(An adventure in which I read a book, have a vision, confront the monsters in my closet, and learn to say good-bye properly.)
If you’d told me a month ago that tidying my living space could drastically alter my life, I would have smiled politely and thought, “Bullshit.”
I’ve cleaned my share of dorm rooms/apartments/houses, but I can’t say I’ve ever been blessed with a spiritual epiphany at the end. At most, I feel a brief sense of pride and satisfaction – which slowly dissolves along with my hard-earned order, until once more my space is colonized by socks, coffee mugs, and vaguely important pieces of paper. Rinse (or vacuum) and repeat.
I’ve always theoretically wanted to be more organized, but all the systems I put in place tend to degrade over time. I get discouraged by the never-ending cycle of dishes, laundry, and mail. I frequently start projects and then leave them half-finished in various places. Even on a good day, no one is lining up to take pictures of my place for an Apartment Therapy House Tour.
One of my favorite quotes is by the designer William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” An admirable concept, and certainly one to aspire to, but not one that I ever felt was attainable.
And then, in a serendipitous right-place/right-time turn of events, my annual spring-cleaning intersected with a book that has been popping up everywhere in my coachy/self-helpy circles: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. When I picked it up for myself, I was simultaneously attracted to her no-nonsense, yet optimistic and playful prose (the book has a whole subsection about how your socks would “like” to be folded) and seduced by the idea of living in a serene, spacious, and well-ordered environment. Perhaps I wasn’t a completely hopeless case, after all. I decided to give her method a shot.
The resultant process of clearing away the extraneous and appreciating what is left has been a deeply profound one for me.
Not only does my living space feel lighter; my whole life feels like it has more breathing room. I find myself worrying less about time and money. It’s easier to trust that I’ll have what I need, when I need it. Over the past month, I’ve let go of hundreds of things – and each time, it gets a little easier. What I’m finding is that the more I let go of, the more quickly I can identify and painlessly release what is no longer congruent with how I want to live. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with my stuff and my space all over again.
Our internal and external space is inextricably linked. We don’t have to look any further than the state of our closets or our desks to know the state of our minds. In the same way, bringing beauty and order to those dark, cluttered, neglected parts of our homes can’t help but have an effect on our spirits.
This kind of magic is too good to keep to myself, so I want to share a few tidbits and insights from my journey with you, in the hope that it sparks something for you as well. This was a long process for me, so I’ll be splitting it up into a couple of posts.
The Beginning: Preparation and Intention
Kondo’s method of decluttering is to hold each object in your hands and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” (And no, smart-asses, you’re not expected to derive joy from owning toilet-bowl cleaner.) I love this question, but I knew instinctively that decluttering based on “joy” would bring up a ton of stuff for me. It seemed frivolous and fool-hardy to live that way (according to my inner peanut gallery, anyway) and I was afraid both of not having “enough” and of letting go of something I’d need later.
As I’ve written before, I’m intimately familiar with the way that even “simple” (ha!) projects like cleaning out a closet can bring up all kinds of judgments and insecurities. I knew I would have to be extra watchful and gentle towards my thoughts and emotions as I waded through decades’ worth of accumulated possessions. It’s easy to say that it’s just “stuff,” but that stuff accumulated as a result of my decisions. I’m not my stuff, but it is a big part of my identity.
My secret, whispered wish for this project was to use it as a proxy for all the other things in my life I was having trouble letting go of: old beliefs, fears, judgments. I wanted to be able to stay in a curious and compassionate mindset as I watched them bubble up from the depths of my psyche. I wanted to “water the fractal flowers” (as one of my favorite coaches says), use this time to get more connected to myself, and let the momentum sweep away what was no longer necessary to my happiness.
Before I dove in, I let myself imagine a reality where I could effortlessly discern what to let in and what to keep out. In this world, I hold strong and flexible boundaries around my space, my time, and my energy. I feel the contentment of effortless simplicity warming me like light from a sunny window. I trust that I will always have what I need, and that whatever I let go of will return to me when I need it.
I was ready.
Letting Go of Unworthiness and Scarcity, As Found in My Closet
I began, as Kondo suggests, with my clothes.
I’ve always had an uneasy truce with my wardrobe. The things that “spark joy” for me are few and far between, my body image is meh, I hate shopping, and I still have some money issues that make it hard for me to feel good spending a lot on clothes. My MO in the past has been to shop sales racks at a few stores and buy whatever falls in the Venn Diagram intersection of “not too pricey” and “looks okay (or at least better than anything else I’ve tried on today).”
This is all to say that I knew I’d be confronted with a lot of emotional stuff when I went into my closet. As I worked through my clothes, I tried to stay present and not get overwhelmed. When I noticed I was drifting into feelings of fear and sadness, I pulled out my journal and spent some time asking myself things like, “What do I need right now?” and “What’s already working well here?” and “What feels hard about this?” and “What am I afraid will happen if I let go of this?”
What I discovered was:
I was afraid people would think I was vain, shallow, materialistic, or financially irresponsible if it looked like I was “trying too hard” or like I cared/spent too much. At first I thought this was a reflected judgment of how I felt about people who dressed a certain way (and it is, a little), but it turns out that the feeling underneath was more about wistfulness, envy, and self-consciousness. Like I thought certain people could carry certain things off, but not me. Yes, it turns out imposter syndrome can show up anywhere.
I was afraid that if I let go of everything that didn’t make me happy, I would have nothing to wear. My khakis don’t inspire any great enthusiasm, but it’s hard to deny their usefulness in certain situations. I cheated a little bit here and put aside a plastic tub of “maybe” clothes, which soothed the lizard part of my brain enough to let me continue. (Side note: I’ve pulled about 5 items out in the past month.)
Deep down, I didn’t think I deserved to spend a lot of time, energy, or money finding clothes that spark joy for me. I’ve been running across these areas of unworthiness more and more in the past months – and I’m usually not even aware of them until something happens to cast them into sharp relief. In this case, it was my clothes asking me, “Do you want to be the kind of person who dresses like she loves herself?”
I wanted to say yes so badly. But even saying it to myself felt hard and shaky and vulnerable, like someone was going to call me out, saying, “You are so ARROGANT!” At the same time, I knew what “no” felt like, and I was tired of it. I was ready for a change, even if I wasn’t sure how to cultivate it.
Sometimes the only way to shift your mindset is to challenge it just a little and get evidence that the world isn’t going to end. I have an ongoing goal of self-love and self-compassion (or at least self-acceptance on the hard days), and I realized that wearing clothes I liked every!single!day! was actually a perfect opportunity to deepen that practice. And lo! Once I put away everything else in the “emergency khakis” bin or donation bags, it became surprisingly easy to just wear what was left without losing too much sleep. I’ve had to start doing laundry a little more often, but being able to wear clothes every day that make me feel comfortable and comforted has been more than worth it.
Shopping has been a new experience for me as well – I’m much more discriminating about what I let back into my closet, and I count it a success if I find even one thing that sparks joy for me (instead of three or four “they’re okay, I guess, and they’re on sale” things). It hasn’t been a frustration-free ride; I get tired and discouraged when it feels like I’ve tried everything on in the store and can’t find something I like. The difference is that I don’t feel the urgency to buy something just so the trip wasn’t a waste of time. Instead, I try to look at it as exercising my “joy detector” so that I can get even better at finding things that are in line with my essential self.
Releasing with Gratitude
One of the most valuable concepts I picked up during this process is letting go of the old with appreciation and affection for the role it played in my life. I’d always felt like getting rid of things implied rejecting them, and I was unwilling to do that to possessions that had brought me happiness in the past; it felt disloyal, ungrateful, and inauthentic.
But as Kondo says, “Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover…You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order.”
This really helped me let go of things that I still had fond feelings for, but didn’t inspire the same spark of joy as they did when I got them. With each object I let go of, it became easier and easier for me to distinguish what brought me joy versus what brought up feelings of nostalgia, regret, anxiety, or insecurity.
Join me next week as I let go of separation anxiety (along with some books and art supplies), find forgiveness in unexpected places, and inexplicably become a person who makes her bed every morning (read it here). If you’re not already signed up for my newsletter, you can do that here to make sure you don’t miss the next update!