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Do you own your stuff, or does it own you?
In our culture, January can be a time of year that we struggle with a collective post-holiday hangover. It is a good time to evaluate or re-evaluate our relationship with our possessions.
Did you know that the average American household contains an average of 300,000 items? While there might be some gray area around what constitutes 1 item, it is clear that Americans have a disordered relationship with their things. Things are laden with so much meaning. Ads, TV commercials, or comparisons with other people in your life or on social media make us feel as though we need all of this stuff in order to be okay, to be adequate.
Indeed, shopping and materialism can be twin addictions. As is the case with other addictions, the behavior or substance is used in an attempt to meet unmet needs and fill an inner emptiness. Compare trying to meet a need for more sleep with eating more food – it doesn’t work. The acquisition of more things beyond what is really needed to function well fuels a cycle of wanting, getting, wanting more/different, getting, and so on.
Isn’t this just an issue among the privileged alone? No. Although it may look different across varying socioeconomic classes, having excess clutter and disorganization does not discriminate. Every social class has their own version of this: too much of what we don’t need and that is not intentional.
Photo of Michael in 2010
Do you ever feel like the above picture? My son, whose birthday falls right after Christmas, demonstrated a perfect representation of what it is like to have amassed all these possessions to such an extent he literally blocked his exit from a room!
Let’s examine hoarding. Simply defined, hoarding occurs when the amount of acquired clutter prohibits functionality in the home. It is the compulsive need to find and keep objects, animals, or trash regardless of their actual value. Items commonly hoarded include newspapers, photographs, boxes, clothes, food furniture, paper and plastic bags, appliances, or electronics.
This takes root over time as attempts to part with said items creates considerable distress and results in negative consequences in several areas of a person’s life, according to the American Psychiatric Association. There is actually a DSM-V diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder.
There are levels of hoarding and also types of hoarding. The following chart provides a rundown of the 5 levels of hoarding. Note that the levels are progressive such that each new category also contains most features of the earlier categories.
Most of us are, at minimum, Level 1 hoarders. A more extensive and detailed clutter-hoarding scale is offered by the Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
Why do we as adults have excess clutter & disorganization in our lives?
I have observed the following patterns and themes that tend to go along with phenomenon in myself and numerous others. I offer these with compassion and without judgment as a way to create awareness.
Cluttered internal environment Our external world represents a physical manifestation of our internal environment; thus, feeling cluttered and fragmented internally will often show up this way in your physical environment.
Consumer culture The notion that we have to buy things in order to be happy is pervasive in modern life. Furthermore, it is never enough. There are industries that profit from our collective sense of inadequacy whether or not we truly need the things we choose to buy and own.
The sunk-cost fallacy The fact that we have invested heavily in a given item financially or otherwise makes us hesitant to let it go because we think it will represent a loss. In reality, however, there is often an opportunity cost to keeping such an item around in terms of time, mental bandwidth, or even money. Cut your losses and, where applicable, find the item a better home.
Old or outdated identities We are reluctant to part with things that represent an identity which may have been applicable in the past, but are no longer aligned with our present lives. We have incorrectly associated an old identity with who we are. Who are we without this thing? This category can include a broad array of possessions such as clothing, household items, decorations, gadgets, and things associated with old hobbies.
Unrealistic expectations Suppose you live in a house that has a swimming pool, yet no one swims in it. Or your large house has 3 guest bedrooms that you had hoped would accommodate relatives who haven’t visited for over 5 years. Your kitchen is overstuffed with dishes and cookware, yet you only ever use 10 percent of what you have. It can be hard to acknowledge that things you had hoped for may never actually happen, and feel the associated disappointment. As long as you have the thing(s), you think maybe those relatives will visit or you will finally become a culinary whiz.
Sentimentality We may keep too many of certain types of things because they represent something endearing to us, such as those we associate with family members who are deceased. But if everything is meaningful, then nothing is really meaningful. You can easily take a photo of said item(s) to honor your loved one and not have to devote the physical space to something just for the sake of having it. Or donate that item to a charitable cause your loved one would have supported!
Guilt We feel badly when considering parting with items that were given to us that we did not necessarily ask for nor do we actually use. Does donating that high-priced gift that was given by a dear relative mean that we are rejecting that relative? (No, it does not!) Apply this to anything, from jewelry to books to furniture, etc. even if it was expensive.
Lack of boundaries This usually goes along with guilt and is a companion of anxiety. Perhaps certain friends or family continue to push things (including food!) onto you and into your household, and you have trouble saying no. There are kind ways to set firm boundaries even if the other party does get upset. Good relationships can survive this upset and even improve with your willingness to be (kindly) honest.
Just in case This refers to items we have kept around on the premise that we might use them at some point. In most instances, the situation never really arises; instead, we have devoted valuable physical and mental space to keeping them around. And when the need does arise, we decide against using the items we have stored, and they further deteriorate and collect dust. Realistically, if you have not used an item for over a year, this is a sign you may need to let it go.
Fear of not having enough Suppose you own 5 sweaters. Two of these were given to you and don’t really fit, or contain ingredients that irritate your skin. If you let go of these 2 sweaters and the weather is cold, what will you have to wear? Any situation like this is based on fears of not having enough – of scarcity – and is probably more reflective of a mindset than something actually needed to survive and be okay. Do you really feel like your best self when wearing one of these 2 sweaters, or will you always end up choosing one of the other 3 that you like and fit you well?
Fears about the future Decluttering can trigger worries about your future as the realities of being in a given life stage arise. Young adults may fear having to be independent and self-sufficient. Parents may fear the separation involved in their children’s transition to adulthood. Seniors may feel apprehension about the aging process and eventual death. Coming to terms with these eventualities can be difficult but great freedom awaits if we can do so.
Decision fatigue We can get caught in obsessive loops, knowing that we have too much of some possessions but are too caught up to make the hard and fast decision to let one – or some – go. This is similar to the decision fatigue we may feel standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store with too many choices in front of us!
Lack of clarity about your true values Reflect and be completely honest with yourself. What are your top 3 values? Our values can and should be used to inform our decisions. Put that one or more belongings to the test by asking whether or not they truly contribute to or detract from the life you feel called to live.
Emotions bound up in our surroundings Just because our environment does not support our values does not make it easy to dismantle. Letting go of things will almost certainly unleash strong emotions like grief and disappointment. But remember that emotions are energy needing to be experienced and released. This means that you will get to the other side if you hang in there and do what is right for you, at the right time.
Unaddressed trauma and loss Similarly, people who have a history of trauma, abuse, and/or neglect may find a certain comfort or protection in their cluttered environment. If this describes you, please seek out support. You should not have to deal with this alone., and there are plenty of good resources to help. Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is an example of a low-cost resource for counseling available nationwide.
Disordered relationships with other aspects of life Career clutter, issues with food and weight, relationship problems, and financial disarray are mirrored in all of our stuff. Maybe you have several different sizes of clothing in your closet. Perhaps you and your partner disagree about something important, and the way your belonging are strewn about reflects the ongoing conflict. Or you have dozens of banker’s boxes filled with old financial, medical, and/or professional information that needs to be condensed and shredded.
You’re in over your head It can be hard to admit that things have gotten so far along that we can no longer handle the situation on our own. Embarrassment, shame, and unrealistic expectations for yourself can prevent you from asking for help. You fear it would be painfully clear how out-of-control the situation has become. True friends and loving family are probably already aware that there are issues and will probably be relieved that you have wisely asked for help.
Physical or mental health issues Health conditions affect our energy level, physical ability, and wherewithal, and are a very real obstacle to dealing with clutter that has continuously accumulated. Orthopedic issues, chronic pain and symptoms, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and other types of chemical dependency can immobilize even the most highly motivated among us.
You can’t seem to slow down We are busy people with busy lives. We are busy working, and when not working or sleeping, we are busy having fun or traveling! Decluttering and organizing is a process that requires slowing down and putting some effort into it, albeit with great potential rewards. It takes time, thought, and perseverance to get to the payoff.
Living in an unsustainable way It is especially hard to slow down to address clutter when you are “dancing as fast as you can” just to get by. It feels as though part of your life would collapse with any slowdown. This is a red flag that something needs to change.
As you can see, there are many challenging, complex, and interrelated underlying issues involved with keeping and continuing to accumulate clutter. Address these issues and watch your external environment be transformed!
If you are overwhelmed, start by choosing to organize and clear out one small area such as a drawer, and see how much better you feel. Don’t let perfectionism lead to procrastination. Ask for help with this process if necessary; physical and emotional support is a powerful catalyst. People generally like to be of service and will often appreciate the chance to help out.
Minimalism offers a solution to anyone wanting to live a better life. This does not mean we need to live as ascetics; rather, this approach speaks to intentionality pertaining to various aspects our lives.
We can reduce unnecessary stress by choosing simplicity as it relates to our external and internal lives. The principles can be applied to every area of life: physical, mental, social, financial, health, digital, and many others. The right amount of stuff will certainly vary from person to person, but do not let this prevent you from doing your own self-honest inventory.
For more wisdom, encouragement, and tips, I would highly recommend checking out The Minimalists. This valuable resource was started by 2 guys from my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. They have an incredible podcast and other offerings that cover minimalism applied to about everything imaginable and continues to inform my journey to this day.
I would also suggest practicing some type of “personal property hygiene" on a regular basis. Clearing out clutter periodically will dramatically improve your quality of life. Do not be afraid to sell, donate, recycle, or responsibly dispose of items.
Wishing for you “just enough”!