Tidying Up and the Twelve Steps

by Nancy Downing
July 8, 2019

I recently binge-watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and started to see many parallels between uncluttering a home and working the Twelve Steps as part of my recovery as the mom of a child with addiction.

We all have messes in our homes that we are not proud of: the junk drawer, the junk closet, the junk basement. We accumulate stuff over time and then just shove it into that junk space because we don’t want to deal with it. We are embarrassed to let others see our messes. We throw them into a closet, quickly shut the door, and avoid dealing with them because they evoke feelings of shame whenever we look at them. However, they will never go away unless we find the courage to face them.

I believe that we do the same with our emotional and spiritual lives. But instead of physical junk, we accumulate resentments, hurts, behaviors we are not proud of, negative actions toward others, and on and on. We don’t like to think about them because they remind us of how we have failed in life. However, just as in our physical homes, this clutter will remain in our souls if we don’t address it.

Emotional junk is something that everyone needs to sort through, and the Twelve Steps offer a road map for doing so. The Steps are not just for addicts. They can be an effective method for everyone to reach a more fulfilling life. We all get bogged down by this spiritual clutter, but for addicts, the consequences of suppressing and hiding spiritual messes can be immediately devastating. For the rest of us fortunate enough not to have the disease of addiction, our undealt-with messes can still lead to a more subtle erosion and devastation of our own lives.

What I love about Marie Kondo is that she approaches the tidying-up process with reverence and respect. When she first enters a home and meets the family, she asks if she can “greet” the home. She then finds a central space, kneels down, closes her eyes, and silently communicates with the home. This quiet ritual (which lasts at least thirty seconds . . . very long in TV time) brings a calm and serenity to a space that probably feels chaotic to the residents. She then opens her eyes, smiling with wide-eyed wonder, and often announces to her clients, “This is a lovely home!” This pause, as she respectfully greets the home, creates a temporal and psychic space that allows for a new appreciation and gratitude toward one’s abode.

When the residents show Marie their messes, her face never registers disgust or contempt, which is a reaction we have often seen in other reality shows. She approaches the task with enthusiasm and positivity, clapping with excitement upon seeing someone’s junk drawer and exclaiming, “I love messes!”

She then demonstrates a gentle process employing thoughtful consideration, rather than shame and coercion, to sort through the clutter. She starts with the easiest category, clothing, so that one can practice the method without too much emotional baggage. You take up the items one by one, and see if it “sparks joy.” If so, you keep it. If not, you thank it for its service, donate it, then move on. This brilliant act of thanking the item not only alleviates the great guilt we often feel for getting rid of items we never use, but it slowly engenders a feeling of gratitude toward all that we have. One client asked about a brand-new shirt that she never wore, bought years ago and with the original labels still attached. Marie explained that you thank the shirt for teaching you that it is not an item that you need.

So how does the Marie Kondo method apply to working the Steps? During Step workshops, I have found that many of us beat ourselves up for past actions and failures, especially those related to our addicted children. It is so difficult for us to examine our shortcomings and even harder to let them go. But if we don’t, they will continue to haunt us.

Following Marie Kondo’s example, we begin by treating ourselves with respect and reverence, taking that quiet moment to appreciate the wonder that is our very being, the home of our soul. An adjustment in attitude can take away all the scariness of the self-examination process. Over time, we sit with each memory, hold it in our hearts, and see if it sparks joy or, rather, whether we feel good about how we acted. If not, we thank that particular memory for the lesson that it taught us and for showing us how to become a better person. Then we let it go. No more guilt, no more shame.

I found that employing the Marie Kondo method infuses the self-examination process with love and respect for ourselves and our lives. We can look upon past events with gratitude, for both the joyful and the painful. Her method is particularly useful for Step Eight, which is “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” Being “willing” requires a calm and accepting spiritual state and the courage to proceed to the reconciliation of Step Nine. The Marie Kondo approach alleviates the fear and eases the process.

Once we learn to accept, love, and forgive ourselves, it is so much easier to do so for others, especially our addicted children.

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Nancy Downing

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    • Thank you!

      • This was a very helpful article. Thank you. I think it could also apply to other mental illnesses but the combination of addiction in a family member and mental illness of the member’s spouse still has me tied in knots.

        • Carolyn, you’re so right, there’s a lot of overlap…the truths can be applied in plenty of other areas. So glad you found help in this article. xoxoxox

  1. Thank you, I tried to forward this article to my sponsor group but the email article button is broken.

  2. I love this article, I too thought of the steps when I read this book! It is so aligned. The saying goodbye to things that no longer give us joy or serve us, thanking for the lesson or the time spent owning it, and the letting go even with some feelings of wanting it back but knowing it has served us and it’s time. These steps I’ve added into my life with my move to Rocky Point and I entered this chapter with just what I wanted and feel great about what I let go of.

    • Lori, so touched that you felt what I felt. There are so many similarities between all of us moms. Thanks for reaching out. xoxoxo

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