Can You Throw Out Other People's Stuff?

It's HOT HOT HOT in Toronto.  Phew! 

I'm sitting in a sweltering apartment surrounded by half packed and empty boxes as I prepare to move for the second time this year.  I either love a place and you have to scrape me off the kitchen linoleum to get me out or I bounce in and out in a matter of months.  It's OK, I wanted a challenge which I got with this place.  I painted the whole place and turned it from a real dump into a little haven. Unfortunately the neighbours don't smoke any less just because I made it pretty. 

This week I'm answering a question from Karen in Toronto who is also getting ready to move:
Hi Cecilia,
So.. I am planning to move in next Saturday with my boyfriend, whom I've known for 12 years, we reconnected this past holiday season, fell in love.  Since, I have found out that my guy has a very cluttered apartment.  Each cupboard and closet is crammed. He seems open to my helping organize/ declutter but has not shown he is capable of doing it himself.

Is it wrong to take care of someone else's clutter?

I am ready to be as understanding yet firm as needed to basically, get the job done.  The apartment is a bachelor in a high rise. Yes, bachelor!
Oh yes, I am about as minimalist as it gets and only feel relaxed in decluttered spaces...



Dear Karen,
Thank you for your letter.  Congratulations on your new/old found love, I'm picturing you and your sweetie reconnecting over ugly holiday sweaters a la Bridget Jones. 

So, your guy has clutter.  To be fair, it's kind of hard not to have clutter in a bachelor apartment, but I completely understand your concern at the prospect of moving in to an already full place.  Where will you and your stuff fit?

One thing in your favour, is that he has acknowledged that he has clutter and that he's willing to allow you to help.  BIG MASSIVE BONUS POINTS!  This is the first step in helping someone else clear clutter.  They have to be open to help. 

Now to address your question, is it wrong to take care of someone else's clutter? 

I guess it depends on what you mean by take care of.  If by take care of you mean that you go through and decide what is clutter and what is not, bag it up and take it to the Sally Anne, we might have a little problem. 

The thing is, you can't throw out other people's stuff.  Unfortunately, what happens when we throw out other people's stuff, is that it has the effect of making them even more attached to what they have, and in the long run, it could push them to accumulate more. It's also totally dis-empowering.  Clutter clearing can be such an amazing opportunity for self discovery.  If someone else makes all of the decisions, that opportunity is lost.

Now, if by take care of you mean:

  • sit by
  • encourage
  • ask questions
  • suggest
  • acknowledge
  • help come up with a plan
  • hold the garbage bag
  • empathize
  • reorganize
  • be super honest (i.e., that holiday sweater is truly hideous)
  • etc...

The above is a totally different story.  It's true, for some people clearing their clutter is not straightforward.  They don't know where to start, they get overwhelmed by emotions and they don't know where things belong.  Systems and organization come more naturally to some folks than others.  This is where you can help! 

You can certainly sit with your man and help to talk him through the clutter.  This is one of the biggest things that people need.  They need to be acknowledged and encouraged.  It's always SO much easier to clear clutter when you have someone by your side.  I've had workshop participants tell me that sometimes just having a friend come over is enough to help.  They don't even need to be in the same room. 

I have an inkling that one of your boyfriend's issues, other than the fact that he has too much stuff, might be that he's not sure how to best use his space in terms of homes for things and organization.  I also have a feeling that as a clutter-free person, this is something that you excel in.  Once your bf has gone through and decided what to keep and what to toss, it might make sense for you to help come up with some storage systems and solutions.  Just remember that we all have different needs when it comes to how we interact with our space (Hellen Buttigieg has a great book that talks about organizing for different learning styles called 'Organizing Outside the Box'), so the system has to work for both of you.

The ideal situation for any couple living together is that you each have a room that is yours and yours alone.  You can have as little or as much stuff in this room.  Your partner is not allowed to make any suggestions or put things in your room.  You can decorate it however you like.  You can keep it has messy or as clean as you like. 

I know that this isn't your current reality, but something to keep in mind for the future.  My partner Mike and I have been lucky enough to have this set up and it's worked out great.  He has his room and it's all his.  I don't clean and I don't comment.  I did, however, let him know that I'm always happy to help if he needs it.  He took me up on the offer just a couple of months ago and did an amazing job culling and finding homes for his stuff.  His room is beautiful now and has stayed that way, but even if it got messy again, it woudn't bother me because it's not my room.  We're just about to move to a smaller space and I'm hoping that we can at least each have our own corner...  ;)

Good luck Karen and please, let me know how it goes!

Take care,
My advice to Karen could also be used for roommates, girlfriends, siblings, parents or anyone else you find yourself living with who has too much stuff and who is open to receiving help.  If they haven't acknowledged the clutter and haven't asked for help, that's a bit of a different story

I'd love to hear your experiences with this, either as the helper or the helpee. What was the most effective?  What helped?  What hurt?  What were the end results?  Comment below!

Take care,