchup on their eggs, some don't! Don't put ketchup on everyone's eggs just because you enjoy it. Great post!
8/16/2021 03:15:38 pm
Your response made me smile, Katherine. Thanks for commenting. I totally agree. Live and let live and be accepting of the differences. I love the way you extrapolated the lesson out to life in general. So true.
8/16/2021 06:32:10 pm
Oh, this post resonated with me Sheri! If I had a nickel for every time I've told someone, "Have THEM call me!", I'd be eyeing that cottage in Big Sur with more than a passing interest. I only work with people who call me directly, but I sure do get a lot of calls from people who want me to "fix" someone else.
8/16/2021 07:53:12 pm
You make me laugh, Lucy. I’ve had many of those conversations as well (since learning my lesson).
8/17/2021 05:50:21 am
I completely agree. People have to have the desire to change in order to make the organizing work. When consulting with clients I sometimes will just tell them that it's not worth their time and money because their family member is not on board.
8/17/2021 07:37:01 am
I had to learn that the hard way (even though I knew it instinctively). I guess I thought we could get past the lack of desire with enough hard work, but that just isn’t the case. You can’t skip over your source of motivation and expect to succeed. Thanks, Janet!
8/17/2021 07:39:13 am
Sherri, This is a beautiful piece. I love the perspective you offer. I, too, have had people call and ask me to 'declutter and organize' a family member's home. Like Lucy I always ask to have the person themselves call me. They never do. They don't have the desire nor do they see the need to follow through. It's not up to us to judge what is enough or how to organize for another person. We are here to guide them on their organizing journey - whatever that looks like to them.
8/17/2021 08:00:09 am
Thanks, Diane. When I tell people what I do, they typically respond in one of two ways. They either say, “Wow. I need you to look at my craft room, garage, office, etc.” or “I need you to meet my wife, husband, teenager, etc.” It’s that old “there are two kinds of people” cliche: those who recognize they need an organizer and those who don’t.
8/17/2021 08:44:25 am
This is written so well and with such empathy. I am getting ready right now to work with 2 clients that the children first contacted me and who are paying for the work. I have spoken with both of the women that I will be working with and set a time to start. They seem like they are wanting the help but I know that I must be very open to what they really want.
8/17/2021 08:56:41 am
Thanks, Jonda. I wish you luck and inspiration with your new clients. It sounds like, with the right amount of patience and compassion, you can bless their lives.
6/22/2022 06:15:01 am
The most crucial guideline to follow before you start purging is to make an honest attempt to bring in fewer things. It's pointless to declutter if you then go out and buy more stuff to destroy all of your hard work. The first step to getting rid of clutter for good is to get into the attitude of shopping with purpose.
6/22/2022 09:06:33 am
Excellent point! I agree wholeheartedly. Of course, the point of this post is that not everyone is interested in or willing to adopt such an attitude.
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