How to Be a Helper

If you’re helping someone with their clutter, develop a relationship of trust and respect first. People feel very vulnerable and exposed when dealing with their personal possessions. Review the concepts and quick tips below.

The right to choose.

Everyone has the right to make their own decisions. A decision made by a person experiencing clutter may have consequences that others find hard to accept. As difficult as it is to witness this, helpers need to accept what they decide, even if their choices lead to more clutter, eviction, or more distress and further challenges. Helpers can still assist by gently enhancing awareness around decision-making and potential consequences. They/ can invite the person who experiences cluttering to look at the costs and benefits of a particular choice. If they are interested, the helper can provide information on clutter, its causes, and strategies to deal with it. Or they can ask the Questions to Help Sort during sorting sessions.

Self responsibility.

No matter how compelling it may be to swoop in and solve someone else’s problem, helpers cannot be responsible for the clutter. Taking responsibility away from the clutterer removes the clutterer’s opportunity to grow and learn new skills – skills that enable them to deal with their possessions in the long-term. Taking over responsibility for making decisions can also cause more distress and dysfunction. A home that is cleared out without the involvement of the individual affected usually brings feelings of betrayal, and recluttering with greater severity. While helpers can respond to requests for assistance, they should avoid “doing” the work of the person affected and should “work alongside” instead.

Take care of yourself.

It can take a lot of effort to support someone who hoards or has a lot of clutter. At times, helpers may feel distressed. Be responsible for yourself. Know when to take a break and relax. Do something to care and nurture yourself when you need to. This is healthy modelling for the clutterer: in other words you’re actively showing that goals can be reached one step at a time.

Unconditional acceptance and compassion.

Dealing with possessions and facing change can be tremendously stressful. Ironically, if someone feels truly accepted for their situation and who they are right now, without any hesitation or exception, they are more likely to consider change [Wagner, Miller & Rollnick, 2009]. Learning how to be accepting and how to show compassion is a skill. Letting go of your own expectations or agenda can help someone else embrace change. Avoid arguing, debating, judging or blaming the person who clutters. Instead actively listen to what they’re saying and acknowledge feelings: e.g., “It sounds like you’re really sad about sorting through your father’s old things,” or, “It’s okay to be unsure about throwing this away. I can see how hard this is for you.” Remind the clutterer of their strengths. Let them know they can do it, and that you’re behind them [Steketee & Frost, 2004 as cited in Dinning, 2006].

Learn about clutter/hoarding and provide practical support.

Learn about why people clutter. Then provide hands-on assistance such as: creating categories, sorting through piles of possessions, focusing on the task at hand, putting things away, and removing belongings. However, you will need to let the clutterer maintain responsibility and ownership over the process. Do not touch or move possessions without their explicit permission [Steketee & Frost, 2004 as cited in Dinning, 2006].

Window shop.

Helpers can support clutters in reducing the volume of belongings which come into the home, by gently encouraging the clutterer to resist the urge to acquire things when they go out. Accompany the clutterer to places where it is particularly challenging to resist gathering more things. This could be the mall, the streets on garbage day, the local thrift store, a store advertising big sales, etc. Support the clutterer in leaving things behind, as best as possible [Tolin, Frost & Steketee, 2007].

Collaboratively structure the organization session.

Consider setting up regular decluttering appointments that follow a consistent agenda.

Quick Tips

  • Allow the person you’re helping to make their own decisions
  • Avoid taking responsibility for the problem
  • Take breaks when you need them
  • Show the person you’re helping that you accept them, even the way things are
  • Avoid arguing, debating, judging, blaming, bargaining
  • Acknowledge feelings
  • Remind the person of their strengths and accomplishments, however small
  • Learn about clutter and hoarding and provide practical support
  • Encourage focus on specific, achievable goals
  • Do not touch or move something without permission
  • Accompany the person who experiences clutter on window shopping trips to help resist the urge to buy
  • Structure organizing sessions together
  • Use the tools listed to direct you both