It’s hard to imagine that the clutter stacked on our countertops, and stuffed inside a few cabinets, closets and maybe the garage could signify an important revelation. It’s hard to imagine that it’d spark insights about who we are and what we need.
But it can.
For Brooke McAlary, who pens the blog Slow Your Home, decluttering revealed all sorts of uncomfortable truths: “I had no idea what I stood for, what was important in my life, what deserved my time and attention and what didn’t.”
McAlary wanted to portray a specific image to others, which was actually driving her desire to buy more and have certain things: “I wanted people to think I ‘had it all together,’ that I was successful and living a good, enviable life. I wanted to own the clothes, wear the makeup, have the new house, not because they were important to me but because I wanted to appear successful.”
Maybe you can relate.
Maybe you grew up in a family where appearances were everything, where your possessions somehow spoke to the person you were. Maybe you’re living in a neighborhood where that’s the case, where big homes, designer bags and pricey cars mean you’re successful—and ultimately that you’re worthy. Maybe you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses online instead of next door.
So you’ve accumulated everything from a closet crammed with clothes (with tags) to boxes of seasonal decorations to several collections of fine china and random trinkets. And you’ve unwittingly adopted values that when you really think about it, actually have nothing to do with what you sincerely believe.
Maybe you grew up in a family where gifts meant love, or there wasn’t enough money for presents. And so, you’ve given what feels like thousands and thousands of toys to your kids (and have thousands of dollars of debt).
Maybe your clutter reveals the person you yearn to be, but have yet to become: the athlete, the well-read book collector, the natural-born chef, the super creative mom who loves to craft and give homemade gifts. Which is why you cling to: the unused exercise equipment in the basement; the bikes and triathlon gear in the shed; the shelves of unread books; the cabinets of unused appliances; or the plastic bins filled with glue, scrapbook paper, old magazines and glitter.
Maybe your clutter represents someone you’re not anymore.
McAlary had a hard time getting rid of her jewelry supplies, even though she’d closed her jewelry business. “My identity for the past few years had been tied directly to that jewelry, and to give it away was admitting I wasn’t the person I thought I was,” she writes in her insightful new book Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World. “I wasn’t the go-get-‘em budding entrepreneur or the hard worker or the mom who managed to balance work and stay-at-home parenting, and what did that say about me?”
Our clutter often represents our someday, a day that actually never comes. What does is the shame, which keeps lingering. You wonder what’s wrong with you. You wonder why you can’t get it together. You realize it must be because you’re inherently flawed.
You’re not. You’re simply changing. Or you were never interested in those things to begin with. That’s OK, too.
McAlary views decluttering as “a wonderful place to begin the work of excavating our true selves, our values, our priorities, and creating the time and space with which we can begin to live a more truthful version of life.”
In other words, getting rid of the excess can create the opportunity to shed old and no longer true parts of ourselves. It can create the opportunity to relinquish old needs, wants and wishes. It can create the opportunity to start living according to our most significant values.
McAlary eventually gave away all her jewelry, because it was dragging her down and keeping her stuck. As she writes in her book, “I continued to tie my identity to this stuff, but instead of being a positive thing, it had morphed into self-loathing and failure. Why would I want to keep that around?”
Letting go of the jewelry actually felt liberating—and it was both less scary and more exhilarating than she thought it would be.
She also let go of wanting to appear successful to others and started asking herself more meaningful (and tougher) questions: “What matters to me? What do I want my life to stand for? What do I want my legacy to be?”
What if you asked yourself these questions, too?
McAlary wrote her own eulogy when she was 31. “[I] have used it ever since as a foundation on which I’ve slowly built a life full of the things that are important to me. And while my eulogy had nothing at all to do with decluttering, I would never have had the clarity to sit and write it had I not spent time shedding layers of stuff for years before.”
She includes her eulogy in the book, which she imagines her children saying:
Quick to laugh, creative, compassionate, with a wicked sense of humor, Mom was never without a new plan or adventure on the horizon. She…was spontaneous, loyal, introspective, and believed wholeheartedly that we all have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it. Mom, we’ll miss you always. Thank you for our roots, but thank you even more for our wings.
When we declutter, we stop carrying the weight of all our things, of all our past needs and wishes and identities, of values we no longer hold, of shame that only shatters us.
“We can let go of the guilt and the obligations and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are,” McAlary said. “[A]nd we can put that time and energy in to things that truly matter to us.”
Which might mean savoring short trips and adventures with your family, practicing restorative yoga, taking dance classes, hosting dinner parties (where the main course is pizza from the delicious place down the block), and having items in your home that you absolutely love, that genuinely reflect who you are. Right now.
Her Master’s degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University.
In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.