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Decluttering Paralysis: What It Means, Causes and How to Overcome It

Join us as we examine what decluttering paralysis is, why it happens, and how you can overcome this speed bump on your decluttering journey.

Decluttering can be a liberating experience and should be celebrated when we get it right. (Here are some of the reasons why decluttering is good for you.)

But when there are mountains of clutter to tackle or sentimental items to give away, it can become a little trickier.

Decluttering paralysis is a phenomenon experienced by many people working on decluttering their homes. It happens when you become stuck during the process and need help to continue.

Decluttering paralysis is difficulty starting the process or becoming stuck mid-way through decluttering. It can be caused by feeling inadequate, guilty, or ashamed. Sufferers may feel attached to items and not know how to proceed. To overcome it, have clear boundaries and celebrate every victory. 

A woman with a hand on her hip looking at a closet full of clothes with text overlay that reads, "How to overcome decluttering paralysis".

Decluttering paralysis can affect anyone on the decluttering journey. As we tackle each item individually, what may seem like a clear-cut path to a clutter-free room can quickly become riddled with emotion.

What is Decluttering Paralysis?

Decluttering paralysis also referred to Intimidation Induced Clutter Paralysis (IICP) and can happen to anyone working on decluttering their home or a space within their home.

It means that while your intention is to declutter, something happens to trip you up. You cannot continue for a while and are unsure how to proceed.

It could also mean you do not know how to begin decluttering. You may have a mental image of how you want your home to look once the decluttering has been completed, but you have no clue how to reach that point.

Paralysis means the inability to move, and when you experience decluttering paralysis, you embody the failure to mobilize yourself to reach your decluttering goals. And it’s one of the reasons why decluttering is hard.

Decluttering Paralysis Causes

There are a few possible causes for decluttering paralysis; only you can know which affects you. Let’s look at a few in detail so that you can identify how you are being affected and why you are struggling to declutter.

#1. You Do Not Know Where to Start

Not knowing where to start is a huge deterrent for many who wish to declutter their homes. The sheer volume of stuff that needs to be sorted and dealt with can be enough to make you freeze.

Did you know that freezing is a nervous system response? It is involuntary, just like our fight-or-flight response, and typically kicks in when we feel threatened.

If you find yourself freezing or feeling paralyzed by the thought of starting to declutter, know that your brain is trying to protect you from a potentially stressful situation.

Luckily, with all the advice and help available, you know that the process does not need to be stressful or threatening.

In the next section, we cover step-by-step guidance on how to get started, and you will see that a decluttered home can be achieved in baby or giant steps, depending on how you feel.

#2. You Feel Overwhelmed

As you begin decluttering, there may be times when you feel completely overwhelmed. You might feel like you will never reach the end of the project and that you have been overtaken by your belongings.

When these feelings stir, it is best to take a step back and celebrate how far you have already come. Decluttering paralysis will make you stop and not progress any further. That goes against your goals and desires.

#3. You Feel an Emotional Attachment to Items

As you go through your cluttered space, you will sort your items individually. Handling each object will undoubtedly bring back memories for you, and some may leave you feeling emotional.

It is perfectly normal to feel an emotional attachment to certain belongings. Perhaps you inherited a piece from a relative that passed away or bought an item on vacation with a loved one. Maybe a particular item of clothing signifies something specific or a certain time in your life.

As you sort through your items, if you feel paralyzed by an emotional attachment you experience toward specific objects, know that the experience is completely normal and not to be feared.

Remember that the item does not hold the memories of the loved one or the experience you hold dear. It is simply a reminder. The memories live on in your heart and mind.

You may want to read this article on how to declutter sentimental items.

#4. You Feel Guilty

We get it, mainly because we have been around the guilt mountain a few thousand times too. Guilt is funny because it feels like a righteous emotion, yet it robs us of our joy and productivity.

When we refer to decluttering, guilt might come in the form of:

“Why did I let this happen?”

It could even jump at you as guilt over letting go of things that people have gifted you. The fact is that gifts are meant to enhance your life, not weigh you down.

Let it go without guilt if a gift is not serving you or bringing you joy. The love accompanying the gift remains, but the item can benefit someone else better, and you will be lighter and freer without it.

Another way guilt can cause decluttering paralysis is when you feel guilty for ridding your home of things you spent a lot of money on or that your children made for you.

When you have spent money on something that no longer serves you, consider it a lesson learned for future purchases.

Parents will always feel guilty getting rid of their children’s arts, crafts, and gifts. Find ways to keep memories of them, or keep only a few of the very best as keepsakes and let the rest go.

How to Overcome Decluttering Paralysis When You are Struggling to Declutter

When a bout of decluttering paralysis kicks in, it can feel like the end of your purging project. Know that it is simply a speed bump. Nearly everyone who tackles their clutter goes through doubts, fear, guilt, inadequacy, and feeling overwhelmed at some point.

You can overcome your decluttering paralysis by tackling it head-on and being gentle with yourself as you continue to purge your home. Let’s look at a few solutions for this phenomenon.

#1. Take a Logical Approach

If you feel paralyzed from not knowing where to start, a logical approach is your best solution. When we feel overwhelmed, our nervous systems can sometimes cause us to withdraw and become a little hazy.

Making lists of everything you need to do will prevent you from zoning out and becoming distracted from the prize, a decluttered home.

By making micro-lists, you help yourself focus and allow yourself to celebrate each win, no matter how small. Write items like the following:

  • Take out bins for donation, trash, keep, and sale
  • Label bins
  • Take items off shelves
  • Take out a bucket, cloth, towel, and detergent
  • Wipe down shelves
  • Dry shelves
  • Sort through shelf items
  • Replace “keep” items
  • Drive “trash” items to the dump
  • Drop “donate” items at Goodwill
  • Post “sale” items on Facebook Marketplace

With each tick you make on your checklist, your heart will do a little happy dance, and your brain will release a little more dopamine. Enough ticks and paralysis, be gone!

Another way to know how to start decluttering is to have a clear vision of your end goal in mind. If you know how you want your room to look, how much space you have, and your dreams with what you have, you will more easily be able to purge what does not align with that vision.

To achieve this goal, go through Pinterest in your downtime and have fun creating boards for your decluttered room. If you feel demotivated or paralyzed, visit your board and stir up a little inspiration.

#2. Celebrate Along the Way

Make lists and check off what you have already done. You will find that it is a lot, even if you have only begun. Celebrate each step and take pride in every tiny bit of progress.

It is best to tackle decluttering in small parts (here are more helpful rules of decluttering). If an entire room overwhelms you, declutter one cabinet or shelf at a time.

If the shelf as a whole feels too much, take care of one pile at a time. Before long, you will start to see a difference, encouraging you to continue.

Remember that decluttering is a process of uncovering the life you want to live, not one of punishment. Focus on what you are keeping and the life you are gaining instead of what you are letting go of. The focus shift may be all you need to release the paralysis and enjoy the process.

Here are more decluttering hacks to help make the task easier for you.

#3. Hold on to the Memories in Your Heart and Mind

If you feel paralyzed by the emotional attachment you have to certain items, remember that the memories you hold dear are in your heart and mind, not the items themselves.

Give the rest to someone who will value them. If you like, take pictures of them and save them in a dedicated file. That way, you can view them whenever you want while they bless someone else and do not clutter your home.

You can make a special memory from the giving and add even more emotional value to the items by journaling about the experience and the things you give away.

Look at your items with honesty. If you haven’t used it recently, it is unlikely you will use it again. Bless someone else by giving it away or selling it. You won’t get what you paid for it, but you will get something in return and a clean house.

While it is lovely to have keepsakes and mementos, too many of them can weigh you and your home down causing stress and anxiety. Choose to pass the blessing along instead and cherish the memories that you hold within.

#4. Make Keepsake Memories that Don’t Take Up Space

It can be heartbreaking to let go of items that children made or gave you. If you find yourself stuck at a point in decluttering while looking at children’s keepsakes and such, consider turning the physical gifts into digital ones. Take photos of all the items and store them in a dedicated file.

You might like to keep a few of the best and frame them to display on your walls, but let the rest go.

Final Thoughts on Decluttering Paralysis

Decluttering paralysis is a state of inability to continue or start decluttering because of emotional factors. You can overcome it by addressing the cause of the emotional aspects and shifting your mindset and focus to positively visualize the future of a decluttered home.

Related Decluttering Article:

A woman with left hand on her hip staring at a closet choke full of clothes with text overlay that reads, "Tips for overcoming decluttering paralysis".

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Sunday 10th of March 2024

Carol, this article is brilliant and deserves to get Out There where many struggling people can read this. Micro lists...I was (and still am a little) embarrassed about needing such a basic tool but I do. I promise I finished a college degree, but still apparently need kindergarten in the area of dealing with my physical environment. The way you frame that need in your article is very helpful, so thank you!


Wednesday 20th of March 2024


I'm happy to hear that you found the tips for overcoming decluttering paralysis helpful.


Saturday 25th of February 2023

I completely identify with the clutter paralysis. I will come home from work and with intentions to clear different areas which I thought about during the day, I will stand there looking at all the stuff I have to go through and not be able to move. It is frustrating and a bit terrifying because I need to re-gain some sense of control. Thank you for trying to help. Sincerely, Laura


Wednesday 1st of March 2023

Hi Laura,

I'm happy to hear that you found the post helpful.

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