“Breaking up is hard to do” isn’t just a popular song lyric —it’s the truth. Here’s how to have a healthy breakup with your mess

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: I know that you always talk about clutter as a basic rule of feng shui, and deep down, I really want to clear out unnecessary items in my home. However, when it comes down to it, I have a hard time. What do you suggest for people like me, who just “can’t” let go of things?

Ihave heard this question quite a bit in recent months, and it prompted me to research further and create a class titled, “How to Break Up with Your Belongings.” I found that offering a class on clutter-clearing worked only for those who wanted a way to methodically clear out their unused items, but it did not work for those who have a deep attachment to their belongings.

If you follow my column, you know that I have firsthand experience when it comes to clutter and understanding the emotional challenges that lead to hoarding. I have new information that may provide better insight.


Letting go is painful

A few years back, Yale School of Medicine did an interesting study where hoarders and non-hoarders were asked to sort through items like junk mail and old newspapers. Some items belonged to the experimenter and other items belonged to the participant — who had to decide what to keep and what to throw away. While the participants were sorting through the items, researchers tracked their brain activity.


Hoarders showed increased activity in certain regions of the brain when they merely saw their own “things.” This “neural signature” was associated with conflict and pain. Whenever a hoarder said that he or she didn’t feel “right” about throwing something away, the feeling of anxiety and discomfort increased along with the brain activity.

Our brain’s circuitry naturally motivates us to look for a way to relieve anxiety when we are in pain. To avoid pain, we sometimes choose to hold onto the things we are attached to, as it is self-sustaining, because we are holding onto the familiar, which makes us feel safer and calmer. This sense of relief can become addicting when we are unaware of what is happening to us on a psychological level.

“I am my things”

Research has also shown that when we connect our “things” to our sense of self, the thought of getting rid of something can be emotionally painful, just like cutting off one’s own finger can be physically painful. Our subconscious mind feeds us this information: “I am that box; I am that pile of papers; I am that piano.” Logically it doesn’t make sense, but we are talking about emotions, not logic.

“I am my piano”

I started piano lessons at age 5, and for as long as I can remember I had a piano. Everywhere I lived, I either had — or had access to a piano. So, it was only natural that after moving to Hawaii 24 years ago, I bought a piano. I gradually stopped playing, but every time I moved, because I subconsciously saw the piano as an extension of myself, I moved it with me, even though in the last few places I lived, the piano was broken.

Clearing clutter is a process, and it is no different for me, as an “expert,” than it is for you. Truth be told, it was only two years ago that I donated my piano. Breaking up with it was painful. It had been with me through thick and thin, and I literally felt that I would lose a part of me by letting it go, but I kept reminding myself that I was not my piano.

Each year, it is a huge effort for me to make the time and summon the strength to overcome the “pain” that I feel when I have to part with things that I have become attached to (and even those things I am not attached to). I do regular clutter clearing because I know firsthand that the gains are worth the emotional pain.

How to begin the breakup process


So, how do we break up with our things when we are aware that we need to, but are disinclined? Being mindful is the key. By being mindful or aware of our emotional attachment to an item, we gain greater control over our choices.

Start by taking a more skeptical viewpoint of your own impulses, and don’t believe every rationalization you have, such as, “This will protect me from having anxiety” or “I have to keep this to feel better.” That is just an old pattern of thought that you now realize no longer serves you.

Get started by asking yourself these questions

Why do you want to clear your clutter? The “why” has to be important enough otherwise you won’t have incentive to de-clutter. What are the reasons? Do you want to save your marriage, feel better, or have more space? Perhaps you want to enjoy the aesthetic value decluttering will provide, or perhaps you are looking for peace of mind, or you want to sell your house. You have to know why you want to declutter. Without a bigger reason, you have no incentive to go through the pain of letting things go. “Because I should” is not motivation.

List the benefits of getting rid of current clutter. The more benefits you can define, the more inspired you will be to tackle the project.

How would you feel if you saw people having to go through your clutter after your death? Do you feel good about what they are finding or are you embarrassed? Enough said.

Alice Inoue is the founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happiness U, a friendly and warm educational establishment at Gentry Pacific Center on Nimitz Highway. At Happiness U, one can learn how to be happy, a subject you won’t find in a traditional school. Happiness U offers classes such as feng shui 101, clutter clearing plan 101, positive mindset 101, happiness 101 and more. Visit www.YourHappinessU.com.