Last week, I shared the (often uncomfortable, but ultimately freeing) realizations that surfaced as I made the decision to pare my belongings down to those that only sparked joy for me, beginning with my clothes.
My trusty companion and guide: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The next place to examine: my bookshelves (and whatever corresponding areas of my psyche decided to make themselves known).
Letting Go of Separation Anxiety (and Books)
Getting rid of books is not for everyone. I know people who fiercely prefer paper and ink to digital copies; who would just as soon abandon their child in the mall as let go of their lovingly annotated volumes; who are proud of the sheer size and depth of their collections. I feel you, bibliophiles: I think I filled half my car with books when I left for college because I wanted to be able to loan my favorites to new friends.
I’d already lost much of my sentimentality towards books as objects after moving five times in the past four years. Keeping in mind the intention to release with gratitude, it was surprisingly easy to identify which ones felt ready to move on to new owners. I’ve replaced many of them digitally, but I find that reminding myself that I can always acquire another copy goes a long way towards easing the separation anxiety.
This was a big shift in mindset for me, one that was echoed in later stages as I let go of craft supplies, mason jars, shot glasses, and other seldom-used possessions. So much of what I had fell into the “maybe I’ll need this eventually” camp. Realizing that I could simply replace whatever I needed when I needed it, instead of letting it weigh me down as I carry it around forever like the trash lady in Labyrinth, was a huge epiphany for me. (And kind of obvious, as epiphanies often are.)
From my journal: “I am less and less afraid of getting rid of something that I’ll miss later. Almost everything is replaceable, and even those things that aren’t hold a special place in my heart. I don’t need to have them present to know that they changed me…It’s like a weird kind of immortality, knowing how many important things are either replaceable or stored safely in the cloud, free of physical constraints. What a freeing and amazing thought. This is the world we live in – how wonderful is that? Hardly anything can be truly lost.”
Separating Stuff from Identity
Getting rid of my art supplies was another area I found surprisingly painless. I was an art major, and for a long time it seemed absolutely necessary that I be able to paint, draw, collage, at the drop of a hat. “Being an artist” was a huge part of my identity for a long time.
Until, at some point, it wasn’t. It’s hard to describe exactly when it happened, but as I became more settled in myself (and in my coaching career), I began to realize that the outward accouterments were merely a reflection of my identity, not the source of it.
Even if I never draw again, I am still an artist. With or without clients, I am still a coach. And while these describe aspects of myself, they come nowhere near to describing my whole, messy, complex existence. As Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Hilariously enough, I was coaching a friend around this very issue about a year ago. As an artist who was working a fairly boring job for awhile, she was so anxious about becoming boring herself that she would read Freud on her lunch break to try to keep her brain from stagnating.
I told that her bright spark of intellectual curiosity was as an integral part of her, like her fingerprints, and that she was in about as much danger of losing it – no matter what her circumstances were. And yet it was so much harder to see that the same principle applied to me as well!
Before I dove into this process, I may have had some small and largely unconscious trepidations that by getting rid of stuff, I would accidentally lose part of myself. In contrast, I felt my sense of self was coming more and more into focus with each discarded object. I didn’t feel lessened or diminished – instead, I felt cleansed and almost purified, distilled down to my concentrated essence.
I told you this was crazy stuff. By now, I was hooked. I felt carried along on a current of momentum, and I couldn’t wait to see what other transformations lay in store for me.
Finding Forgiveness in All the Weird Places
One of the biggest realizations for me during this process was that stuff has energy. Even if they’re tucked away where we rarely come across them, the things that hold powerful emotions and memories for us take up real estate inside our minds and hearts. I was about to learn this in a gut-deep, experiential way.
I had a couple of high school friends that I was extremely close to up through college. Through various circumstances, we grew apart and the friendship faded away with some hurt feelings on both ends. It took a long time, but I’d moved from grief and hurt to relatively peaceful acceptance of the situation.
As I slowly moved through my possessions, I realized how much evidence of that friendship I was still carrying around with me. Gifts, letters, a book of postcards sent over the years. All small, innocuous-seeming objects, but each with its own subtle associations of pain and regret.
A funny thing happened as I encountered each object: as I thanked it for the role it had played in my life and gently sent it on its way, I could almost feel layers of bitterness sloughing off me like an old scab. I hadn’t even known they were there until they were gone.
I found myself smiling as I said goodbye to each memory, feeling truly grateful and appreciative for the good times we had shared. Even though I had been afraid on some level that letting go of all that stuff would mean severing whatever connection I had left (even if it was only in my head), all I ended up releasing was my resentment and my pain.
Waiting for the Tipping Point
When I worked in the art museum world, it would take forever for an installation in progress to stop reading as “mostly-empty gallery with a few things on the walls” and start looking like an actual show. The weird thing is, it wasn’t a gradual change. Not that I could pinpoint the one piece that made the room start to feel finished, but it was clear between one day and the next that the balance had changed and we were on the downhill slope. It felt kind of like “hump day,” but on a much bigger scale.
I’m grateful to have had that experience, because this process was a lot like that. Even after I’d gone through all my clothes, books, papers, and medicine cabinets, I still felt weighed down by everything that was left. And then suddenly, maybe somewhere between cleaning out my tools (eight screwdrivers? Really?) and throwing away expired pantry food, I felt like I was coasting.
The stuff I was dreading (photos and mementoes) was surprisingly easy to sort through. The process of finding homes for all my remaining things felt as natural and organic as a jar of fair-trade almond butter. Not only was I still steadily winnowing down my possessions to the things that gave me joy, I started automatically keeping them in order. It’s hard to say why that was, but my secret guess is that once you’ve identified something as making you happy, it feels disrespectful to leave it lying about.
Maybe the most surprising manifestation of this was the fact that I started making my bed every day without really thinking about it. It just seemed like something that “wanted to happen,” so I did it. As my mom, college roommates, and husband will attest, the chances of something like this happening spontaneously are…slim, to say the least. And yet, here I am, someone who apparently makes their bed in the morning.
The longer I live in my cleared-up environment, the more things like this are happening:
- I floss my teeth in the shower each morning.
- I spend a few minutes each day returning things to their homes.
- I am making a dent in the no-defined-deadline pile of paperwork, some of which has been there for months.
- I spontaneously weeded a flowerbed after making the conscious decision that I didn’t care whether it happened or not.
- I cook more meals at home.
I haven’t had to force myself or overcome any resistance to make this happen. It just seemed like a natural progression of respecting my space (and therefore myself). Without a lot of clutter hanging over me like a threatening, never-ending to-do list, there is more room and energy for those little maintenance tasks that used to get neglected.
Less of an Afterglow, More of an Aftermath
I wish I could tell you that everything has been smooth sailing since I finished this massive project. I felt a great deal of satisfaction and pride, it’s true, but freeing up all that time and space left something of a void in my life.
All of a sudden my calendar seemed almost too empty, and I struggled to find a way to either fill it or be okay with the emptiness. A large part of my self-worth comes from doing things, and when I’ve finished something big and don’t have much to do, it’s hard for me to feel good about myself. I even found myself belittling my accomplishments of the past few weeks.
But in this, as in everything, I had a choice in how I treated this experience. Just because I do this stuff for a living doesn’t mean I don’t get stuck in my discomfort or self-judgment, but I don’t have to stay there forever.
Instead, I took the two weeks after I finished the Great Purge to write and reflect on the experience (hence these posts), relearn how to be still without freaking out, and start playing with different ways to structure my time in the absence of planned commitments. I checked out and succumbed to my usual numbing/distracting activities at times, but I also tried to let myself be vulnerable and uncomfortable and meet myself with kindness. I processed with friends and colleagues, let myself fall apart, and trusted that I could put myself back together again.
Now that things are picking back up, my wish is to keep that deliberate question of “Does this spark joy?” in the front of my mind when it comes to commitments of my time, energy, money, and space. Sometimes I still have trouble trusting that following that question will result in all my needs being met, but now I have a buttload of evidence to back me up. Subversive and scary as choosing joy might seem, I’ve seen what happens when I surrender to it and I hope I have the courage to continue.
Thanks for following me on my journey (and welcome to the new subscribers who joined me for the ride!). As always, I’d love to hear any insights or a-has you’ve had if you want to leave a comment. And if you’ve enjoyed this post, sign up for my newsletter to get future musings delivered to your inbox.