The art of living with clear space in your home

At some point in a person’s clutter clearing journey, clear space starts to emerge in their home. Some love it. Some feel so uncomfortable that their clutter clearing may stall.

Clear space

Clutter clearing brings an exhilarating sense of new-found freedom and space. But if you’ve become used to living with a certain quantity of stuff in your life, it can take a while to get used to not having it there anymore.

One person described it to me like this: ‘Each time I enter my home and see the empty spaces on the bookcase, I feel shocked and then immediately feel very relieved. It’s so good to have some empty spaces. It’s such a new sight. I will get used to it.’

Another client I worked with reported similar emotions. Together we cleared about a third of the items on his three small shelves, which still left leaving about 100 decorative objects still in place. But the first time he arrived home after going out for a few hours, he was so taken aback by how bare his shelves looked that he thought he’d been burgled.

The connection between clutter and suppressed emotions

Some people find it difficult to tolerate any unfilled space at all. It makes them too uncomfortable. They use their possessions as a protective layer, so any clear space makes them feel emotionally vulnerable and exposed. They feel compelled to fill it as quickly as they can.

A teenage girl I once met gave me some deep insights into this. She lived at home with her parents in a very tidy house, except for her bedroom, which was filled halfway to the ceiling with piles of clothes and personal belongings. For six months or more, she hadn’t opened the windows, changed the bed sheets, or allowed anyone in there. ‘I don’t like it like this,’ she confided. ‘And I did tidy it up once. But so many emotions came up that I had to clutter it again.’

She was going through a very difficult time in her life and this was her way of coping, using clutter to suppress her emotions. It didn’t resolve anything. In fact, it made her situation worse, because the stagnant energy surrounding her clutter made her feel even more stuck. But there it stayed until she was ready to face her problems and found a capable therapist to help her move through them. After that, she didn’t need the clutter anymore. She tidied it all up and got on with her life.

The truth is that everyone who has clutter uses it to suppress emotions in some way. It creates a numbing effect that allows you not to feel things you would rather not feel.

But when it gets to the stage where every shelf is full, every surface is covered, and even the tiniest unfilled space feels unbearable, there are some serious issues that need to be looked at and you may need help to do so, such as working with a professional clutter clearing practitioner or a therapist of some kind. Or both. If left unchecked, this can lead to full-blown hoarding, where every space in your homes becomes full. That’s very difficult to reverse, so it’s a road you really don’t want to go down.

How you look at it

The photo near the top of this article of a solitary vase of flowers on a shelf will feel artistic and pleasing to some but not at all so to anyone who sees clear space as empty space.

However, the concept is well known in graphic design. The area around the subject of a picture is called white space and is just as important as the subject itself. It’s what makes it stand out. It’s also why the text in advertisements is usually in upper and lower case rather than all capitals because the space around capitals is not as easy for the eye to read.

Rubins vaseRubin’s vase is a famous example of white space. One person may see it as a black vase against a white background. Another might see it as two human silhouettes in white against a black background. The choice is in the eye of the beholder, and you can view any clear space in the same way.

So if you want to change your relationship to space, take a playful approach. Clear a shelf in your home, put a single item on it, and keep it that way for a day. Each time you see it, look at the item as well as the space around it. See how they fit together. If seeing the space triggers uncomfortable emotions, let them surface, feel them, and let them go. You’ll discover it gets easier each time you do it.

Repeat this exercise one day at a time until empty space becomes normal and holds no fear. Most people find it doesn’t take very long. You just have to be willing to give it a whirl and begin.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2014, updated 2023

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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6 Responses to The art of living with clear space in your home

  1. Karen – I read your book, and found it beyond valuable. This is my first visit to your blog however, although I don’t know why. I’m a blogger myself, and totally appreciate how useful this type of communal environment is for someone wishing to keep on track. Currently I’m looking again at my home, and in particular space clearing. I first started decluttering (and simplifying) my life almost 6 years ago, and despite having made significant progress, I do feel a little stuck once again. The decluttering process has been a bit like removing layers. My achilles heel is sentimental paper clutter. Each layer is getting me closer to my ultimate aim but it’s a gradual process. Jo (I’m linking to this article on my FB page)

  2. I have recently left my job and am hopefully temporarily unemployed. I decided to get rid of “stuff” that we don’t use while I had the time. I cleaned out everything! I hate clutter, though I do admit to having my “collections” phase earlier in my life. We now have only those things that we actually use. Minimal pots and pans, clothes, “stuff”. My closets are empty. How many sets of sheets do you need? If they aren’t on the bed…you don’t need them (did keep one extra set for the grands bed in case of accident).

    I must say, it is liberating to not have a lot of junk around. I go around the house and just gaze in the closets at the “clear space”. It is like you can breath again. I am in the process of cleaning the attic now. Everything is going except for a couple suitcases and only the xmas decorations that I actually use. Everything else is GONE! Then come the garage…that will be the biggest challenge. Right now every time I walk through it I get an anxiety feeling in my stomach. Cannot wait to clean it out. I have taken many trips to the donation places and it feels so good when the car is empty. The funny part is that people think I am crazy for decluttering….I always get “how can you just get rid of stuff?”…easy…just decide to do it and do it. The only “things” I have kept are family photos. I do like to display them around my home. So when I walk through my house now all I see are my loved ones smiling back at me. Roxane

  3. Hi Karen

    I totally subscribe to what you are saying. Not ‘owning’ stuff does free the spirit But we also need ‘roots’ and so we hold onto stuff as a memory of what has gone before. I inherited so much ‘stuff’ once my parents died. But the trouble was….it wasn’t just *their* stuff… was stuff they had inherited! They didn’t know what to do with it so they packed it in boxes and suitcases and left it for the next generation. I discovered boxes of things that belonged to great uncles who served and died in WW1. I can’t just ‘do away’ with this assortment.

    However, I have recently got rid of a few things that I had hung on to that reminded me of my Mum. After she died I was too emotional to ditch the most trivial of things. They were quirky things that eventually I realised I would be the only person in the world who actually understood this…, having moved past my grief…I got rid.

    I also have an irrational love of books…in paper format. My absolute pleasure is a floor to ceiling bookshelf full of wonderous reads! So a shelf….any shelf….could have a book.

    I love the physical presence of books because I only have to look at the spine and immediately I am back in that story…..I only keep what I enjoy:-)
    I know I have to cull every now and then…….but……..clutter that *means somethin* is no longer ‘clutter’.

    I guess it comes down to understanding what is important/significant in your life and getting rid of the rest!

  4. We recently heard some not so good news and even though we were upset we didn’t let it get in the way of showing our little ones the magic of Christmas. The excitement we all felt as the kids darted through the outdoor aisles of fresh pines and all of us deciding which one will be the one that will stand proudly lit in our nest, the time we all spent together decorating our sparsely decorated tree because I don’t like clutter one bit so a few decorations and the magic of string lights as we turn then on for the first time this year lightened our hearts.

    I can’t imagine what the feeling of the festival in Bali would feel like if our wonderfully scented tree transported me to a happy place. One Christmas day maybe we will be able to experience it. As for the Art of Living with Empty Space, you give some helpful advice, however, I don’t like the choice of word empty. While I don’t mind “empty” spaces I prefer open or even clear space, I agree aesthetically your eye needs a break from the “stuff” or decor as well as your heart needs some breathing room. May everyone have the courage to find the right balance in their nest starting the season.

    1. Thank you. I’ve changed the title of this article from ‘The Art of Living with Empty Space’ to ‘The Art of Living with Clear Space’, as you suggest. Hopefully it will help those who see empty space to see it more as clear space 🙂

  5. Interesting post. I dealt with aftermath of a dear friend’s overstuffed estate. Although she was very open and loving to me & another friend, she was closed off to others and she had “issues”. Since she was well to do, she could afford to overfill her home with too many nice things.

    In Japan, the term they have for white space is “ma”. White space is 2 fold meaning to me-1/ space to allow items shine. 2/ emptiness full of possibilities

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