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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Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences | Sometimes the best way to move forward is to give ourselves permission to grieve experiences and identities from our past.

I’ve always loved a good, sad, heart-wrenching love song, and I think I finally realized why.

Interestingly, it’s not because I’ve actually experienced a terrible break-up. Although I’ve had my fair share of crushes, dates, and awkward romantic encounters that I’m hoping we’ll all laugh about in 10 years, I don’t have any actual ex-boyfriends. And although I can certainly relate to the pain of having unreciprocated feelings for someone (I was the mayor of Friend Zone City from 2006-2014), I can’t relate to what it’s like to be hurt by someone who actually told me he loved me. As a result, my affinity for melancholy music puzzled me for a long time (and probably freaked out my current boyfriend). But last week, as I was driving to work and listening to Bring on the Night, a beautiful, brave, and tragic tune from The Corrs’ latest album, it occurred to me that break-up songs don’t just help us get over romantic relationships. These melodies are there for us as we mourn all kinds of losses and cope with all sorts of pain: friendships that end with bitter words and cold silences, as well as those that simply fade over the years as everyone grows up and grows apart; identities we shed like snakeskin in order to adapt to our continually changing circumstances; and memories so golden and sweet that we wonder if maybe the best years of our lives really are behind us.

For me, one of the hardest parts of growing up has been learning to allow myself to mourn these losses in healthy and productive ways. I tend to swing to one extreme or the other: I either bottle up my feelings and tell myself to get over it and quit living in the past, or I let the grief consume me and color my present circumstances with longing and regret. I also tend to focus so much on what I no longer have that I neglect to celebrate what I have gained in the process. So today, I’m cranking the sad tunes and pouring my heart out, in hopes that putting my thoughts in writing will help me to reflect on these losses (or perceived losses) in new ways, to swim through the sadness and, rather than drowning in it, come out on the other side.

One loss I continually struggle with is that of my identity as a musician. I played the piano from age 6-16 and the viola from age 11-15, until I no longer had time in my busy high school schedule for adequate practice. Giving up these instruments was not a decision I made lightly, and to this day, a part of me aches whenever I am reminded of this former me, perhaps by the sound of a string quartet or the sight of a grand piano (swoon). I miss the duets and life chats with my piano teacher; I miss filling the rooms of my house with music and silently tapping out scales and arpeggios on my desk at school; I miss mastering the classics that have delighted for centuries and figuring out catchy new pop songs from the radio by ear; and most of all, I miss having a way to speak when words weren’t sufficient, a means of allowing my feelings to fly directly from my heart to the keys or the strings without having to go through my overly anxious and analytical brain first.

And yes, I realize that music can most certainly be a lifelong passion, and that in theory, I can pick up playing again whenever I choose and take my instruments with me wherever I go. However, as I get older and begin to see my adult life filling up with other responsibilities and pursuits, the more I begin to doubt whether I will ever regain my identity as a musician, or whether I should even strive to do so. It would take a considerable amount of work, as my “music brain” is rusty, my fingers have lost their former ease and dexterity, and I no longer have weekly lessons and yearly recitals to provide structure and motivation. In addition, there are so many places I want to go and things I want to learn and people I want to spend time with that I don’t know how playing an instrument–let alone two–will fit in. I’m not saying that I’ll never sit down at a piano or pick up my viola again, but I also don’t want to promise myself that I will, at least not on a regular basis. But no matter what, I am eternally grateful for those years of musical exploration and expression and for everyone who supported me along the way.

Another loss I mourn is that of my athletic side. (I always hesitate to refer to my former self as an “athlete,” since I never played an organized sport; when people at the gym used to ask me what I was training for, I would laugh and say “life.”) Prior to a string of injuries and health issues that have kept me largely sedentary for the past 4 years, I spent hours on the road, on the bike, on the mat, and in the pool. I was determined to overcome the perceived lack of athleticism that had haunted me throughout years of elementary and middle school gym classes, and in the process I honed my strength and speed and flexibility until I was able to out-run and out-push-up many of the other girls and boys. (My ability to throw, catch, and kick is a different, and far more comical, story…)  The gym was my second home, and I owned more workout clothes than regular clothes. When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I loved to spend time creating new workout playlists or catching up on the latest issue of Runner’s World. I had incredible energy levels without drinking a single cup of coffee and was far more focused and relaxed in school.

This training came at a price, though, and despite my attention to safety and proper form, I experienced several major injuries. Maybe I pushed myself too hard, maybe I have bad luck or weird anatomy, or maybe it was a combination of things. All I know is that even after multiple cycles of physical therapy, a shoulder surgery, and months upon months of rest, the pain isn’t completely gone to this day. I feel like I’m living in a completely different body now, one that tires from carrying grocery bags or shopping at the mall and frequently feels stiff and awkward. In the past few months, I’ve been able to start easing into yoga again, and that has been an incredible blessing both mentally and physically. I doubt that I’ll ever return to my former level of fitness, and I’m okay with that; it might even be for the best. But I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to run, bike, or swim again at all, and that thought is much harder to handle.  For now, I’m just trying to be grateful for every movement that I am able to perform.

In addition to the loss of these identities, I am saddened by the conclusion of certain experiences, particularly by the end of my time as an undergraduate student. My campus, with its infectious energy and breathtaking beauty,  provided the landscape for a whirlwind four years of growth, creativity, excitement, and discovery. I met some of the best people I may ever know, developed a passion for public health, traveled abroad for the very first time, and started my journey home to the Catholic Church. At my commencement ceremony, as I stood in my cap and gown and addressed my fellow members of the class of 2014, I reassured everyone that this was just the beginning, that the best years of our lives still lay ahead. At that time, I was feeling inspired and hopeful, and I truly believed what I was saying. In the two years since then, I hate to admit that my 24-year-old self has often thought otherwise. Grad school was lonely. Therapy is helping.

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I will admit that I feel a bit lighter after putting all of these thoughts into writing. Before I close, though, I feel I should add that I don’t want pity, nor do I need to be reminded of the many people who would gladly trade their problems and losses for mine. I’m incredibly blessed to have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and a roof over my head and people who love me. In fact, I realized that I needed help precisely because I had all these things and was still miserable, precisely because I had such a full life and yet felt so empty. Part of turning my outlook around is allowing myself to grieve if that’s what I need to do, regardless of how others may view or judge the process. I hope you, dear reader, will understand; however, it’s also okay if we disagree. I’ve got my break-up songs to get me through. 😉