This Is Why People Love Marie Kondo

Deconstructing Marie Kondo's magic.

Posted Jan 21, 2019

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In the past week, several people have asked me why people love tidying guru Marie Kondo so much. What makes this an incredibly interesting question is that her approach exemplifies a lot of the most important general principles of a good "helping" relationship. Understanding these is useful if you're a professional helper, or if you're ever hiring a support person, whether that's a therapist, organizer, trainer, nanny, or stylist.

1. She judges the mess negatively, but the people positively.

Watching Marie Kondo's Netflix series, it's clear she genuinely enjoys getting to know the people she's helping. It's hard to fake that. If you're going to open up to someone about habits or issues that you feel vulnerable, ashamed, and overwhelmed about, then it's important you feel liked and accepted, even with all the baggage you're bringing. 

There are many subtle ways she communicates that she legitimately cares about the people she's assisting. For instance, in one episode, a woman asks her a question, and she says something to the effect of "Let me think about it and get back to you. I'll make that my homework." A helper who doesn't care about their clients isn't thinking about them in between sessions. Her willingness to do this, and her commitment to giving an individually tailored solution, communicates caring.

2. Her approach is prescriptive, but not suffocating.

Kondo's approach helps provide people with a clear path forward and some structure, but it's not excessively controlling. She provides a plan of attack and a framework for decision-making ("Does this item spark joy or not?"), but ultimately she leaves it up to each individual to decide what to keep and throw away. She doesn't strip people of their individuality or their agency.

3. She gets alongside people in dealing with their emotions.

In her Netflix series, Marie Kondo starts out each project with a ritual of thanking the house, and often involves the family she's working with in this. For the couples and families who have been in entrenched, long-term conflict over their messes, this radical shift in mindset often knocks them off-guard emotionally and brings a tremendous amount of emotion to the surface. By inviting people to bring their emotions into the process, she's not asking people to stuff their feelings into a box. She's able to stand alongside the individuals as their strong feelings bubble up.

There has been a lot of messaging in the last decade or so that we should care about experiences and not care about "stuff." Almost all of us have complex positive and negative attachments to our stuff, and she isn't dismissive of this. In fact, she embraces it.

4. She's authoritative.

If you're going to employ someone to help you with an issue involving heightened emotions, then it's important they show they're authoritative in their domain of expertise. Marie Kondo exudes that you can trust her and follow her lead, all with a very quiet and gentle demeanor. 

She does a great job of showing that you don't need to be loud, emotionally distant, or condescending to be authoritative. 

5. She helps people not become completely overwhelmed by their emotions.

People can't think clearly, plan, make decisions, or chip away at problems if their fight/flight/freeze system is activated. There are a lot of subtle things Marie Kondo does that help prevent people becoming completely overwhelmed by the tidying that's ahead of them. I've mentioned some of these already (she's got a plan/system, she's authoritative, and she helps people acknowledge their emotions). However, there are many other very subtle things she does that help people from becoming engulfed in their emotions.

  • Having little rules to follow can feel quite emotionally containing. Little rules (e.g., like folding items in a particular way) gives people a few less things they need to make decisions about. More broadly, from what I know about Japanese culture, there are lots of little rules that people have to follow in Japan that community members generally see as helping society run smoothly, and helping everyone contribute and feel connected. This principle can apply on a family level as well as a community level.
  • She sometimes directs couples in ways that prevent too many arguments. For example, she'll often give one member of a couple one area to focus on and the other partner a different area. There's still plenty of emotional work couples need to do together, but sometimes she'll step in so the partners don't run into conflict at every little decision point.
  • She gives people time to tell their stories about their attachments to their items and their conflicts, without butting in. She allows people to speak and waits for them to finish before speaking. This communicates caring (see #1), and it also allows people to process their emotions themselves.
  • In the Netflix series, Marie Kondo comes back and visits the families weekly while they're completing their tidying up.  This schedule is containing, because it gives people a deadline for completing the weekly homework, but it also means the families know they only have to get through a week at a time before they get another dose of support.

6. She has a positive vision, rather than the process only being about escaping negatives.

Marie Kondo's approach is about getting to the point that you enjoy your family and your home, and not just about escaping stress and conflict. It's more motivating to be heading towards an emotionally rich place than just running away from something negative. 

She also helps people see they might enjoy the process of tidying up and not just the outcome. In part, she models this when she says, "I love mess."

How You Can Use This Information

  • If you're a "helper," try using some of the principles outlined in this article. Try asking yourself: Of all the points outlined here, what are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • If you're ever hiring a therapist or other helper, try to find one that, broadly speaking, helps you in the ways I've mentioned. What I hope you see is that a helper's style might look very different from another's on the surface, but still tick the boxes outlined. For instance, there are quite a variety of ways someone can communicate caring.
  • If you're trying to help yourself, then you can also follow some of the principles here. In particular, think about how you can manage your feelings of vulnerability, how you can reduce your decision-making to a manageable level, and how you can provide the sort of acceptance and caring to yourself that a good helper would provide.

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