Musings · Wellness

The Prison of Things

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“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” ~Socrates

It started young. I was a sentimental soul, clinging to the objects that represented memories of people or places. I cherished them, tenderly placing them in their own special ‘homes’ around my room. A museum of tributes.

Hearing my dad’s heart-wrenching sigh as he trudged up the stairs of our childhood home had me reaching for an ornament my nan had given me. She was in hospital and I knew right then before my mums anguished scream that she was gone. I clung to that little bird, tears streaming down my face, believing I could keep her with me, holding her close with this small token of her life. I was wrong, of course.

And yet, over 20 years later- I hold it still. I can’t bear to throw it out with the refuse, unloved, unwanted. It represents the way her face lit up as our tiny feet charged fearlessly into her house, the way she let us destroy her garden patio with our finest chalk art, her soft powdered scent as she kissed me goodbye. It is not a beautiful object in itself, but she was a beautiful soul, and somehow, wired in my brain, it became the same thing.

I justified my treasures to myself. ‘They portray a story about me,’ I told myself. ‘They make my home interesting.’ And they did, to a degree. Souvenirs of travels to exotic places nestled amongst colourful friendships laughing from photo frames. My guests stopped and moved from item to item, learning my history and asking me questions about my adventures. My heart swelled with gratitude reflecting on the life that I had led.

And yet.

There was a niggle in my head. A part that whispered cruelly in the quiet moments. An observer that looked around and saw the clutter for what it was. Too much stuff packed tightly into too little space; shelves and cupboards full to bursting. I began to feel suffocated, closed in. There was too much weight in these tiny trinkets and they were taking gradually their toll on my life.

I found myself exhausted, not sleeping well. I would wake in the night, thinking about to-do lists and the chaos that demanded my attention slithering just outside the safety of my bed. It became hard to concentrate. Clutter created a white noise that stifled my creativity; my drawing and writing dwindling as my attention slowly waned.

A serious cull was needed, but I didn’t know where to start. I began half heartedly, picking each thing up and turning it over fondly in my hands; dusting it down before telling myself I still needed it and putting it back in its place.  A few hours in I realised that I was getting nowhere fast. I had more excuses than willpower and I needed some additional help to get this done.

With some research into decluttering, and taking inspiration from Marie Kondo’s ‘life changing magic of tidying’, I armed myself with some strategies to overcome my resistance. I started small; one room or task at a time, so as not to become overwhelmed by the amount there was to do. I created a vision of what my perfect living space would look and feel like, then asked myself whether a particular item would fit with that vision. William Morris captured it perfectly when he said: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Even with this mindset, some items were harder to let go of than others. Here are my suggestions for dealing with the pieces that tug on your heartstrings:

  1. Memory Lane

You know the stuff: that cute drawing from when you were five, boxes of old photos and birthday cards, journals full of teenage angst, your grandmother’s doll…The list goes on and on. These were the memories that mapped out my journey from childhood to adult; a record of who I had become. In attempting to declutter, I would become lost for hours down memory lane, slowly reminiscing over every magical piece, running to show my partner each treasure as I re-discovered it.

There were some things that I simply wasn’t willing to part with, and I let that be ok. Decluttering is less about having no stuff at all, and more about not letting your stuff own you. An intentional decision to keep something that brings you joy is an equally good outcome from a sorting session, but you have to keep yourself honest on that potentially slippery slope.

My tips for sentimental sorting:

  • Take photos of bulkier items as a digital reminder, then sell, donate or chuck the physical object
  • Save a virtual copy of any paper based items (photos/ letters/ cards) and create a dedicated Dropbox folder for safe storage.
  • Create a physical memory box for the really precious items that you know you will treasure.
  1. Gift Guilt

Gifts, I discovered, were particularly hard to part with. The fact that someone had taken the time to think about what I might like, and spent their own money on making me smile, tore at my conscience. This was particularly true when the giver was no longer with us, and I perceived the gift as a precious link to our relationship.

After he passed away, I held onto a spice rack that my stepdad had given me for many years, despite the fact that I no longer had use for it. I felt that I was betraying him by giving it away, that it meant I wouldn’t have anything to remind me of him. Reflecting on this thought-process logically, I knew this to be untrue, but I couldn’t shake the guilt. My love for my stepdad went way beyond anything he could have given me, our memories together filling much more space than a spice rack ever could. Talking it through with my mum, I realized that I had other, more treasured items from him; handwritten cards and my favorite red shirt, and I didn’t need to keep every single thing he had ever given me, just because he wasn’t with us anymore.

My tips for present purging:

  • Don’t let the gift become a burden, it’s not what the giver intended. Remind yourself that the joy of the gift was in the process of both giving and receiving, in the love and thought that went into choosing it, and the way you felt, rather than the importance of keeping the physical object itself.
  • Keep one representative gift to remind you a special person or connection, rather than feeling obligated to keep all of things they ever gave you.
  • Re-gift- (without pretending that you bought it)- to someone that you know would get more joy from it than you.
  1. ‘I might need it someday’ syndrome

A relic of my childhood is the mantra from the generations before me: ‘Waste not, Want not.’ I remember our cupboards: ice-cream tubs full of spare batteries, light-bulbs and the disembodied plugs from discarded appliances. Imagine the scene from the little mermaid where she is looking around at her treasure trove, and you’ll get a feel for my old home.

I get it, of course. There is a certain security in holding on to things ‘just in case’ you need them in the future. No one likes declutter regret. But if the item has sat untouched for years, how likely is it that you will need it anytime soon? And even if you do need it, chances are you’ve forgotten that you have it, or wouldn’t even be able to find it hidden amongst all the other stuff.

My tips for jolting the ‘just-in-cases.’

  • Use a ‘Maybe box’. Put your item(s) in a box, put it away, and if you haven’t missed or needed it by a specified date- chances are that you won’t and it’s time to get rid.
  • Look up how much it would cost to replace the item, should you need it in the future. If the financial cost and time-effort is low enough for you not to have to worry- then there is no real need to hold onto the item.
  • If the cost is prohibitive, or the item hard to procure, allocate a certain amount of space for it in your home, and don’t let it creep beyond that boundary.
  1. Sunk Cost

Rows and rows of clothes, shoes, and handbags line my wardrobes. Some of them still have the labels attached, much to my great shame. Throwing these items out unused feels so wasteful, yet I know, deep down, that if I haven’t worn or used them by now, I likely never will. Part of the reason it is so difficult for me to remove them, is that they represent money spent, an investment I have made. I cling to the idea that I WILL wear that perfect dress if the right occasion comes along, and I’d much rather keep that expensive top that looks terrible on me, than admit that I made a big purchasing mistake.

My tips for unleashing the unused

  • Remind yourself that the money is spent the moment you bought the item, so the loss happened back then, not now, regardless of what you choose do with it.
  • It can help to think of the happiness you felt when you bought the item as your return on the investment you made.
  • If someone else can make better use of it, why not sell or donate it, where it can bring joy to it’s new owner, rather than rotting away in your cupboard.
  • Be honest about whether the pieces reflects who you are today and where you are headed- if you are rooted in the past, or saving it for the future, it shouldn’t be taking up space in your present. If you were at the store, would you buy it today?

Today my home is my peaceful place. I feel a sense of calm as soon as I walk in the front door and into the energy that flows throughout the rooms. It’s still not perfect of course, and there’s always more that could be done. Every small step moves me closer to my vision, and if I’m honest, the imperfections give it a character that I love. Home really is where the heart is, so I’ll keep striving to make it one I am proud of.

Originally published on DirtyandThirty

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