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  article of the month

December 2003


MENTAL SPACE AND ENVIRONMENTAL SPACE: SEEKING THE CONNECTIONS

By Sandy Plone, Ph.D.

The issues brought up most often in the therapy hour may range from the deeper issues of emotional states and relationships, to the more practical concerns regarding career choices, finances and personal appearance. Valuable time, however, is also spent on seemingly less significant areas such as home care and clutter. These days, so many people seem to be talking about the overwhelming issue of clutter in their lives. (I just located four books I had collected over time to help me get more organized.)

From the hilarious old stand-up comedy routine on TV of George Carlin about "stuff", to the myriad of books, articles, storage facilities, and "organizational specialists" ready to guide us into the imagined bliss of "a place for everything and everything in its place," this issue seems to be permeating our culture.

For clients and friends alike, the subject often turns to either the unwanted clutter of advertising (e-mails--spam--and mail, too), or the proliferation of unwanted (or wanted, then unread) magazines bombarding homes and offices. Adult's or children's "toys," or collectibles, which may take many forms, become sources of annoyance.

The dictionary tells us clutter means crowded confusion, or things that impede movement or reduce efficiency. In fact, many clients speak in these exact terms, when clutter in their life has reached a saturation point, or their possessions seem to own them.

Connections abound between one's inner, mental space and one's outer environmental one. A client recently said: "It seems that when my house is organized, my life feels more organized and then I can think more clearly." Others have referred to the process of psychotherapy as a kind of metaphorical "mental housecleaning," as we dig together through the basement of subconscious mental clutter. Another client has been curious about the psychological component of her relationship to her "stuff," and at times how she has rebelled against sorting, organizing and clearing clutter-possibly out of rebellion towards a controlling parent or roommate. Another client explored her need to maintain perfect order, noticing the irritation and agitation accompanying the activity. We later came to understand the wish for more control in other areas of her life.

In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article called "Psychology by the Square Foot" (August 10, 2003) Victoria Clayton questioned "what the ongoing boom in self-storage facilities says about human nature, uncertain times and the anxieties of the American culture." Her premise is that the materialism of recent decades has saturated us with belongings, to which we have become unduly attached, perhaps as a way to calm anxieties. Our possessions may remind us of who we are, when we may feel otherwise threatened by a changing and unsafe world, or loss of an established identity. Further, the popularity of professional life organizers, and books on how to de-clutter and celebrate the joys of a simpler life seem to reflect a changing trend to find more meaning in life, apart from the attachment to our material possessions.

However, some of these attachments are significant and precious to us. Stories about victims of the Holocaust, and the devastation of those who have lost their homes and all possessions to natural disasters reveal a wide range of human reactions. The numbing grief process often includes families seeking objects that are familiar, longing for a lost sense of security and some semblance of control.

Nothing is more poignant than pictures in the media of people searching through the rubble of homes devastated by natural disasters, looking for remnants of a life, seeking some object that has survived fire or flood. From the time of infancy and attachment to a cherished "security blanket," our comfort and our identities have been connected to our belongings. Psychologists use the term "transitional object," referring to an object that imparts a sense of security, such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal for a child. It seems we all need our transitional objects, to help us transcend losses or separations. Likewise, the grieving process of those who have lost loved ones often involves the way in which we sort through objects and belongings that remain. Following divorce or a death of a loved one, the process of tending to the disposition of personal objects can become fraught with emotion. And when personal possessions are lost or stolen, we often have difficulty moving past the anger or sense of helplessness. It may be difficult to accept the loss, even though intellectually we know they are only "things." So the question comes to mind, where does the balance lie between acknowledging and accepting the very human need to acquire belongings, and becoming aware of when the extreme has been reached, either through procrastination or by trying to enhance self-esteem through possessions? Simplifying one's life can be cathartic and result in greater creativity, freeing more time for composing a more satisfying life, while honoring the meaning of our possessions. This process of sifting through what our possessions mean to us can also be illuminating in knowing ourselves better.

Please go to Psych Bytes for information on when clutter represents a problem.

Recommended Readings:

Campbell, Jeff. Cluttter Control: Putting Your Home on a Diet. New York: Dell, 1992.

St. James, Elaine. Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

©copyright by Sandy Plone, Ph.D. 2003

Dr. Plone is a psychotherapist in practice in West Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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