Marie Kondo has been sparking a lot of chatter thanks to her trademark tidying methods.
Following the release of her new Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” the tidying expert faced some criticism from folks online who took issue with her suggestion to pare down their book collections. Others weren’t so fond of her popular “spark joy” concept, which encourages people to keep only the things that make them happy, as opposed to encouraging people to just buy less stuff.
Another method that stands out is the act of thanking each individual item ― whether it’s a shirt or a pair of shoes ― for serving its purpose before getting rid of it. We couldn’t help but wonder if this concept is helpful on a psychological level.
So, we spoke to several experts to get some answers.
First, let’s look at where the idea comes from in the first place.
According to Kondo, who spoke to HuffPost via email, there’s an element of animism ingrained in Japanese culture, “which believes every object has a soul.”
“This idea is incorporated in the KonMari Method as expressing gratitude to your belongings for taking care of you,” she said. “If you are letting go of an item, giving thanks is also a way of properly saying goodbye, so that you can mark the end of your relationship with the item and release it without guilt. It’s a way to recognize your relationship with your possessions.”
Dr. Yuko Hanakawa, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied aspects of Shintoism, told HuffPost, “In Shintoism, it is believed that all things, including objects, have spirits, thoughts or feelings in them according to kinds of energies that we humans put into [them].”
“The more you pay positive attention or respect, the more positively energized they become; if you are treating some objects negatively or neglecting them, they would become energetically negative,” she said. “By treating your items with respect, kindness and gratitude, you are enhancing the spirit of the given item. ... From that perspective, by saying ‘thank you,’ you are respecting the spirit of the items that you’re letting go of with gratitude, instead of getting rid of them with negativity or force.”
There’s another cultural belief in Japan called “mottainai,” which is a mindfulness around not being wasteful. Mio Yokoi, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto, Canada, told HuffPost that in Japan, it’s not unusual to take “immaculate care” of items.
“I believe that Kondo was able to combine the mindfulness and thoughtfulness of the ‘mottainai’ mindset and a system of decluttering, which is both practical in providing the ‘how to’ and also begins to address the emotional attachment many of us have to our things,” Yokoi said.
Does thanking your things before getting rid of them actually help?
The experts we spoke to had some positive things to say about this particular method of Kondo’s, though they pointed out holes in the logic.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist in New York City, explained that saying “thank you” can help people get rid of their belongings “because it sidesteps the idea that you have to disavow something.”
She said that if a person is having trouble getting rid of something in the first place, there’s a chance it’s because it was connected to their identity in some way. “Otherwise there wouldn’t even be any question about it. You’d just throw it out without even thinking about it,” she said.
“But if you’re to the point with your clutter where you’re having these issues of attachment to an item that you’re trying to overcome, then saying thank you to it is almost like you’re giving a sense of positive recognition to the part of yourself that this item once helped,” she added.
Karen Wilkening, a certified professional organizer who’s dubbed herself “The Declutter Therapist,” agreed with Carmichael, saying that she believes “gratitude in general and appreciation help bring a mindfulness to our stuff.”
“I would say, especially in America, we tend to take for granted the mountains of stuff that we have,” she said. “So, shifting to gratitude and appreciation is a state of becoming more aware and present to our relationship to our stuff.”
Wilkening said that while she does sometimes incorporate Kondo’s methods into her own work, she doesn’t tell her clients to thank every single one of their things before getting rid of them. If, however, a client is intrigued by Kondo’s techniques, she said she might tell them to do it occasionally as it can “shift the way we’re thinking about stuff.”
Hanakawa agreed with Wilkening, noting that when we feel gratitude toward our personal items, we also feel gratitude toward certain parts of ourselves, as we all project ourselves onto the items we have. Feeling gratitude can have a positive impact in our well-being, Hanakawa said.
But Kondo’s methods — particularly this display of gratitude — are not a solution for everyone.
Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist based in New York, wasn’t as convinced about thanking your things, explaining that the method (as well as Kondo’s others) is a simplistic tool that could be useful, “assuming nothing more complex is going on.”
Saying thank you, Rabinowitz said, is not “a psychologically helpful thing,” nor is it necessary, but “it’s one way of giving people a tool to say, ‘I’m ready to let go of this object.’”
“If you don’t have a plan for how to organize, it’s a nice system. There are many nice systems. And I think she’s touched on a nerve in our world today where there’s a lot of consumerism and a focus on [the idea of] ‘the more I have, the better,’” she continued. “[Kondo]’s kind of pushing back against that, which I think is very appealing in our cultural world right now.”
But, she said, if someone is dealing with a more severe underlying mental health issue that’s impairing their decision-making skills, Kondo’s methods probably aren’t going to be the answer to their problems. For example, having an excessively cluttered home, Rabinowitz said, could be indicative of poor organizational skills or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or in more extreme cases, depression or hoarding disorder.
Yokoi also added that “individuals with perfectionistic tendencies or who may be more highly sensitive to shame might either have difficulties working with Kondo’s methods or being able to maintain it.”
Those who have a more complicated relationship to their belongings might benefit more from personalized or customized support, she said.
Wilkening elaborated on those points. She brought up an episode of “Tidying Up” in which the individual appeared to be bordering on hoarding disorder, in her opinion. That episode featured a huge gap in the decluttering process, Wilkening noted.
“She was in resistance, she wasn’t having fun, then all of the sudden in the next interview, she was like, ‘This is so powerful, I’m getting through it,’ and obviously she got some major support there, but you don’t see it,” Wilkening said. “There are people who struggle a lot more, that have low self-esteem and a lot of self-confusion, and you really have to walk them through [the process] very slowly and completely.”
To add some context, HuffPost previously reported that each episode of “Tidying Up” happens over four to six weeks, and that includes a whole-home cleanup, while a typical outpatient behavioral therapy program lasts over 5 months.
What you see on the show, Wilkening added, are “people that are able to do it on their own.”
“She goes, ‘OK, here’s your big mountain of stuff on your bed, I’ll [help you] for a couple hours, but you’re supposed to have this done by the time I come back,’” Wilkening said. “There aren’t that many clients of mine that could do that.”
At the end of the day, Kondo’s methods aren’t for everyone, and to be fair, she knows that. But if you find it helpful to thank your belongings before getting rid of them, do it. If not, don’t. Like Rabinowitz said, there are plenty of systems people use to declutter. Kondo’s is just one.