First world clutter and the guilt that surrounds it

Most clutter is a first world problem. Poor us, drowning in a sea of our own belongings when people living in third world countries don’t have enough to get by.

First world clutter

Next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by how much stuff you have, pause and take a look at it from the perspective of how much better it is to have the choice of too many things rather than not enough.

When I lived in Bali many years ago, I knew people who literally only owned the clothes they stood up in. To stave off the boredom of wearing the same thing every day, they would regularly swap clothes with each other.

One day I would see a T-shirt on one man, the next day on his friend, and a few days later on someone else. No one kept track of who originally owned what. Apart from underwear, there was no sense of personal ownership or loaning items out. It was like a communal wardrobe that they all contributed to and all drew from as they wished.

The guilt of having too much

Many people born into the baby boomer generation were brought up to eat everything put on their plate and be grateful for it because there were millions of people starving in Africa. It was so deeply embedded in children’s psyches by parents at that time that the background dialogue may still run in a person’s head at each mealtime to this day. They may only be vaguely aware of it, but it’s a guilt script that keeps running in an endless loop.

The logic is flawed, of course, because you can’t mail your unfinished peas across the world to someone who would really appreciate eating them. And the current obesity epidemic means that some people really do need to learn not to eat everything on their plate, or at least not to load it up with such gigantic portions in the first place.

The same thing has happened with recycling. Governments have done such a good job of indoctrinating us all to recycle as much as we possibly can that some people avoid the guilt of sending anything to landfill by not throwing it away at all. Their home becomes so full of non-recyclable items that it starts to look like the garbage dump they have tried to avoid creating.

The middle path is what’s needed, of course. Not so much food or belongings that you become overweight or overwhelmed by clutter. And not so little that life is a day-to-day struggle for survival.

So how to manage the guilt of first world clutter?

You’d think that a hoarder’s home would be their haven. But in my experience of working with people who suffer from hoarding behaviour, this simply isn’t so. One woman I knew felt so claustrophobic surrounded by the mountains of clutter in her home that she would spend most of her day in the park with her dogs. Anything not to have to face the problem she had created for herself that she felt helpless to change.

When she finally reached out to get help with her clutter, she still felt great guilt at letting anything go unless it could be given to someone who would use it. Consequently, she gifted large boxes of useless cheap items to friends, who I’m sure promptly put them straight in the bin.

As the process continued, there was a gradual change in her attitude as she came to understand the deep emotional scars that had compelled her to collect such a stash of things around her. The more she understood and forgave herself, the less attached she was to what happened to things after she had let them go. She began to trust me to dispose of them in the best way possible (some to charity shops and some put in garbage bins).

Most importantly, she realized she couldn’t change the past but she could change the future. She couldn’t turn back the clock and un-buy everything she’d bought. But she could learn to stop, think and choose differently when tempted to buy more of the same again.

Stop, think and choose differently

Those of us who live in the first world have very privileged lives compared to what our lot would have been if we’d been born into a third world country. And with that comes a responsibility not to over-indulge just because we can.

The trick is to become more conscious about our purchases. Take clothing, for example. Carefully consider each item before you buy. Do you really love it? Will you really wear it? Unlike my friends in Bali, you won’t have to share it with all your friends until the day it finally falls to bits. But do you like it enough to at least wear it yourself for an entire month if you had to? If not, you are probably about to purchase first world clutter.

You can ask yourself similar questions about anything else you want to buy. Do you really love it? Or will you at least really use it? When you love or use something well, you’ll feel gratitude when it comes to the end of its time with you, not guilt. The guilt only comes when you buy something frivolously or needlessly and have to admit later on that you did so.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2019, 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 First world clutter and the guilt that surrounds it

  1. I’m making a rag rug out of my 1980’s cotton skirts and tops. Too small for me and too old fashioned/dated for today but a lovely big gap has appeared in my wardrobe and the rug is going to be pretty and useful!

  2. Karen, I am from a Third World country (Argentina) and people here still fill spaces up with clutter. Not everyone is poor or starving, but even if they are not wealthy there are still many ways to hoard.

    I used to be a minor clutterbug myself. I never had money to buy many things, but I collected shop catalogues, free magazines, any pamphlets, things bought on sales, free cards, hand me downs. It got so bad I could barely walk in my small room.

    On the other hand, people like my Godmother and her husband are really quite affluent, but he never throws away anything. He has every newspaper he’s bought, while she foisted stuff on me and others when her wardrobes were bursting and had no space to store more stuff.

    By the way, if you go to the Salvation Army stores often (what I did when I began letting go of my addiction to clutter) you’ll see the same regulars. A lot of the people who go there are hoarders themselves, not someone in need. An interesting note: my mother bought eleven coats there in less than a month. She didn’t have room in her already full wardrobe, so she left them all over the living room. Months later, she broke an arm. She still doesn’t see the relationship between both occurrences.

  3. Ruby,

    I think the “habit of always searching” is hardwired into us from our ancient roots as hunter-gatherers. It’s in our DNA. Or perhaps we’re all just searching for the fullness of ourselves.

    Looking back over my life, I’ve searched for many things at different stages of my development. In time, and with age, my “treasure hunts” have shifted from the material and visible (clothing and other possessions) to the ephemeral and invisible (wildflowers, starry nights, joyful memories, moments of peace).

    For me, a good way to cease collecting the tangible has been to collect the intangible. I’m closer than ever to finding my fullness…but I’m still searching. It’s in my DNA.

  4. Our workplace has organized a collection for a local women’s shelter over the next few weeks – clothing, household items etc…
    Sounds like a great idea right, but hold on, I clicked on the link to suggested donation items and on the first line of the list was a note that
    “Unfortunately the shelter would no longer be able to receive gently used items” – What?

    So now local charities no longer want gently used, recycled items.
    New first world problem?

  5. I’m becoming more conscious of this pattern…especially with the fashion bloggers online recommending new, updated styles of clothing & accessories.

    Now I want to wear my closet, and when I do I notice what will really be well used, or not…and what was a flippant purchase ‘just because’ which has now become clutter!

    What challenges me most is the habit of always searching, it would be nice to be content with what I have now and use it well.

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