Could this woman help to solve your clutter nightmare?
Many of us have more possessions than we literally know what to do with, yet find it hard to part with them. Breda Stack, Oxfam's new clear-out guru, tells Audrey Watson how to let go.
We all have things in our homes and in our wardrobes that we don't like or need, but for some reason haven't got round to getting rid of – maybe it's a wedding present we secretly hate, a dress that doesn't suit, or a shelf of dusty bric-a-brac.
Now, thanks to Oxfam Ireland, there is no excuse for holding on to the unwanted stuff that clogs up our houses, drawers and attics. The charity has enlisted the help of decluttering guru Breda Stack to encourage everyone in Northern Ireland to 'Lighten Your Load, Let Go, Feel Good and Fight Poverty', by donating your clutter to local Oxfam shops across the province.
"Letting go of possessions that are no longer of use, or no longer give us pleasure, can have a positive effect on our physical, mental and emotional health, as well as creating a calmer environment," says Breda.
"But for many of us getting rid of things and becoming organised is no easy feat. That's because a lot of what we hold on to is weighed down by emotional baggage.
"People have intimate relationships with clothes and objects. Sometimes they carry memories and obligations, remind them of things they can't do anymore, things that upset them at one time, or things they are feeling guilty about.
"What can make it easier is knowing that someone else will be able to make much better use of the things we no longer want, and in the case of Oxfam Ireland's Lighten Your Load campaign, our unwanted goods can help to save lives.
"Getting rid can benefit us too, as decluttering has many holistic benefits and research shows that it leads to a simpler, happier, healthier life.
"We simply cannot find joy if we are weighed down by stuff we don't need or enjoy."
Known as the Declutter Therapist, Breda (37) is the founder of Ireland's National Declutter Day, Decluttering TV and is a regular media contributor.
She is also author of the Declutter Therapy Ultimate Wardrobe Decluttering Experience book and DVD.
The Limerick woman believes that clutter is not limited to material objects and that many people are also overwhelmed and held back by emotional clutter.
"I focus on mental and emotional decluttering as well as physical," she says. "All three are interlinked. Emotional clutter can often cause physical clutter, and vice versa.
"My definition of clutter is anything that doesn't make us feel good – whether that is psychological or material. We need to let go of what isn't serving us or enhancing our lives so we can make room for the good stuff.
"My job is to help people identify, understand and let go of the clutter, whatever form that takes.
"Working with clients from all walks of life, I've witnessed the benefits of physical, mental and emotional decluttering in all areas, including family, relationships, social, health, finance and career.
"Personally, I've found that decluttering the home or wardrobe actually helps declutter the mind.
"It's amazing how much better you can feel after sorting out a drawer, wardrobe or spare room."
Breda started her business, www.thedeclutteringtherapist.ie, in 2010, after leaving a full-time job in IT, where she had worked as a project manager for 10 years.
"Growing up in Broadford, Co Limerick, I had always been quite organised and creative, and loved knitting, sewing and drawing as a child, she says.
"And although I loved certain parts of working in IT (attention to detail, organisation and team leading), after 10 years in the industry, I felt I had lost my creative spark.
"I put on weight and found that most of my clothes didn't fit or flatter me anymore.
"My confidence took a hit, I stopped enjoying shopping and I found myself wearing dull, uninspiring clothes.
"I still had clothes from my late teens in my wardrobe, stuff of all different genres that I realistically knew I wouldn't wear again, even if it had fitted me.
"I began to declutter to try and regain control of my life and it really helped me to think clearly and accept and make changes.
"Even though I had always been an organised person, I did find it difficult to let go of stuff for sentimental reasons, but I learnt to overcome it."
The effect of Breda's initial clear out inspired her to start studying part-time, while still working full-time in IT.
She says: "I became particularly interested in the area of goal setting and positive change and this spurred me on to study life and business coaching, interior design and neuro-linguistic programming.
"I realised that you really don't know who you are style-wise unless you've taken the time to declutter and evaluate each item in your wardrobe in terms of its suitability to your body, age, lifestyle and tastes.
"I decided I wanted to help people to embrace change and to teach and motivate people to declutter and let go in a positive and healthy way.
"Most people associate decluttering with dread and aren't aware of the many benefits – I really wanted to create awareness of these benefits and share what I had learned personally and professionally.
"Initially, I started in business by offering life coaching and styling services.
"I did a lot of style talks with ladies' groups and always finished with a piece on wardrobe decluttering.
"It really struck me the difficulties most women had in decluttering their wardrobes and letting go, and I found it was the part of the talk that I enjoyed most."
Having experienced those difficulties and feelings herself, Breda understands why people are often reluctant to let go of things.
"Cluttering or hoarding is typically an emotional response to something. We are emotional beings driven by our thoughts and feelings, whether we're aware of this or not," she says.
"The reasons for holding on to things can often be complex and deep-rooted.
"It can often be to do with what we learn from or observe in parents and ancestors, and their relationship with possessions.
"Also, slick advertising campaigns tell us on a daily basis that having more is better and emotions such as guilt and sadness can understandably keep people from facing their clutter.
"It's crucial to put a plan in place so you don't get overwhelmed, and to break your decluttering down into small steps that might start with as little as 15 minutes a week.
"The key to my work is to help someone figure out why they are reluctant to let go, so they can change their thinking.
"I also work with a lot of people who have been bereaved and who need help and support letting go of items that belonged to their loved one."
As well as her work with Oxfam and her clients, Breda is also a regular on television and radio shows, where she offers advice on style and wardrobe decluttering, but does she practice what she preaches?
"My wardrobe is quite streamlined these days as I don't feel the need to shop as much anymore," she says.
"At home, I tend to only surround myself with items that I find aesthetically pleasing or life-enhancing in some way. This makes it easier to keep things neat and tidy.
"And I actually declutter my own wardrobe regularly in the practical demo part of my decluttering workshops.
"I'm extremely organised in pretty much all areas of my life.
"My mind has different compartments for different things and I'm very practical.
"I like to make sense of things and put them into boxes, literally and metaphorically.
"Multitasking is one of my skills, although my husband, Ronan, who is a driving instructor, calls it pottering," she laughs.
So, is she the sort of person that can't go to bed unless the dishes are done?
"I used to be, but thankfully not anymore. If they are organised in fairly neat piles at the side of the sink, I'm happy to leave them overnight. I do like tackling them the following day – it can be very therapeutic with good music playing in background.
"Like many, I had my time as a messy student. It's all about balance."
What about Ronan, is he as tidy as his wife?
"Ronan is actually very good apart from thinking the bedroom floor is his wardrobe," she laughs.
"We also have two rescue dogs, Billie and Kermit, who are always bringing mud and dust into the house, but that's a small price to pay for having them – thankfully they don't chew."
- Oxfam Ireland has more than 20 shops across Northern Ireland and welcomes donations of clothes, accessories, jewellery, books, CDs, DVDs, homewares or any item of good quality. For more information on Oxfam Ireland's shops, visit: www.oxfamireland.org/shop
So, is that clutter really getting on top of you?
Kerry McLean (39) presents a show on Radio Ulster each Monday-Thursday, from 3-5pm, She lives in Ballymoney with her radio presenter husband Ralph and their children Tara (7) and Dan (6). She says:
When we moved into our house I had a guy come in and put shelves all around the study, but it still wasn't enough for Ralph's record collection. There are now piles of records on the floor and in other rooms. There are even records still in his mum's house and she wants him to come and get them, but there's nowhere for them to go.
But our clutter isn't just his fault. I cannot get rid of books. There are bookshelves in every room and we're very good at trying to find different ways of keeping them tidy although it doesn't always work.
I used to work on a programme on Radio Four where we got sent loads of books. They would sit around for a while then someone would throw them in the bin, but I couldn't bear to see them being thrown out and would rescue them. There were ridiculous titles like, The Ideal Shopping Trip With A Cat. Now, I try to swap books – I can't bring myself to throw them out or take them to the charity shop. And our kids evidently have the collecting gene, too. Tara is really into Lalaloopsy Dolls, so they are in every corner of the house while Dan is mad about Star Wars and football. Everywhere you look there are football cards, or boots or just footballs themselves.
Mind you, I think books and toys add warmth to a home. I find it strange to visit the houses of people with children and not see any toys lying around. As long as it's clean, I don't care about the clutter."
Kerry McKittrick has recently set up home in Belfast with her partner Dennis. She says:
I've been fighting a losing battle against clutter for most of my adult life. For me, there are three main problem areas – books, clothes and beauty products.
Most women know modern wardrobes just aren't big enough for most clothing collections these days. I'll see something and pounce on it, convinced that this is the very item I've been waiting for my entire life. Once I get it home I can use or wear it once or not at all. The amount of clothes in my wardrobe that have been there for months, still with price tags on them, is embarrassing.
I try to be ruthless and do regular clear outs. But the problem is I shop faster than I clear.
Discount chemists, second-hand bookshops and high street sales are my downfalls. Even my nail varnish collection has over 40 colours in it and that's after a recent clear out of 20. I don't buy them one at a time either – three for two offers are hard to resist.
My other half and I have recently moved into our first home together and now that the first flush of co-habiting is wearing off I'm beginning to realise he's worse than I am.
There are the obvious problems when amalgamating two households in that we have many, many duplicates. There are three cheese slicers, two floor brushes, four washing-up bowls and what seems like 100 glasses, not to mention several suitcases and dozens of tea towels. He is an angler and collects wine so I'm constantly tripping over fishing rods or stubbing my toe on heavy, bottle-filled cardboard boxes that just don't have a home. We have five corkscrews ranging from the simple screw-in and pull-out variety through to waiter's friends. There is also a meat smoker that's the size of a small fridge, an ice-cream maker and a meat grinder just to name a few space-eating gadgets. All of these are his.
We are trying bravely to de-clutter. There is now a permanent place for a box in the kitchen for Things Going To The Charity Shop. Sunday walks usually go past the charity clothing bank in a nearby car park. Already out the door have been three disposable rain ponchos (his) and several candle holders (mine). I haven't quite got to the point where I'm sneaking things out of the house but the computer joystick from circa 1995 is certainly marked for disposal.
Anything new must have an already allocated place before it comes through the door. I have dreams that in about a month's time the whole house will be spick, span and minimalist with a place for everything.
Hope springs eternal.
How your clutter helps others ...
Here's how you'll be helping to change lives with a donation to Oxfam:
1) The sale of a T-shirt for £5 could pay for agricultural tools, such as a hoe or spade, allowing farmers in South Sudan to re-plant and harvest crops for vital food
2) The sale of a dress for £6.50 could help purify around 2,000 litres of water, making it safe to drink for South Sudanese families living in makeshift camps
3) The sale of a shirt and tie for £12.50 could provide 50 bars of soap for 50 South Sudanese families, helping hygiene and preventing the spread of disease
4) The sale of a bedside locker from Oxfam Home for £30 could provide 1kg of Okra seeds, helping to feed families and rebuild livelihoods
Six simple steps
To help Northern Ireland 'lighten their load', Breda shares her six easy pointers for successful decluttering:
1) Become aware of what doesn't make you feel good. Your clutter threshold depends on your physical space, lifestyle and tastes
2) Plan in advance. To prevent getting quickly disillusioned, work to a simple, step-by-step system that's realistic for you
3) Be patient. Decluttering is a process that requires time, energy and a reprioritisation of what's important in your life
4) Believe you can do it. Although becoming clutter-free and organised may not come naturally, trust that you can learn these skills
5) Be honest with yourself. Let go of any guilt and follow your gut when making decisions – if in doubt, it needs to go
6) Stay focused. Keep in mind the physical transformation as well as the many holistic benefits you'll enjoy after you've decluttered
For further advice, www.thedecluttertherapist.ie