Interview with Michelle Passoff
by Pamela Gerloff
When I asked members of More Than Money's email discussion
group to share their thoughts about "the art of giving," the
conversation quickly turned to a discussion about too much
stuff and what to do with it. This led me to wonder about
the relationship between clutter and giving. As a professional
"declutterer" who takes a philosophical as well as a practical
approach to decluttering, do you have thoughts on that?
thing that comes to mind is that when you have nothing in
the way, you can be who you really are. When you have nothing
left to perfect in your physical environment, you have a
chance to reflect on yourself. You are not distracted. This
reflection can lead you to be yourself and express yourself
in an authentic way-and to me, that's the highest form of
Many profound things happen in the course
of cleaning your clutter. For one thing, you build confidence.
Often, people don't have confidence because they are scattered
and disorganized. When they get their clutter in shape,
they have greater self-esteem. They are also able to express
themselves more openly to other people, because they're
not afraid to show who they are. This self-confidence can
enable people to be clearer and bolder about the giving
that they do.
On a practical level, your clutter contains
a lot of things you don't want but that are useful to others,
like clothes that no longer fit or books you won't read
again. You can donate those to charities and turn what you
don't want into opportunities for others.
For the more valuable items, such as artwork,
jewelry, or family heirlooms, it's very helpful to inventory
and appraise what you have. You can use that knowledge to
make sound choices about where you want your physical belongings
to go when you're gone. It makes estate planning clear,
it's good for insurance purposes, and it leaves a legacy
Even when you're gone, the clutter is not
gone; it's not buried with you. So you want to ask yourself,
"What is the legacy I'm leaving?" When you have your own
house in order, you free the next generation from the burdens
of having to reconcile your life. That is a gift. One of
the questions I am asked most often is, "What am I going
to do with all this stuff of my mother's?" I've seen people
burdened for years because they had to deal with stuff that
other generations left for them to handle. They can't tell
if that little vase is something from the Ming Dynasty or
if someone got it at a flea market. In such cases, the things
that are inherited become an emotional and physical burden,
not an asset. It's hard to face your own mortality, but
you want to leave in a way that is life-giving for others.
In your book,
you told of a client who had gotten rid of his clutter and
organized all his papers related to a company he had sold,
so that he could pass them along in an orderly way to the
new owner. You said that by doing that, he "made room to
restructure his finances so that his charitable giving reflected
his benevolence." Would you say more about that?
as a mirror. It allows you to see your situation clearly.
That client, in the process of cleaning his clutter, was
forced to recognize that his finances were in disarray.
Moreover, they were not accurately reflecting his true benevolence
and intentions. As he organized his records, he set some
new financial priorities. He decided that he no longer wanted
to organize his life around earning money, choosing instead
to focus on using his resources to make a difference for
others. All that happened because he cleaned out his clutter.
Cleaning clutter also frees up creativity,
and that's part of what happened for him. Clutter drains
you of energy. If you see that your will needs to be rewritten
or your estate needs to be restructured, cleaning your clutter
can release creative energy, which then becomes available
to do those things. As you clean your clutter, you open
up space for something new to emerge: some quality or thing
that you actually want in your life. If, for example, generosity
is an expression of who you really are and want to be, it
shows up in the empty space.
Given all the
benefits of clutter-clearing, should everyone clear clutter?
a "should." There is no judgment here. To be human is to
have clutter. We all have a complexity of things that are
incomplete, unfinished, or unclear. It's a process, and
there is no end to it. I think it's worthwhile to keep bringing
yourself up to a new level. You become more buoyant by shedding
what's no longer relevant in your life, and being conscious
of what you're doing. To me, clutter clearing is a consciousness-raising
It is also a continual process of completion.
You are taking something to its final conclusion. Completing
something in the physical dimension gives you practice that
you naturally apply to other levels-the emotional level,
for example. It's like exercising in a gym-you just keep
on doing it. As you complete each clutter-cleaning task,
you begin to complete at other levels. You might return
a phone call now, rather than later, for example, or clear
up a disagreement you had with a friend right away, instead
of waiting. You keep pressing yourself to complete. There
is a conscious and an unconscious peacefulness that comes
when you have completed something. So, when you complete
things, you are giving peace- to yourself first, and then
that peace is felt by others.
You operate from
the premise that physical clutter is connected to your spiritual
and emotional self.
Yes. I view
clutter as something that blocks you. If you can't get your
hands on the emotional or spiritual blocks that it's connected
to, you can start clearing clutter at the physical level.
You let go of what's irrelevant. As you do that in the physical
domain, it impacts other areas.
I was thinking
that if your physical clutter is connected, at least metaphorically,
to other levels of yourself- emotional, mental, and spiritual-perhaps
you can deliberately engage with it as a kind of biofeedback
tool. That is, clutter would indicate areas of your life
that you want to improve. As you clean your clutter, you
know you are also "cleaning up" some of those other areas.
Where clutter remains, you know you have more work to do
on the emotional or spiritual level.
seems to be a non-linear relationship between cleaning your
clutter and what begins to happen in the rest of your life
when you do. You might clear up your paperwork one day and
get new calls for business the next. You might empty out
a closet of clothes and get a creative idea for the charity
work you are doing. Sometimes mysterious things happen when
you straighten out entanglements in your physical world.
That's why I urge people to approach cleaning clutter with
a sense of adventure-you never know what's going to happen.
Yet you also
advise people to be deliberate and specific about the outcome
they want to achieve by cleaning their clutter.
Yes. I ask
people to decide what they're making room for when they
clean, before they start. It might be making room for a
new job, or for something to happen, or even to excel at
your tennis game.
How about clarity
about where you want to give your money?
Yes. Or let's
say you want to make a difference in the lives of people
with disabilities, or you want children who need homes to
find them. You don't know how that might occur or how you're
going to express that intention, but you go about cleaning
with that in mind. Things will come up as you clean that
empower and support your intention. You might find a piece
of paper with a telephone number on it, or you may come
up with an idea of how to accomplish that goal, or someone
may call you out of the blue. What you've shifted within
yourself by cleaning your physical environment shows up
around that intention.
Have you or your
clients had that experience?
For instance, I have a client I have worked with through
several major life changes. She is a philanthropic person
who raises money to support her community and political
interests. As we worked together to clean her clutter we
carried around a box marked "Run for Office," which expressed
her intention for her clutter clearing. She wanted to run
for office, instead of being the power behind the scenes-but
she was timid about taking that leap. I am proud to say
that she ran for political office for the first time this
year. Cleaning her clutter helped transform her fantasy
of running for office into a dream come true.
In another case, a client was not shy about
saying she was making room for a husband as she cleaned.
In the process of clearing her clutter, she decided to take
a teaching sabbatical in Australia. Guess where she lives
now? In Melbourne with her husband!
The stories go on and on. They are stories
about people who replace their clutter with accomplishment.
I don't do what I do because I'm interested in being neat
and tidy, but because it makes room for focus and fulfillment
to show up in the empty space that is created when we clean
Some of the stories
you recount make the process sound almost magical.
you wonder. I think there is a lot to be said for being
intentional. You can actually take away the task itself
and use your intention alone to get similar results, if
your intention is strong and clear enough.
I have certainly
experienced the power of focused intention, but the process
you're describing sounds almost like a game.
Yes, it is
a game! It can be playful and fun.
So we can play
the clutter-cleaning game-
and see what benefits it has. The biggest gift you get out
of it is yourself. And then you have the freedom to give
yourself. Everything else is the icing on the cake.
In 1991 Michelle Passoff, formerly a
journalist, corporate communications editor, and public
relations consultant, founded Lighten Up! Free Yourself
from Clutter, a service that offers tools for people who
want to live free of clutter. Her book of the same name
treats cleaning clutter not as a burdensome chore but as
a transformational experience. In 2003, Ms. Passoff co-founded,
with Andre Kupfermunz, Estate Organization and Resolution
Services, Inc. to help clients organize their estates so
they can leave a legacy instead of a mess.
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