Ask an Organization Expert

Professional organizer Janine Adams answers reader questions on keeping things in place.

I have been divorced now for 4 years, and am having an impossible time keeping my bedroom clean and clutter-free.  The rest of the house is clean, and I don’t have problems with it.  When I try to clean this bedroom though, I find pictures of my grown children when they were little, etc., and it is painful, and it slows me down.  I have had other people try to help me, but they really don’t know what is important to me or not.  Any ideas?

Austin, Texas

The fact that you’re able to keep the rest of your house clutter-free means that you understand that the key to keeping clutter at bay is having a place for everything and then putting everything away. Congrats!

It sounds like it’s bothering you that your bedroom is cluttered and perhaps it’s bothering you even more that it’s an emotional minefield. It’s a great idea to have a friend give you emotional support, but as you’ve discovered, no one else can do the decluttering for you.

If you’re in counseling, I have a suggestion for you. When you’re decluttering and come across a photo or other object that makes you feel upset, put it in a box and move on to the next item. Then take the box to your next counseling appointment and talk to your counselor about the emotions the contents evoke. After that, you can either dispose of or store the items, especially if they’ve become less emotional for you.

If you’re not in counseling, you might consider seeking some, since it seems clear that you’re harboring some feelings that you might benefit from working through. In the absence of a counselor, a sympathetic friend could hear you out, then gently keep you on course. A professional organizer, especially one trained to work with chronically disorganized clients, could fill the same role and even work in collaboration with a counselor.


Is there any way to help friends and relatives who hoard clutter?


If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a professional organizer, it’s that you can’t help someone get organized if they’re not ready for help. That goes double for people who hoard things. If you have a friend or relative who’s a true hoarder—that is, who acquires and won’t part with items that appear to be worthless to others, who lives with so much stuff that rooms can’t be used for their intended purpose and who is caused significant distress or impairment by the clutter—then that person needs professional help in order to stop the behavior.

Even if you were able to help your friend or family member get the house under control by discarding and perhaps organizing things—and I wouldn’t recommend that unless the hoarder was truly on board, because it could cause a great deal of emotional distress—you wouldn’t be addressing the hoarding problem. That takes therapy. One type that has been successful for dealing with compulsive hoarding is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps change the person’s beliefs about the meaning of possessions. Once those beliefs are changed, then the person can be taught organizing skills, which is where you or perhaps a professional organizer can be helpful.

Here are some resources to learn more about compulsive hoarding:
Helping Hoarders:
Children of Hoarders:
The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation:


One of my biggest issues, when trying to "purge" some of my clutter, is that I have deep fears of regretting it.  Whenever there’s an item I am having trouble letting go of, I hold on to it, because I am so afraid of regretting it, and needing/wanting it after it’s too late and gone. Do you have any advice for dealing with this fear, and how to figure out if an item will be something I’ll regret letting go of or not? 


As I think you’ve discovered, if you live in fear of regretting letting go of unused items, you run the real risk of letting clutter take over your life. If your clutter is bothering you, and it sounds like it is, perhaps you can think about it in terms of cost and benefits. Create a vision for your space, how it will look and feel after you’ve discarded unused items. Try to feel the feelings you’ll have once you’re living in that space. Really feel it. Then, when you’re facing letting go of an unused or nonfunctional object and you start fearing that you’ll regret giving it up, conjure up that new clear-space feeling. If you can come to believe that the good feeling of living without the clutter outweighs the potential regret of letting go of stuff, you might be able to live more easily with your decision.

All that said, you might need help changing your beliefs about your possessions, so that you can let go without regret. One great resource is the book, Buried in Treasures, by David F. Tolin, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. It’s a self-help book for people who compulsively acquire or save things that employs cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. If you were to work with a therapist who uses these techniques, you could make some real changes in your clutter situation.


Professional organizer Janine Adams, owner of Peace of Mind Organizing, helps people create lasting order in their lives. The president of the St. Louis chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers, Janine holds two Level II specialist certificates from the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, as well as seven Level I certificates of study, in a variety of issues surrounding chronic disorganization. She writes a blog at her website,

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