Reining in Paper

Today's client was so intimidated by certain boxes in her basement that she wouldn't venture to look to see what was in them. She just knew that she didn't want to go near them. They'd been there for years.

I opened the boxes and discovered full multiple accordion files stored away in boxes. These are the plastic expandable files that have twenty to thirty pockets for papers. It turns out two previous moves ago she was overwhelmed with her papers and bought a lot of the expandable plastic accordion files as a way of making herself feel organized. She stuffed a lot of papers into these files. They gave her a temporary feeling of relief. These collapsible files ended up going into in boxes for a move and stayed there. Three years ago these files in boxes ended up in her basement and remained there unopened, until today.

She felt nauseous as I took out the first bloated file. She's not the first one to feel this way. I've worked with a lot of clients who have bought these kind of files with the hope that they would be a solution to the clutter. Maybe for some people they work and that's great, but for many they don't. Because a person is feeling overwhelmed, they are looking for way to get the papers out of their sight. Once they go into the pockets, they are often forgotten. But even though they are hidden, they still bother the person with the clutter side-effects of feeling chaotic and uncomfortable in their own home.

With today's client, I took out a few papers at a time and handed them to her. I knew she was feeling edgy and scared and I wanted her to consider as few things as possible so she could get her bearings back. She was a little shaky at first. But she was able to think clearly enough to see that these papers were not a part of her life. They were trash. She put papers either in a recycling box, or in a shredding pile.

There were eleven accordion files total. When she was done going through them, the papers filled up three recycling trash bags and one shredding box. She kept a small amount of papers that she needed. We created eight hanging file folders and labeled them and put the papers in their places. She felt so much better.

When we get overwhelmed, papers have a way of taking over. They go unchecked and become free-range paper. It can makes us feel powerless. "I can't believe I'm being dominated by paper!" It's hard on us to see the paper laying around, or knowing it's in boxes, and feeling overwhelmed and not being able to do anything about it.

That's why I made it as simple as I could for my client. She could look at one or two things at a time. We can do the same for ourselves. To leave the papers there won't help, but delving into it in pieces, and moving forward slowly towards finishing it makes it possible. I was thinking that driving home after the job. There was a blizzard here in Chicago. It was very overwhelming to not see very far through the snow and have my car slide out of control at times. So I had to go at half speed, and I had to pay attention to the feel of the car. Plus I focused on my breath. This calmed me. I could relate to what my client had been going through. I think we both felt what it was like to be very present during a difficult experience.