Why Your Past Matters When Organizing

Hi there! A new year is prime time to talk decluttering and organization. Like many of you, I like to start the new year with a clean and organized home and will be writing more about that and how to help you in coming posts. Before I get into tactics though, I want to start with some retrospection. Your past matters when organizing. Why? Because just like in relationships, marriage, parenting and finances and more, much of your behavior may be rooted in the past. In fact, psychology plays a large role in why decluttering can be so hard. So let’s take a moment to think this one angle through.

What was your home like growing up?

Did you grow up in a spotless, perfectly organized home? Every item had a “home” put in its designated place at all times? Or was it the opposite? Maybe it was tough to find the kitchen table because of all of the papers piled on top? Or the dining room was not a dining room but a storage unit? Did your parents save everything or throw it all out?

How the Depression and the War influenced family organization

In my case, my dad grew up in the Great Depression. My mom was also born at the tail-end of the Depression and was growing up during World War II. People had far less stuff, whatever was purchased was bought very carefully and nothing was discarded without thought. Characteristic of that era, my parents tended to save items and were reluctant to throw them away. It turns out my French husband had the same dynamic. His parents grew up shortly after WWII when there were real shortages of necessities in France.

Growing up

How did this impact our homes? Both of our families had lovely homes for which we are grateful. My mom kept a spotless, beautiful home, and the clutter was mostly confined to the hidden areas. That said, over the years, these items tended to accumulate so I became used to seeing a space (especially a closet or “junk drawer”) full of items. In other words, no one wanted to throw anything out! Sure we would get new decor (but the old decor was stored for someday). I am not criticizing my family for these ways – it went along with the times. Also, even when I was a kid, we did not have the explosion of cheap items created abroad. We tended to buy more carefully and keep what we bought.

How does that impact my organization journey?

Fast forward to now

If you have been following my blog, you know I started an organization journey (Project O) a few years ago. I had some of the typical obstacles that kept me from throwing anything out:

  1. “I might need it someday”
  2. “My children (or sub in nieces/nephews/their children may need it someday.”
  3. Sentimental
  4. It was a gift
  5. “It cost a lot/or it is worth a lot.”

I promise to write more on these challenges. That said, the biggest obstacle for me has been overcoming the past and what has been engrained as “normal.”

What is “normal” varies for each person

Your past matters when organizing because it sets up your “normal.” Here are a few habits/behaviors that may be setting you up for failure as you try to declutter and organize.

  1. Your family saved everything for someday. You may need that rope (yes, I come from a family of avid sailors…we had plenty of ropes around the house/garage!), tennis racket, window treatment, fill-in-the-blank. This is a big one. In my house, we often had lovely new curtains or a rug…but the old ones were not discarded but stored. I can not remember when an item that had been replaced was used again…
  2. Your family and friends shopped a great deal. Shopping was big in the eighties and nineties. Many of us grew up going to the mall just for fun. Shopping was entertainment and bargain hunting was a practical sport in my family. Frankly I still enjoy a trip to my favorite boutique or discounter. That said, shopping and especially impulse buys can really add to your stuff and make your home unmanageable. Retailers are masters at luring you in with sales and then making it very hard not to buy. Social media and the Internet, with hyper targeting, has made it even more likely you will buy on impulse. Buyer beware.
  3. Your house was a mess/super organized/cluttered. I have a friend who grew up in a very cluttered home. Her mom never saw a garage sale she did not love and came home with dozens of “finds.” My friend today has the opposite approach. Her husband calls her the “terminator” as she throws everything out. It can work both ways. She could have also become immune to clutter and that would become her normal for now. Neither is inherently bad but if clutter is something you want to avoid then be aware of how your home growing up may impact what you are comfortable with now.

Where am I today (and how do I deal with it?)

So dealing with my past has helped me really understand the obstacles that face me when decluttering and organizing. Here are few:

As I noted, my mom kept a very clean and lovely home. I actually am also very particular about cleanliness which I no doubt inherited. Enjoy cleaning…but decluttering is another story.

I have tendencies to keep items too long (I am looking at you Restoration Hardware window treatments…) with the idea I may need them someday, they were costly, it was a gift etc.. Questions I ask:

Am I keeping this because of my past? What part of my past? Frugal, depression era parents (usually a good thing especially when it comes to finances but not so much when decluttering).

Do I feel guilty because perhaps my modern day values do not align with the values of my family growing up (but are OK today as we are not in a depression, items are readily available etc.)

Is a closet that is stuffed to the gills a result of too much stuff or the fact that I am used to seeing closets looking that way? While Pinterest and Instagram may present unreasonable or unrealistic organization, both platforms woke me up to what is possible. As I have decluttered and organized I have discovered how calm and freeing it can be to have fewer items.

Have you examined your past and how it may impact your decluttering and organizing journey?

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