Creating Change Through Decluttering

Having worked with several people to create space, clear out clutter and bring a sense of order to material chaos, I've observed an interesting phenomena.  Major decluttering seems to always lead to major life changes.  It sounds weird that letting go of your things could bring about changes like a new job or a new home.  But I've seen it over and over again and had other people tell me of the phenomena, as well.

In fact I'm so certain of its effect, that I regularly recommend "decluttering for change" to clients and friends.  Usually they look at me first with a  roll of the eyes and then a look of abject horror at the idea of getting rid of their possessions.  But I'm not talking about shedding all of our belongings.  Just around 15%-25%.  Now before you shake your head no, I'd like to point out that most of us own things that we haven't looked at or even seen in over a year.  It's true.  Clothes we haven't worn, books we haven't read, CDs we haven't listened to, dishes we haven't used, etc.

We're keeping it all for a variety of reasons.  "Just in case I need it one day" is a major one.  "It has sentimental value" is another.  "I'm going to get to that one day" is a third.  "I had no idea I even had this" is a fourth!  We've got junk rooms, closets, basements, garages and storage units filled to capacity with all kinds of items.  Waiting for a someday that never seems to arrive.

So let's consider what happens if we get rid of all the myriad "its" that float throughout our lives and around our homes…

First let's engage in a visualization exercise I like to have clients play around with.  Close your eyes and imagine that we each have gold threads of energy coming out of the tops of our heads and these threads connect to EVERY item we have in our possession.  Every item!  Each individual piece of silverware, each picture in the photo album, each photo album, CD, DVD, hammer, nail, sock, book, magazine, sweater, car, guitar pick and even every computer file.  It's one energy thread per item.

We keep something in our life by maintaining an emotional connection with it.  In our visualization, the emotional connection is represented by the gold thread of energy.  Like satellites around a planet, we bring items into our lives and then keep them revolving around us — until we decide we no longer want them and then we discard them — one less satellite floating about us.  For example, when the mayonnaise jar is empty most people simply throw the jar away or recycle it.  (Hoarders are an exception.)  There is no debate on whether the jar should be saved or where to store it.  This is because there is no emotional connection to the mayonnaise jar.  It's served its purpose, we move on and let it go.

But consider a favorite sweater that you keep although you never wear it.  Or the pile of books you are "going to read someday."  Or the various artistic projects and their prerequisite clutter that are splayed across the dining room table.  We keep these things in our lives because we have an emotional connection to them.  Whether the connection is past, present or future or because we have invested time, money or energy into the item is inconsequential.  It's an emotional attachment and we keep the item in our life.  But there is a price we pay for maintaining all these items that float through our lives.

So now envision wherever we go we energetically carry all that stuff with us.  We drag it behind ourselves via the connecting gold thread of emotional energy.  How much stuff are we dragging?  It's quite a bit actually.  And some people are dragging much more than others!  Is it any wonder we have a hard time creating change when we are bogged down with material clutter from twenty years ago (which, by the way, represents emotional attachments from the past twenty years)?  And I haven't even mentioned people, pets, places, memories or emotional experiences that we also keep connected to us!  We're all dragging quite a bit behind us.  It's a wonder we can make the bus to work!

But what if we eliminate a quarter of our stuff?  How much lighter will we feel?  Will we even miss any of these things we discard or giveaway?  Through experience, the answer is surprisingly: not really.  (Occasionally we'll look for something and think "Now why did I get rid of the stapler!?!"  But even if that happens, we tend to shrug our shoulders and then make do with the situation.)

So when we embark on a major declutter initiative, what we are actually engaging in is a complete re-evaluation of our lives.  We're letting go, paring down, purging, prioritizing, re-evaluating, discovering, risk-taking and developing a new level of trust in ourselves and the cosmos.  It's this part of the declutter process that creates the change.  The act of throwing things away is simply the physical manifestation of our emotional overhaul.  And it's this intellectual/emotional tug-of-war that we engage in as we are doing the purging that is so exhausting about decluttering.

So a major spring cleaning actually becomes an extensive tour of our entire lives — past, present and future.  If we decide to throw away Aunt Emma's toaster oven, we are literally snipping the emotional connection we have with the toaster cover, and consequently with Aunt Emma.  There's guilt, there's dread, for some people it may feel like we're putting lovely Aunt Emma in a life raft and shoving her off alone into the open sea.  "Bye, bye Aunt Emma!  Nice knowing ya!  Good luck!"  And poor Aunt Emma reproachfully stares at us and our shallow betrayal as sharks circle around her leaky life raft…

We've mistakenly melded together Aunt Emma and her once useful toaster.  Discarding the toaster oven doesn't mean we love Aunt Emma any less.  It just means that Aunt Emma is taking a new role in our lives — one that doesn't involve toast.  It's not a lesser or greater role, just a different toast-free one.  If we examine the situation closely, we will ultimately realize that our emotional connection and sense of closeness is to Aunt Emma — not her old toaster oven with the missing thermostat knob.  And we may realize that we have a wonderful letter from Aunt Emma which we enjoy much more than her second-hand appliance.  The toaster oven served us well and Aunt Emma is still a bell weather in our lives.  So we keep the letter and get rid of the toaster oven (which incidentally we haven't used in eleven months because we're no longer having toast for breakfast anymore).

In the end, it's this meander through our inner emotional landscape that fills us with dread about opening up a box in the attic and going through it.  Intuitively we realize we will need to make decisions about ourselves, our past, our present, our future and our old emotional baggage.  Think about it, we're not emotionally drained after cleaning out the fridge and tossing the spoiled food.  There's no emotionality to it.  There's mold in that jar, so we chuck it into the trash pail and get on with our day.  But we'll sit and stare at Aunt Emma's toaster oven for a good forty to sixty minutes being filled with remorse for even considering tossing it into the trash can.

In the case of unread books, we're saying "I'm letting go of this goal.  I haven't read these in five years and I am probably not going to read them in the next six months.  The intention was good, but I simply don't have the time, inclination or both."  And that can be a disconcerting experience because it puts us face-to-face with our personal limitations and a sense of failure ("Surely I've had the time in the past five years to read these ten book! ?! It's only two books a year!  Could I really not have read them!?!  How is that possible?")

Dishes, appliances, linens all tend to fall into the "Well, I might need these if someone stops by." which means we're decorating and living our lives for the occasional social experience — not for ourselves.  If twenty-five people stop by and we don't have enough wine glasses…we'll probably figure something else out.  Or we'll hand out straws and pass the bottle around.  We'll make due and it will be fine.  But then how often do twenty-five people suddenly stop by because they were in the neighborhood?

And all those myriad projects — the artistic endeavors, the someday I'll eBay items, the do-it-yourself ideas — letting go of them is saying "That hoped for vision of me as an upholsterer is never going to happen.  And that wonderful future of me sitting in these wonderful chairs in my wonderful home is not a reality that is going to exist this lifetime."  And that can be saddening because our view of the future is seemingly narrowed.  One less dream of Olympic glory, one less hope of artistic excellence and one less goal of being a refinisher of Arts and Crafts furniture comes to reality.

And on the other side of the clutter purge is…a wonderful sense of freedom.  The more we let go, the more external and internal space we open up for new stuff to grow in our lives.  Ultimately, all of us only have so much emotional, psychological and physical space.  But clutter is more than a three dimensional phenomena — it's not just physical and spatial, its emotional, symbolic, energetic and metaphysical too.  Thus the letting go forces us to trust that the unknown will be fine.  We can't let go of thirty of our forty wine glasses unless we trust in our ability to resolve ever needing more than ten wine glasses at a time.  Consequently, each time we let go, decluttering becomes an exercise in deepening our confidence in ourself and the cosmos.

Each time we choose to discard an item, we are taking a symbolic pair of scissors and cutting the energetic connection we have with the item.  To do that, we have to make some emotional choices in our life and examine who we were in the past, what we are about today, who we are not going to be tomorrow and who we want to be next week.  And the more we pare down, the closer we get to living in the present moment and being comfortable in the current reality.  Because the more we purge, the less we attach to the past and the less we attach to the future.  We're making the que sera sear decision to live in the present moment.  The past is over and can't be changed, the future is not ours to see and will take care of itself…and we trust ourselves to thrive without a backup supply of fifteen year old sweaters, cookbooks we've never opened or dinnerware for sixty-two.

And it's this that makes us feel so energetically and physically lighter at the end of our decluttering journey.  We hardly even realized it, but we're living more in the moment, having let go of a bunch of stuff that represents old dreams, unfinished endeavors, and guilty twinges over good intentions gone unfulfilled.  And that intuitive sense that there is physical lightness associated with material and emotional space is what keeps us pondering "next week I'm going to tackle that junk room!"

If you're interested in starting to declutter your world, we have Five Tips for Spring Cleaning that can be of some help.