Allison Mitchell helps people sort through and systematize the keeping of their stuff. But really, she says, they’re redefining self-love.
“The irony for my clients is that they fear losing something, so they keep everything, then they lose the something they really wanted to keep,” said Mitchell, a Charlottesville-based organizing consultant for Richmond firm Abundance Organizing. “The priority of things supersedes their priority of themselves.”
A former nurse, Mitchell was always attracted to helping others, but she first saw grief-induced attachment to objects when she visited the family of a friend who had passed away. “I went to drop off a meal,” she said. “All the medicines were there; the invaluable items were left behind; the bed was in the room. I thought it would have been a great thing for the family to not have to deal with that.”
A few years later, Mitchell’s husband noticed an upcoming seminar on organizing and encouraged her to attend. The speaker’s material felt incredibly familiar to Mitchell, outlining habits and techniques she already possessed—and now that speaker is her boss.
At Abundance Organizing, “We put a system and flow together for clients,” Mitchell said. She described the practice as a combination of long-term maintenance as well as immediate overhauls, mentoring for order in collaboration with the unique needs and desires of her clients. “It’s not our way or the highway,” she said.
Her co-created solutions include color-coding objects with stickers for a visual learner and storing cereal bowls for children in cabinets where they can reach them and make their own breakfasts.
Mitchell is the first to admit, though, that there’s no magic bullet for personal organizing. But because she received her bachelor’s degree in biology, she appreciates even her negative results. “That’s just what didn’t work,” she said. “I don’t see it as a failure, just another thing we tried.”
Mitchell’s flexibility emerges by necessity. Clients range from people in gated communities to trailers, spanning all levels of education, types of families, and other situational factors like folks who are downsizing or those who are overwhelmed by the many facets of daily life. “Some people need to normalize their clutter, and some just need help in the kitchen,” Mitchell said.
Some of Mitchell’s clients do suffer brain-based issues, and she guides their process with a more clinical approach to organizing, learned during her Chronic Disorganization Specialist certification. But these individuals’ lives are very different than what you may have seen on TV. “‘Hoarders’ is not the reality of living in a chronically disordered space,” she said. “I had a traumatic brain injury client who was orderly and now has chaos because of this health crisis. There are clients who have the beginning of MS, clients with depression or anxiety.”
These days, Mitchell’s greatest professional joy is bringing light into darkness, clearing physical—and often emotional—clutter to make room for happiness. “Clients are energized when we leave, and we’re exhausted,” she said with a laugh. It’s a price she’s more than willing to pay to help others restore a lost sense of purpose and/or self-worth.
“People put such energy and anxiety into their objects, which takes it from themselves,” she said. “Do what works for you. Don’t have the guilt and the emotion attached to how that process should work. Value your own priorities. You should keep that lamp because—why? Did you sit under it while your dad read fairy tales to you?”
Mitchell explained that it often takes a fall guy, an outside person, to reassure her clients that what they really want to do—be it store bowls near the floor or throw away parents’ hand-me-downs—is a perfectly valid way to live their lives. “Our generation is so different from the one before because in generations past your inheritance was your stuff. But it’s O.K. to say no if we have the resources to purchase what we want.”
Ultimately, she said, our objects should act as conduits. “Most of your readers probably never ate on the fine china from their wedding —why not? If there are no memories associated with an object, so what if it breaks? Use it!”