The Psychology Behind Compulsive Decluttering


Do you ever feel a creeping anxiety when your desk gets a little messy? Do you feel satisfied after cleaning your messy desk or cupboard? Maybe it is a part of your therapeutic weekend ritual, a dopamine-fueled cleaning that leaves you feeling lighter and in control of your hectic life. If this sounds like you, then you might be a compulsive declutterer.

This growing trend of minimalist living spaces has changed the way people clean. Social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have played a significant role in promoting decluttering methods. Influencers and content creators present their minimalist living spaces, inspiring others to make a change. Moreover, viral challenges and trends on social media platforms often center around decluttering and simplifying one’s possessions.

While it has brought some positive changes, it is crucial to recognize when this habit or trend can sometimes cross into unhealthy territory. For some, this desire for a clutter-free space can go beyond a simple love of organization, leading to compulsive decluttering. This out-of-ordinary compulsion can disrupt your daily life and leave you feeling constantly on edge.

Unlike minimalists who choose a simple lifestyle, compulsive declutterers often struggle with a continuous sense of unease. This article will peel back the layers of this behavior, exploring the psychological factors that affect this urge to constantly declutter. Read on to discover why letting go can become overwhelming and learn strategies to find a healthy middle ground. 

Unpacking compulsive decluttering

When done mindfully, decluttering can be a relaxing and calming activity. It allows you to create a more organized and peaceful living space. However, in the case of compulsive decluttering, it is the opposite, where the individual feels uneasiness and anxiety. Compulsive decluttering can look like an uncontrollable urge to throw out personal items to an extreme degree, even though these items might be useful.

This is unlike healthy decluttering, which focuses on controlling the mess. Compulsive decluttering comes from deeper psychological needs, often due to a need for control, and individuals’ minds are filled with anxious thoughts about clutter. The psychology of compulsive decluttering is complex and often linked with conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Key factors behind compulsive decluttering

Understanding is the first step in addressing a problem. For something as complex as compulsive decluttering, one must investigate the possible root causes. 

Need for control

To some, clutter can represent a loss of control over one’s space. Compulsive declutterers view getting rid of clutter as a way of regaining this control and creating a sense of order in their lives. 

A study done by the University of Connecticut supports this. It found that when people are stressed, they turn to routine actions such as cleaning to help them feel in control of the situation. Individuals who feel helpless or anxious in other parts of their lives may find this especially comforting.

A cluttered space can mirror a cluttered mind, which results in increased stress and confusion. By decluttering, individuals create a more calm space that can help them think clearly and feel more in control of their lives.

Anxiety relief

Getting rid of clutter can give a brief moment of calm, reducing feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. As a result, this becomes a part of their coping method, where they turn to cleaning each time they experience anxiety.

Read more: 10 Ways to Channel Anxiety Towards Growth 

Moreover, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that cleaning can lower stress, anxiety, and feelings of sadness. Just cleaning up and having a tidy home can make a big difference in how you feel. Over time, this can develop into a compulsive cycle where decluttering is repeatedly used to manage anxiety, leading to an increase in psychological distress if not addressed properly.

Underlying OCD tendencies

Compulsive decluttering can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Individuals with OCD may experience overbearing thoughts or obsessions related to clutter. They would feel pressured to engage in repetitive behaviors, like excessive decluttering, to reduce their anxiety.

Interestingly, a 2017 study found that people with OCD have more brain activity in areas related to forming habits and processing emotions, especially fear. This means their brains are more likely to develop strong habits and intense emotional reactions, making it hard to stop decluttering.


Perfectionism is another important factor that can be the root cause of compulsive decluttering. Some individuals are likely to engage in decluttering activities due to the need to be perfect, leading to compulsive decluttering behaviors. This is because they aim for an unrealistic standard of neatness and order. The nonstop pursuit of a clutter-free environment can come from a fear of imperfection and a desire for external approval.

Read more: From Perfectionism to Progress: Steps to Break the Cycle for Productivity 

But this pursuit of perfection can be exhausting. It can lead to excessive cleaning and organizing, making them prioritize tidiness over their own happiness. They might never feel like their space is good enough, which adds to their stress and anxiety. This pressure to be perfect keeps the cycle of compulsive decluttering going.

Avoidance of negative emotions

It’s also been seen that some people use decluttering as a way to avoid situations. A way of shifting their attention from unpleasant feelings or unsolved problems. They remove themselves from the source of their emotional distress by focusing on the physical work of decluttering at hand. 

However, this strategy only gives them temporary relief and does not address the issues leading to negative emotions. Over time, relying on decluttering to cope can prevent them from finding healthier ways to manage their emotions. Recognizing this pattern and finding better ways to handle tough feelings for long-term well-being is important.

The impact of compulsive decluttering

It is a known fact that decluttering can help keep one’s environment neat and clean. However, it is important to understand the impact this has on one’s overall health, relationships, and daily routine. 

Mental health impact

The need to remove clutter may increase anxiety, making decision-making difficult and overwhelming. As the fear of clutter builds up, you will experience an increased level of anxiety and stress. Also, throwing away some of your memorable possessions can cause regret and guilt, affecting your emotional well-being more. 

Read more: The Stress Detox: Reclaiming Well-Being in a Hectic World 

Strained relationships

Family and friends may feel like their belongings are not valued, which can lead to conflicts. Moreover, the constant cycle of throwing away shared items can disturb your routine and create tension within the household. Constant decluttering takes up precious time that could be spent with loved ones.

Challenges in daily life

Additionally, excessive focus on decluttering can make it difficult to maintain a balanced daily life. Important tasks and social activities might be avoided due to the need to declutter or the anxiety associated with clutter. 

Managing compulsive decluttering

You would have noticed by now that people increasingly follow and glorify simplicity, with the less is more mentality. Unfortunately, this results in many people finding it hard to recognize their struggles with obsessive decluttering. 

An uncluttered, clean house is often seen as a desirable quality, unlike hoarding, which is clearly unusual. This can make it even more difficult for you to be taken seriously, and you might even be praised for your decluttering efforts.

Read more: Effective Hoarding Disorder Treatment Options 

So, what can you do if you suspect you have obsessive-compulsive behavior? Here are steps you can take to manage it:

Recognize the need for help

The first step is accepting that your decluttering habits are becoming unhealthy. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • You start to feel anxious or overwhelmed when you cannot clean your home.
  • You start throwing away items you might need later, leading to additional stress and repurchasing.
  • You choose to engage in cleaning or tidying over any other important tasks in your life.

If you identify with any of these signs, you should not delay getting professional help. A therapist can help you to manage your anxiety levels and teach you techniques to develop healthier coping methods.

Build healthier coping mechanisms

It is important to remember that decluttering is not your only strategy for managing stress and anxiety. Consider looking into other healthier options to manage stress and anxiety. Here are some alternative coping methods you can look into the next time you feel anxious:

  • Mindfulness techniques. You can engage in different mindful practices like meditation and deep breathing. They can help you manage anxiety by reducing the negative effects of it in a healthier way than reaching for the decluttering box.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise is really helpful when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. It’s a great way to relax and feel better overall. Moving your body regularly can help you relax and unwind, making it easier to deal with the challenges of everyday life. Finding an activity you enjoy makes a big difference in managing stress and anxiety.
  • Creative outlets. One effective way to release pent-up emotions is to engage in artistic activities like writing, painting, or playing music. These activities allow you to express your feelings and find relief. Writing helps you clarify your thoughts, painting lets you turn feelings into visual art, and music allows you to convey emotions without words. These creative outlets help manage emotions and promote personal growth.

Read more: Reaching a Higher Sense of Self Through Mindfulness 

Find balance in organizing

Now that you understand the negative impacts of excessively decluttering, learning how to find a balance is essential. There is a happy medium between a never-ending quest for order and a messy environment. To achieve a balanced approach to organization, explore the following suggestions.

  • Set realistic goals. Start by setting a goal and aiming for manageable decluttering sessions instead of trying to tackle everything at once. Work on smaller steps and smaller projects so you won’t get overwhelmed.
  • Focus on functionality. Remember to organize your room in a way that is useful for you, focusing on comfort and ease of use over appeal. The functionality should come before the looks since you will be using the space more.
  • Embrace imperfection. Accepting that a perfectly organized space is not always achievable is important, and that’s okay. Just focus on doing your best, and don’t worry too much about small messes.

Read more: Goal-Setting: Why You Should Set Goals 

In conclusion 

Decluttering compulsively is a serious concern with underlying psychological needs, and the process involves more than just “getting rid of clutter.” So, it is important to understand the underlying causes of the compulsive behavior and, if needed, get a helping hand. 

By recognizing and addressing compulsive decluttering, individuals can learn to manage this behavior and create a healthier relationship with their belongings. Remember, a curated space is great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of functionality or your well-being.

If you would like to see more resources on compulsive decluttering, check out the Home Organization Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Home Organization Science Labs today.

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