Why I Keep So Much Stuff I Don’t Need: Life Lessons from a Closet De-Cluttering

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A few months ago, I listened to an episode of The 5AM Miracle Podcast featuring guest Joshua Becker, creator of the website Becoming MinimalistIn the interview, Becker recounts the story of how and why he went from leading a typical suburban lifestyle to embracing a philosophy of minimalism. He describes the ways in which paring down his possessions has enabled him and his family to live more fully and create more physical, mental, and emotional space for the things that truly matter. Intrigued, I jotted down the title of his new book, The More of Less, on my “to read” list. If nothing else, I thought, getting rid of some stuff will make my upcoming cross-country move far more manageable.

So last week, when I found myself wandering the aisles of my local public library (a characteristically Paige pastime), I thought of the book and decided to see if it was available. It was, so along with a Jodi Picoult novel and a biography of the Blessed Mother (a characteristically Paige combination of reading material), I checked it out.

Thanks to Becker’s charismatic writing style, I was only a few chapters in before I began to experience the overwhelming urge to chuck my belongings out the window and start a new life free from the chains of clutter and consumerism. Today, my closet, tomorrow, the world! And within 24 hours of starting the book, I actually began chucking stuff. I yanked piles and piles of possessions from my drawers and shelves, only putting back the things I truly wanted to have around. I was the Sorting Hat of crap and tchotchkes, carefully discerning whether each item rightfully belonged in the House of Keep, Donate, or Sayonara Buckeroo

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“Hmmm, very difficult. A great deal of nostalgia, I see…Not overly large, either. And yet, rather lacking in utility. Better be…Donate!”

But Becker’s book is about more than just getting rid of things; he also emphasizes the importance of understanding why we, as a society, tend to accumulate so much stuff in the first place. He explains, for example, that we all have an innate need for security and often attempt to satisfy this need with material goods. In addition, most of us are more vulnerable than we’d like to admit to the persuasive tactics of the media and advertising industries. Becker’s insights prompted me to further examine my own personal motivations for keeping so much stuff around, particularly when it comes to things I don’t use or even like all that much. So in addition to security needs and sneaky ads, I came up with several viable explanations:

1. I hold onto things because I like to be prepared, and you never know when you might need [insert item that is actually pointless in 99.9% of scenarios]. Remember when I admitted to toting around the contents of a small convenience store in my purse just in case? Yup. If I were a superhero, I’d probably be Preparedness Girl–able to develop a checklist in the blink of an eye! (Not overly endearing or catchy, I know, but we can’t all be Wonder Woman.)

So as I went through my stuff, I found that I still had, among other useless things, each and every one of my notebooks from my high school French class–because what if I finally plan my dream trip to Provence someday and want to parler a little francais while I’m there? What then?!

I’ll download an app or a podcast, that’s what. Au revoir, French notes.

2. I hold onto things that make me feel like I could be anyone or anything. I’m still working on the whole “accepting myself for who I am” deal, as I bet you are, too. (And if you do happen to have this figured out, please visit my Contact page and let me in on your secret.) In the meantime, I tend to hold onto things that really aren’t “me,” because I want to think that they’re “me,” or could be “me” someday.

All of which is a long way of saying that I had not one, not two, but three different shades of blue eye shadow because heck, maybe someday I’ll be That Girl who knows how to pull it off.

The blue eye shadow doesn’t represent a look so much as a persona that I have always wanted to channel: the girl who takes risks, who wears what she likes, and who is unafraid to be herself and stand out in the process. And that’s not a bad thing by any means. But on a practical level, guys, I don’t even like how I look in blue eye shadow. Warm colors are a far more flattering accompaniment to my skin tone.

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Totally awesome…On someone else.

So one by one I toss out the blues but vow to hang onto the spirit behind them. As such, I keep my vintage Mickey Mouse sweater, and my cat cardigan, and my elephant scarf, and my leg warmers, and my fake red glasses. Because I wear and treasure these items on a regular basis, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. They honor who I am now, not who I might be–or feel like I should try to be–someday. I guess that’s kind of edgy after all.

3. I hold onto things because they bring to life cherished memories–and given the uncertainty of the future, I want to hold tight to any and every reminder of happy times. Woah. This realization really hit me hard. In my last post I described why I tend to harbor so much anxiety regarding the future, but prior to the Great Purge, I hadn’t realized how much my fears have driven me to stockpile items from my past. I discovered souvenirs and trinkets from countless experiences, ranging from the memorable to the mundane–my childhood state quarters collection, piles of free t-shirts from random events throughout college, a plastic trophy from a 5K I ran in high school, an old favorite scarf that I never wear anymore, the ticket stub from a One Direction concert, a fancy pen from an awards ceremony, dozens of cards and letters from friends and family over the years–and on and on.

In some of these cases, it was truly difficult to decide what to keep and what to toss. After all, I want to get rid of the excess stuff–the stuff that doesn’t serve me or bring me any joy–not pare down my belongings to nothing more than a mattress and a toothbrush. And some of the crap and tchotchkes really do enrich my life. So ultimately, I chose to keep the handwritten notes that warm my heart every time I read them, but I tossed the trophy, donated the scarf and t-shirts to Goodwill, and deposited the state quarters in my bank account (like a real adult!). These latter items were simply taking up space and collecting dust, and I already feel lighter (not to mention $12.50 richer) without them.

4.  I hold onto things because I want people to like me and I worry that I, alone, am not enough. Yikes! Another deep and not-so-flattering revelation. If I don’t have trendy clothes, or chic apartment decor, or fancy kitchen equipment that allows me to whip up unpronounceable appetizers to impress party guests (you know, should I actually decide to throw a party), then no one will want to hang out with me, right?

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Because who would deign to join me for tea if I didn’t serve it out of the world’s cutest teapot, on my magazine-worthy garden patio, while wearing my Sunday best?

Uhhh, maybe in a TV commercial or a parallel universe, but not in my world. People who like me for me won’t care what I’m wearing or what my apartment looks like, and people who care about those things aren’t the kind of folks I’d like to be friends with anyway, thanks. But more importantly, regardless of whether everybody loves me, hates me, or couldn’t care less, I am enough. Material items may affect my net worth, but they bear no relation to my true worth as a human being. The same goes for you, dear reader. I think we all need to be reminded of that every once in a while.

I still have quite a ways to go on this journey towards a less cluttered lifestyle, in terms of owning less, acquiring less, and ultimately, wanting less. I’m not even close to the enlightened phase in which I can stroll down the aisles of Target and not experience a burning desire to buy all the things, and I doubt that I’ll ever be a diehard minimalist with only a few dozen possessions to my name. But after tackling just my bedroom and bathroom, I already feel less encumbered and more in tune with myself. I can definitely see how clearing out physical space also creates a lot of untapped room in the mind and heart, and I look forward to continuing on this path. I’ll keep ya posted. 

Do you tend to hold onto things you don’t need or want? Why do you think that is? 

What’s your best advice for deciding when it’s time to get rid of something–and then actually following through with your decision?

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The Social Media Comparison Trap (And How to Avoid It)

The Social Media Comparison Trap (And How to Avoid It) | A quick scroll through Facebook or Instagram can leave us feeling down on ourselves if we aren't careful. Here's what we should--and shouldn't--do to remind ourselves that no one's life is as perfect as it looks online.

Have you ever taken a look through your own Facebook archives?

Being the nostalgia junkie that I am, I actually love revisiting old posts and pics every once in awhile. And unlike with other social media platforms, I’ve been on Facebook for long enough now that my account history actually encompasses a significant portion of my life. Recently, as I was taking one of these virtual strolls down memory lane, I noticed something interesting that I hadn’t before.

I realized that, in addition to questionable fashion choices circa 2008 (plaid Bermuda shorts, anyone?), my early Facebook profile was characterized by content that is far less filtered than the stuff I post today. My status updates were more frequent and mundane, my “about me” page included dozens of goofy quotes from family members and friends that made sense only to me, and my photos were far less, er, complimentary. (Heck, my very first profile pic featured my younger sister and me throwing up peace signs and making duck faces before it was cool. Luckily the plaid Bermudas were cropped out of this particular gem.) The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of my friends’ profiles were once quite similar. In those early days of Facebook, we were all just learning what it meant to share our lives with others online, and share–and overshare–we did. We had yet to fully realized our capability to curate content in order to project a certain image of ourselves to the world; instead, our Facebook walls (precursors to today’s Facebook timelines) were filled with the things we liked, found entertaining, or simply wanted to remember someday, regardless of whether our resulting profile made us look cool or interesting or beautiful or smart.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I’m not hoping to portray us all as perfectly authentic then (we weren’t) or incredibly shallow now (we aren’t), nor am I implying that all of these changes have been unfavorable. Let’s be real, I’m grateful that true “status updates” (you know, the kind where we provide a play-by-play of every waking minute of our lives) have become largely passé, and I don’t think that the world is any worse for its lack of Facebook albums consisting entirely of unflattering Paige selfies. (I could be wrong, though.) However, I do believe that social media can strongly influence how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, and I know that personally, the more others’ online lives look like an unending stream of grand accomplishments, fun outings, and perfect hair days, the more I struggle with comparisons and self-doubt.

It’s tricky, though, because I do want to know when my loved ones do awesome things so I can celebrate and congratulate. And I do like seeing beautiful images to uplift and inspire me in today’s often dark and ugly world. But because it’s so easy to convince myself that whatever I’m seeing is the entire story, frequent exposure to a constant highlight reel leaves me with a skewed sense of reality. After all, that Insta-worthy photo of a friend’s pastry and latte at a chic cafe rarely comes with a disclaimer that this is not his or her everyday routine. Those updates from a neighbor’s tropical getaway vacation don’t detail the stress and financial sacrifice that went into planning the trip or the arguments that occurred during the car or plane ride there. Those fairytale wedding photos make it easy to overlook the months or years of hard work, compromise, and tears that the couple has invested in the relationship–and will have to continue investing until death do them part. The caption on that flawless selfie doesn’t indicate how many attempts or filters went into achieving the shot or remind us that even Hottie McHotterson has days when his or her look isn’t #onfleek.

When we juxtapose our own messy stories to only the neat and tidy chapters of others’ lives, it’s no surprise that we often arrive at the conclusion that we’re doing something wrong or that we’ve failed in some way. So I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to balance out the picture of perfection we so often see projected online, especially if we find ourselves tempted to play this comparison game. But how?

First, a how not: The answer isn’t that we should start sharing our every unfiltered thought and experience with the online world. Many of us have hundreds of friends and followers on social media, and there are struggles and secrets that should be entrusted with only our inner circles. I’ve also seen enough vicious comment sections to believe that some version of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” can and should be practiced more often online. (We should certainly speak the truth and stand up for our beliefs, but if we can’t do it respectfully, we need to cool off a bit until we can. You know, check yo’self before you wreck yo’self.)

Instead, I think that the best approach is rather simple: decreasing the amount of time we spend on social media and increasing the amount of time we spend connecting with others in real life, preferably in person. And I’m talking truly connecting here– not just a quick “Hi, how are you?” but rather a genuine conversation about real issues and stories in all their shades of gray. This is easier said than done, of course; actually finding time to spend with people is a challenge in today’s busy world, while Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are almost always just a click or tap away. But making these shifts has helped me immensely in remembering that I’m not alone in my imperfection or even in the way that social media can sometimes make me feel. And whereas I’ve often regretted the minutes and hours of mindless newsfeed scrolling, I wouldn’t trade a single heart-to-heart with a family member, close friend, or mentor for the world. 

Do you ever find yourself comparing your life to the lives of others on social media? What strategies help you to maintain perspective?

Life Under Construction: Pursuing Authenticity Over Perfection

Life Under Construction: Pursuing Authenticity Over Perfection | We shouldn't wait until we have everything figured out to starting letting people into our lives.

The parking garage next door to my church is currently being bulldozed, so on my way to mass this morning, I walked by a fenced off pile of rubble with a sign reading DEMOLITION AREA: DO NOT ENTER. At first I thought nothing of it; Indiana roads have undergone so much construction over the past year that you routinely have to take a detour to get to your detour. People joke that the government is going to have to change the state flower to an orange construction cone. So at first glance, the sign seemed like nothing remarkable. But as I re-read the words, it hit me that the phrase DEMOLITION AREA: DO NOT ENTER captured, with uncanny accuracy, my general approach to life.

Even though I know that all of us are constantly growing and changing–we’re people “under construction,” if you will–for as long as I can remember, I’ve acted as though someday the work will be complete and then my life can really begin. In the meantime, though, I have to be careful not to let anyone witness the mess or trip over the rubble. Don’t stop by and visit until I’ve had time to clean my apartment from top to bottom! Don’t snap a photo or even look at me until I’ve had a chance to put on makeup and style my hair! Don’t ask for my opinion until I’ve done all my background research and composed an intelligent, nuanced response! And don’t get to know me until I’ve fixed all my brokenness and smoothed out all my rough edges, because right now my life is an occupational hazard, and one (or both) of us might get hurt if you get too close. It’s best for all of us if you just keep your distance.

Or so I thought. It turns out that (spoiler alert) this is an exhausting and unfulfilling way to live. Sure, maybe a few people will fall for the act and think you have everything together and possibly even admire you for your perceived ability to “do it all,” but in the end, the time, energy, and worry you spend in the process will hardly be worth the approval of a few acquaintances. And the people who fall for it will be acquaintances, because you can’t have any sort of close, meaningful relationship when you’re separated from the other person by orange cones and chain-link fences.

So I want to stop living this way. I no longer want DO NOT ENTER to be my life motto. I’m not sure of the best way to go about it, so I’d appreciate any ideas that you, dear reader, may have to offer. In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself of a totally obvious yet brilliant statement my therapist once made: “Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean that the thought is true.” So next time I’m tempted to push someone away until I feel like I have my act together or postpone an experience until I feel 110% prepared, I will try to assess the accuracy of my thought processes rather than automatically throwing up the DEMOLITION AREA sign. For example, how likely is it that family members or friends dropping by on short notice will actually make harsh judgements regarding the tidiness of my apartment? Not very. Instead, it is far more likely that my loved ones won’t even notice the dusty blinds or full trash can, or that they will notice but not think any less of me for it. And most importantly, their reaction, whether positive, negative, or neutral, will have absolutely no bearing on my worthiness as a human being. BOOM. Paige: 1, irrational thoughts: 0.

So tell me, friends: What are your suggestions for living life fully, even when you’re “under construction”?

 

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I’m Done Letting It Stop Me)

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I'm Done Letting It Stop Me) | Anxiety is uncomfortable, but we can't let it keep us from telling our stories.

Today was an anxiety day.

My therapist, Nicole, would probably prompt me to describe my anxiety in terms of where I’m feeling it in my body, what it looks like, etc. She’d encourage me to “lean in” to the discomfort rather than turning and running away, to “talk” to the feeling and ask what it needs from me.

Although I always feel a bit silly playing this game, it’s surprisingly helpful. So I would respond that the anxiety is in my stomach–right alongside fear and sadness and all of my negative emotions, apparently. But unlike the sadness and the fear, which tend to take the form of big, bulky shapes in dark, foreboding colors (like slate gray or deep purple), the anxiety is a fluttery, feathery thing in pale blue. It’s like crepe paper blowing in the wind, except far less festive. The more I think about it and “lean in,” the more rapid the fluttering becomes, and the uneasiness in my stomach escalates from a simmer to a rapid boil. And I have no clue what it needs from me because I’m not even sure exactly what’s causing it.

Well, that’s not totally true. I could probably venture an educated guess: I just returned from a 2-week vacation only to be slammed with stress and conflict at work (doubly awful on a jet-lagging brain); I miss my long-distance boyfriend like crazy and don’t know when I’ll see him next; and, oh yeah, I just graduated with my master’s degree last month and have no idea what I’m doing with my life from now on. And quite honestly, I’m so tired and worn down from earning said degree that I’m not even feeling all that motivated to figure it out. Rather than job searching or soul searching, I’d rather search for the nearest pillow and take a nap.

So yeah, that’s probably some of why today was an anxiety day.

And although I keep feeling the urge to write about it all, I also keep hesitating to do so. Sometimes I push aside the urge to write in favor of doing “real” work, something that will make me feel productive when I cross it off my to-do list. Other times I push aside the urge because I don’t have the energy to put my thoughts into words, or at least words that sound good, and being the perfectionist that I am, good isn’t good enough. And sometimes I push aside the urge in favor of doing other things for other people and convincing myself that “me time” is overrated and narcissistic anyway.

But I want to stop making excuses. I want to stop worrying about writing something elegant and start focusing on writing something real. I want to stop acting like I’m superhuman and don’t need breaks and start allowing myself to be the vulnerable, limited, imperfect human being that I actually am. What I write may not always be pretty or make sense or result in a publishable post. But I’m tired of letting anxiety stop me, of letting it rob me of my happiness, my motivation, my creativity, and my joie de vivre. I’m tired of letting anxiety win. Quite frankly, I’m just tired.

So listen up, you fluttery, feathery, pale blue thing that has taken up residence in the pit of my stomach: Don’t get too comfortable. I’m telling my story, and you can’t stop me.