Organize - Don't Traumatize
You are a highly organized person. Your family loves to have you around because you keep everything in order and your household runs smoothly. Your friends call you for advice because they know you and your talent for getting things organized. Since they are your family and friends, you know how to approach them.
Then one day, you get a request to help organize and de-clutter a home. This request comes from Sally who had to screw up a lot of courage to make the request. Sally feels that she has never in her life been organized. The clutter in her home is overwhelming and has been that way for a long period of time. Now, help is desperately needed. Perhaps an event like possible eviction or loss of a spouse triggered the request. Sally is full of fear but has a great need.
You are delighted to help. You know you can be a terrific assistance. You are an expert on organizing. Your home is in good order. You have a lot of routines that will maintain the order. You like to help people. You are raring to go and fix this for Sally.
Take a deep breath. You cannot fix another person and their chaos. You must work with them, very slowly, to see what should be done to organize their space. You do not want to traumatize them by moving too fast.
Before you meet up with Sally at her home, try to envision from your conversation with her what you might see when you first walk in. There may be only pathways to walk through the home. Clutter may be on every surface. Some rooms may be impossible to enter. It is important that you have a worst-case scenario in your mind so that when you are invited in, you show no shock or disgust. Sally will be watching you for a reaction. You want to be able to look her in the face and smile.
Take time to talk with her. What is her vision? What is the driving reason she is asking for help now? Is there a time element? Go slow and try to see what is happening through her lens. You may well be the first person invited into her home in years. She is very vulnerable. Find out what is most important to her. What are her fears? Are there safety issues?
Start small. Work together to impact one area that is important to Sally. Don’t worry about the length of time it takes to clear and organize just one small area. You might spend hours just to clear the entry way. Celebrate every victory along the way. If the floor is mostly cleared and the door can open, celebrate! If the entry table has been mostly cleared of unessential items, celebrate! If the shoes have been matched up and put on a shelf or removed to another part of the house, celebrate!
Take breaks. Sit and talk and drink some water or tea. Emphasize that you recognize how difficult this organizing project is. Talk about how to maintain the areas that you are opening up. Acknowledge what has been accomplished. Point out that you have removed 3 bags of trash and filled a recycling tub.
At the end of the session, leave a short list of organizing tasks that Sally might do before you come back to help again. Also let her know that if she does not accomplish them that is all right. You will be back to help.
If you had come in with your pre-set idea of what to organize and declutter or if you were upset with Sally because she had let her home come to this point, you would surely have traumatized her. Sally’s poor self-concepts would have been reinforced. You have no idea what has happened to Sally to bring her to this point in her life. You are here to help her with her basic organizing needs and not to show any judgement.
As a professional organizer my goal is to help clients reach their own organizing goals and more importantly, to never do harm. It is a fabulous feeling to help a person in need. But, if you are not able to give yourself over to their needs and wants or don’t feel comfortable in this setting, it is best to decline this opportunity and help Sally find another source of help.