As my family prepared for our recent move, I decided to seize the opportunity to sort through the surprisingly significant collections of “stuff” we had accumulated. For months leading up to our move, I would take time every day to tackle (and I use the word tackle intentionally as the process often felt like a fight) a specific category: clothes, shoes, toys, books, and kitchen items. As our possessions began to pile up in our basement, I felt buried by the extensiveness of the items that had previously been tucked away beyond reach in the dark shadows of closets and cupboards.
I did my best to apply various techniques and recommendations for purging items. I read through multiple strategies online, trying to create the mindset needed to declutter. “Be ruthless,” one blogger suggested. Here’s the thing, “ruthless” and I don’t often get along, especially when it comes to determining which sentimental or potentially useful possessions to keep or lose forever.
Nevertheless, I was focused on the goal and powered through. And I did great. I packed five bags of clothes to give away, threw out a half dozen shoes my feet refused to wear, collected several dozen toys my kids had outgrown, and made many discreet trips to our garbage bin to deposit broken items. My kids even got involved by agreeing to downsize their tub of Happy Meal toys – a real feat and a sobering reminder of just how many Happy Meals they’d consumed.
I felt great watching our storage room in the basement slowly fill with items to donate, a visual reminder of all of the hard work I was doing! Sometimes, I would just stare at the huge pile and admire my persistence in accomplishing this downsizing goal. My biggest struggle was avoiding the quiet voice in my head which whispered I hadn’t exactly been “ruthless” in my purge. This fear was accentuated by the realization that we were still going to move a ton of stuff. Despite my internal struggle, the downsizing was going okay.
Until (there always seems to be an until) I started trying to figure out where I could bring all these items. Planning drop-off logistics, of course, meant I would have to actually get rid of, part with, never see again said items. It’s one thing to create a “giveaway pile” and another thing entirely to actually give away the pile. Suddenly my mind flooded with all the sentimental emotions I had kept at bay when my energy was hyper focused on the goal.
The intensity of emotions was amplified by the fact that these piles contained newborn onesies and infant toys. I was facing the reality that my kids had long outgrown the baby stage. They had officially moved into the next phase of growing up, they were getting older. And in that nostalgic emotion I found myself reflecting on the fact that I, too, have been aging. As I considered the reality of aging, I fell into another emotional sink hole containing my fears over missed opportunities and delayed life goals. I don’t often like to dwell on these thoughts. But seeing a literal mountain of baby supplies in my basement meant I couldn’t avoid acknowledging that time continues to tick away at a dizzyingly fast clip and often I feel like I can’t quite keep up.
My existential crisis over the inevitable passage of time led to a spiral where I began to question all of my previous purge work. I was overwhelmed by panicky thoughts: “Should I really get rid of that?” “What if I realize in the future that we could have actually used that item?” “What if I regret giving something away?” “Had I been too ruthless in my sorting?” The self confidence I had relied on to do the actual purging suddenly vanished when the reality of actually getting rid of stuff started to sink in. The joy of the freedom in downsizing was minimized by my persistently negative questions.
As I questioned my choices, my mind wandered to my six year old son’s sentimentality throughout the process. He was definitely on the side of “keep it all” and had spared no criticism when he found me downsizing his clothes and toys. Staring at the pile of donations, I worried that maybe he was right: maybe I should keep every one of his toys…we could squeeze things into our new space, it’d be tight but better than never seeing those possessions again. In a matter of minutes, the excruciatingly hard work from my weeks-long process of “ruthless” sorting and decluttering was ruined. I again embarked on my predictable path of second-guessing.
As I continued to stall in my frustratingly familiar routine, I realized this is also the pattern I deal with when approaching various life goals. My plans will start with grand visions of to-dos or various habits or goals I want to pursue, which I use to create lengthy, checkable lists. I love making lists. I love the satisfaction of checking off completed items, reveling in my productivity and usefulness. I love planning activities, daydreaming about completing various tasks, and organizing my day with plenty of doing. The problem usually occurs about halfway through my list, when I either lose motivation in the process or I get so caught up in the doing that I forget to simply enjoy life along the way.
And then it struck me: the parallel between my attachment to my possessions and my obsession to constantly be productive went much deeper than emotional spirals. I realized I was allowing both to define my worth as a person. Suddenly, different questions filled my mind: Do I really believe my possessions define me and that by getting rid of things will minimize who I am? Do I buy into the notion that I have to be doing, not just being, in order to be considered inherently valuable? If I strip away my “stuff” and eliminate the concept of “doing,” does that really change who I am as a person?
I wish I could say that after this reflection I reached a point of appreciation for the freedom in downsizing as well as a wholehearted embrace of my intrinsic worth, regardless of my accomplishments. However, I still find myself struggling through the nuance of all the daily to-dos, life goals, the doing, all the possessions, sentimental items, the stuff. While I have reached a better understanding of the truth, that I am more than my possessions or productivity, I think gracefully incorporating these values into my life on a daily, consistent basis will be a lifelong journey. For now, I’m learning to shift my attention away from the pressure to center my life around my to-do list, accomplishments, or possessions, and instead focus on embracing the value of just being me.
Wendi is co-author of The Unexpected Ever Afters blog and enjoys sipping extra hot coffee, sharing a love of reading with her kids, and exploring bike trails.
photo credit: personal photos