The “Specialness Spiral” Might Be the Reason You Have So Much Clutter

published Nov 29, 2023
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I know it’s considered an antiquated room, but I love our dining room. It’s a dedicated space that holds the heirloom dining table and credenza I inherited from my grandparents. Inside the credenza sits the china I also inherited. Guess how often my family enjoys these beautiful luxuries? (Spoiler: Not a lot.)

Quick Overview

What Is the Specialness Spiral?

The specialness spiral occurs when a person doesn’t use something and it is deemed “special.” This specialness will cause the owner to resist using it even more, creating a spiral that leads to the collection of “unusable” items, aka clutter in their home.

Sure, it’s understandable that I don’t want to have to fuss over making sure everyone uses a coaster. But there’s something else going on here, too, a psychological undercurrent that, in some cases, can be the cause of why people sometimes feel like they’re drowning in clutter

The emotional weight of clutter

So much of what you hold on to has some sort of emotional component behind the reason you’re keeping it. That’s why getting rid of clutter is such a fraught endeavor — and why you might be putting off the task. But you pay the price when you find yourself living with the consequences: a home full of stuff that saps your time and energy and creates mental and emotional issues.

One powerful way to break the spell is to undermine the emotional attachment to your things that aren’t serving you. The first step is to name what might be going on when you have a hard time letting go of something. You may be experiencing the “specialness spiral.”

What is the specialness spiral? 

The “specialness spiral” is one of the most common psychological components of why people end up with cluttered homes. Simply put, the specialness spiral involves not using something, which imbues it with a specialness, which causes the owner to resist using it even more. This continues and creates a spiral that leads to a collection of “unusable” items, aka clutter.

Professional organizers encounter this often when helping clients pare down possessions. Kim Jones of Lock and Key Home says that people will sometimes deem an item “too good to use,” which in turn can be detrimental to their well-being. “They purchase an item and put it on a pedestal, thinking one day they will be skinny enough, tan enough, etc. They hold onto it, for the ‘what if.’ This does not do anything to help a client. It makes them always think they are not good enough to wear the item.”

What do psychologists say about the specialness spiral? 

Linda Whiteside, a licensed clinical professional counselor at NuView Treatment Center, explains that the specialness spiral may potentially be traced back to a person’s fear of losing an item. “If a person thinks that a particular item cannot be replaced or it is like a reminder of an important moment in their life, they might not use it … because they don’t want to cause damage to the item which may also ‘destroy’ the memories or events linked to it.” It’s a kind of sentimental attachment on overdrive. 

Joel Frank, a licensed clinical psychologist, says that this can lead to either “selective use or non-use of the item entirely.” The more rules set for an item, “the more a person decides not to interact with it [and] the more ‘special’ it becomes. By not interacting with the item, the person reinforces to themselves the specialness of the item, thus increasing the perceived value they have given to it. The person is less likely to use the item in the future due to waiting for the perfect moment, which may never come.” In effect, the specialness spiral is a trap that leads to people being prisoners of their possessions. 

Credit: Minette Hand

Signs you may be experiencing the specialness spiral

Whitney Coleman, a clinical social worker at Jade Clinical has noticed that her clients will often find it hard to let go of things when the object holds sentimental value or a high status or they feel like they would ruin it or are saving it for a special occasion.

Here are some real-life signs that you may be experiencing the specialness spiral.

  • You won’t get rid of something that was gifted to you, even if you don’t like it. 
  • You won’t “waste” nice clothes on everyday occasions. 
  • You refuse to open a nice bottle of wine because the occasion isn’t extraordinary enough. 
  • You don’t allow family members to use your decorative tea towels because you don’t want them to ever get dirty. 
  • You’ve had to throw out candles that have lost their smell because they were too pretty to use. 

How to overcome the specialness spiral

The specialness spiral might be causing you to accumulate items while also holding you back from getting rid of them. As mentioned, naming the beast is the first step in conquering it. So what comes next? 

Frank suggests asking yourself these three questions: What is the function of the item? How easy is it to get another of these items? Is holding onto this item eliciting positive or negative feelings? 

“If the answers to any of these questions are unclear, then talk them through with another person. Furthermore, if the third question regarding the provoked emotions is either neutral or provokes negative feelings, then it would be beneficial for the person to re-establish the perceived values they have given to the item. The person might discover that the specialness they placed upon the item does not match the experiential value the item provides for the person by holding onto it.”

For that special outfit that never gets worn? Jones recommends trying it on and recognizing your first thoughts about it. If you feel good about it, then there’s no reason to keep this outfit hidden. “Even if you pick a night to go out to dinner and wear, do it. Otherwise, the perfect occasion will never come along. To take it a step further, we ask them to pick a date, occasion, and send us pics on their night out.”

For more concrete ways to overcome a specialness spiral, Coleman offers the following: 

  • Reframe the sentimentality. Accept that using a special item is a wonderful way to honor a special person. 
  • Create a special occasion. Make any day a special one by using a cherished item.
  • Accept imperfection. Embrace the idea that normal wear and tear is part of using our items and that signs of use are part of an object’s “story.” 
  • Get a reality check on rarity. Realize that an item might not be as rare as you think and consider that it won’t be so bad after all if you can’t replace it. 
  • Re-evaluate the status. Consider if your self-worth is tied to your possessions and ask yourself if this kind of thinking contributes to your health and happiness.

Demystifying the psychological components that cause you to become unduly attached to your possessions is the first step in reestablishing a healthy relationship with your things. This kind of dismantling of the thoughts and feelings that can leave you drowning in clutter empowers you to make decisions that used to feel insurmountable — and leaves you with a space that allows you to breathe and be surrounded by things that offer true joy in the here and now.