Fiona Hall, psychotherapist and de-cluttering expert.

Making space for you

Visualise your kitchen unit, it’s shelves and drawers.

Now visualise trying to put this advice from Fiona Hall into practice:

“Try to leave one drawer empty.”

Fiona pauses to let the thought settle, just how simple and yet simultaneously impossible that sounds.

“Completely empty,” she emphasises. “And then watch the psychological urge to fill that drawer with stuff.”

Awareness of this propensity to clutter our lives is a good place to start addressing the problem that permanently lingers for many, this reporter included, like a dull headache.

Fiona Hall will give a talk on ‘Decluttering and the Impact on our Mental Health’, hosted by Cavan Libraries Services.

A psychotherapist by profession, she is well equipped to advise. She set up her ‘Consciously Clearing’ decluttering service in 2016 to see how people attending her counselling sessions were coping at home.

“I would literally go into people’s houses and help them declutter,” she says of her pre-pandemic work.

Along the way “recurring themes” cropped up, and it’s these cumulative learnings she’s eager to share.

“Looking around at chaos is unpleasant,” Fiona begins. She describes the heightened anxiety it can create through a scenario many will no doubt relate to: “If you wake up late, you are already on the back foot, say your anxiety has a base level of two, now you’re on four. Now you can’t find your car keys, you’re at six. You can’t find the paperwork you had last night because someone has moved it, your anxiety is at eight - and that’s in the space of 15 minutes.

“It’s about keeping your life simple and streamlined. It’s all of the little simple things we can do on a daily basis, I feel it is part of self care.

“It’s not about having your home spotless and clean,” she assures, admitting the impossibility of this for herself with 10 year old twins. “It’s more about, everything in your home needs a place to go to.”

Keeping all the pens and pencils in the house in a washed out baked beans tin, is a good example of Fiona’s simple solutions for having a place for everything.

“You don’t have to go out and buy expensive boxes or drawer liners. So if you need a pen, you know where the pen is, and when you’re finished with the pen, the pen goes back.”

Wine and wifi

Such tips may sound like excerpts from a quaint 1950s good housekeeping manual. However the rationale underpinning these neat ideas is informed by the psychology of consumerism, awareness of how and why we accumulate items, and what motivates us to hold onto items we’ve never used.

Online shopping has accelerated the clutter problem for many.

“I call it ‘Wine and wifi on a Friday’,” says Fiona. “People are bored, they are going online buying stuff without actually figuring out where they are going to put it,” she says, as I laugh at their silliness. However on the morning of our interview I received delivery of a Magenta 4 ultrasonic bat detector. I kept that titbit to myself.

“If you buy three pairs of jeans and two pairs of trainers, where are you going to put them if your wardrobe is already full? If you need them - great. But you need to give stuff away.

“When we come into this world we come in with nothing, and before you know it, there’s bibs, babygros and buggies. We continue to accumulate stuff but there’s no strategy in place for one-in one-out.”

Okay, so back to the drawer - why would you keep an empty drawer when storage is at a premium, particularly if you are blessed/burdened with youngsters?

“If you keep one drawer, or one space in your house empty, it’s a sign that you are open to taking on something new,” she explains.

Fiona gives the example of taking up a new hobby. To take up say photography - or bat identification - you may need to clear space for lenses, cameras, bags, tripod etc. So, she suggests: “Why don’t you get rid of that gym ball you never use?”

On a similar vein she recalls clients who say would like to meet someone new, but their house is so crammed with stuff they are effectively saying there’s no room for anyone else in their life.

Fiona recommends embarking on clean-outs in the bedroom or kitchen, as you are less likely to have items with emotional attachments in these rooms.

Omelette pans, bread makers, icecream makers, donut makers - she rhymes off a list of “middle aisle” items people seldom use but often have clogging up their kitchens, that need to go to charity shops.

“It’s really just about having effective storage and to keep things moving - so if stuff comes in, stuff has to leave.”

She also cautions against retail therapy.

“If you are feeling a wee bit low, as many are now, understandably, and you buy yourself something nice, you will feel better. But the high of that buy will wear off, and you will be back in that emotional state again. So it’s more about mindful purchasing.”

When buying clothes she suggests the question: “If I’m going to buy it, how many times am I going to wear it?”

She often finds people who have loads of items that they don’t use (the ‘good’ tea set, ‘good’ towels, ‘good’ glassware). Instead they set them aside for guests to project a false image of themselves. Alternatively, they don’t feel worthy of enjoying the item.

“People have a lot of beautiful clothes in their wardrobe but they don’t give themselves permission to wear it. Even on a simple level, they are saving it for a special occasion - but why don’t you wear it?

“People have nice aftershave or perfume - ‘No I don’t want to use that, it’s for a special occasion’. Make today a special occasion! Put on the good stuff - have your dinner using the nice stuff.”

She laughingly gives the example of a woman she used to knows who dons her wedding dress to vacuum every Saturday.

Fiona suspects retail therapy can exacerbate problems.

Donate it

“The more stuff you buy, in my opinion, you get further and further away from yourself. Because you now have a whole pile of stuff that’s not even you, that you bought because you were influenced to buy it, knowing really that it wasn’t you. Now you have all of this stuff that’s not you in your home every day.”

She urges people who have bought such items, say an expensive outfit they really know they shouldn’t, to simply relieve themselves of its burden, its “shame and guilt”.

“Just get rid of it, donate it away to a charity shop.”

Now, I wonder if St Vincent de Paul would take a bat detector?

Clear away an hour tomorrow, Thursday, April 15, 7–8pm and check out Fiona Hall’s online talk on ‘Decluttering and the Impact on our Mental Health’. See for details on how to join this free event.