Monday, July 26, 2010

Stuff - Dealing with it All (Part 3)

Okay, so thinking about where an entire society got the habits of collecting stuff was too much fun, but what does it all mean?  Honestly.  You know as well as I do that you can read book after book about clutter and organizing, clearly understand the situation needs to change, and still be living with the effects of too much stuff. 

Just like an overweight person who has read every diet book known to man, but is still overweight. 

Knowledge isn't the issue when dealing with too much stuff.  While they're fun to see, those before and after transformations that we watched on shows like Clean Sweep, I really don't think that anything truly changes for those people.  Why?  Because it seems to me that all that work just gave them new space to fill.  One or two afternoons of introspection does not create a lifelong behavioral transformation.

So, what is it?  Why can't we take what we know and apply to our own lives?  In order to solve the problem, we have to look at what the stuff IS and is NOT.  Specifically, too much stuff.

Too much Stuff is:   Inanimate.  Overwhelming.  Taking up space in your mind and your home.  A source of conflict between who you want to be and how you want to live and who you actually are and how you actually live.  A source of guilt, embarrassment, and frustration.  Not useful in your life.

Too much Stuff is NOT:  Possessing of feelings.  Judgmental.  The definition of your worth.  Proof of love. 

But, you know this.  None of this earth shattering.  None this is a surprise to you.  Just like the perpetual dieter, it hasn't changed your reality.  Why?  What is holding people back from clearing it out?  Being done with it all?  Living within their spacial, their economic, and their mental means?

I asked around.  I talked with friends.  I've received all kinds of off-line emails since I started this topic and I think I've figured out a way to quantify put it into terms that are simple enough that we can all start chipping away.  No, I don't have a system for you to follow.  No, I don't have a 10-step fly-lady type of schedule for you.  Instead, I have a new way of telling you what I believe to be the simple key and, if people are interested, some of the things that have worked for me along the way.  No miracles.  (But, it is easier than dieting!)

So, here it is:

We hold on to stuff that is no longer useful or acquire more stuff than we need because it is our way of insulating or protecting ourselves from perceived possible future emotions.  Think about it:  possible future emotions.

Let me explain:

My sister, who knows I'm going to use this example and won't kill me for this, has four sets of china.  FOUR sets of china for a married couple with a household of exactly two two-legged beings.  She has her wedding china, her Christmas china, her mother's china, and her mother's friend's china.  She doesn't want four sets of china.  She can't use four sets of china and yet, she holds on to all four sets of china.  Why?  In our discussions, we talk about how much her mother loved her own set of china.  How she collected it over 30+ years of marriage.  How much my sister doesn't particularly care for the pattern.  (Oh, there is nothing wrong with is lovely; she just doesn't care for it.)  Let's not even get into the mother's friend's china.  So, let's recap:  Both women for whom this china was so special have died.  The china is a source of duty and guilt for my sister.  Why doesn't she get rid of it?  Because she's afraid of the disappointment she imagines her mother would have felt at knowing she got rid of the china.  So, duty and guilt are warring with perceived future disappointment. 

Let's be clear here:  My sister's mother has passed away.  My half-brothers and their wives don't want the china.  There is no one to express this anticipated disappointment and yet it is powerful.  Then there is the loyalty the mother and the friend felt for each other and my sister is tackling feelings of disloyalty by not perpetuating that bond between those two women in her own mind.

Let me give you a different example:  I wrote about my dilemma with my scrapbooking supplies.  It seemed so silly, but I was really agonizing over the disposition of my scrapbooking stuff.  So why couldn't I just make a decision about it?  Because I was anticipating my own feelings of failure or inadequacy if I failed to follow through with a project I anticipated completely.  By holding on to the items, the potential for the paper to be used, the scrapbooks to be completed (or at least show progress) remained.  I didn't have to deal with or acknowledge the reality that they weren't getting done and, most likely, wouldn't get done.  I was protecting myself from future possible feelings of failure or inadequacy.  Let's go further with my example:  What if I found time to scrapbook?  I might have future need of the stuff!  I was protecting myself from the possibility that I would not, in the future, be able to replace the things I got rid of.  Again, perceived future emotions are making decisions for me right now.

That is it.  That is my miracle epiphany.  You are holding on to stuff that no longer "fits" your life or never did "fit" your life as a way to protect yourself from future possible emotions.

Let me give you another example:

I had a friend who asked me to come over to help her organize and rearrange her family room.  In her room was a big square wooden cube that was open at one end.  It was probably 3' x 3' and beat up but good.  I asked her about it, asked if we had to decorate around it.  She said absolutely.  What?  It turned out that the cube was an empty speaker from 1970.  Her uncle had given it to her years ago and she just couldn't get rid of it because he gave it to her and he'd be so disappointed in her.  He had died 10 years before and had gotten rid of his speakers five years before that, but that had no relevance to her.  Here she was, trying to decorate around an empty speaker cube.  She was unshakable.  I couldn't get her to budge on it.

Holding on to something that someone gave you, especially a hand-me-down, protects you from the feelings that you've somehow been disloyal or unworthy because you didn't want whatever the item was.  The thing is NOT the person, but the thing allows you to keep yourself from disappointing someone.  Holding on to the item allows you to put off the feelings.

But what about people who just buy too much stuff?  People who keep bringing stuff into their homes long after their homes are full?  People who are paying money to rent homes for their stuff?  What?  You don't think of it that way but whether you have rooms full to the brim or you pay for a storage unit, you are paying money to avoid feeling things. 

What?!  You don't have sentiment attached to all that stuff.  No one gave it to you.  You just got a good deal or thought you'd do something amazing with it or some other amazingly valid reason it came into your home.  Guess what?  If you didn't do the project or the good deal didn't match your home or the gift was never given and you still have this stuff, you're protecting yourself from future feelings, too.  You are...they're just different feelings. 

Remember I said that your stuff did NOT validate you, did NOT define you, and did NOT prove your are loved.  Yet, buying stuff can make you feel like you're different than you hold on to the feelings those intentions create.  Want to see yourself as creative, generous, wealthy, elite?  In our world, it is easy to try to create at facade that would seem to perpetuate those things.  So, if you are always buying potential gifts, but don't always get around to giving them away, you can't get rid of the stuff or you'll have to admit you didn't gift those things and you will have to own that.  All those craft supplies?  If you give them away, you're having to admit you're not as crafty as you'd like to think of yourself as being.  Expensive clothes, decor items, electronics?  If they don't fit, you can't afford them, or you don't use them, getting rid of them would force you to be honest about yourself and deal with the secret feelings of inadequacy you are running from.

You know it.  You know all of it and you don't want to deal with it.  So you don't.  You put it into some inaccessible areas in your home and your mind.  Maybe you just have a couple of "bad" rooms.  Maybe it is your deep dark secret and you all storage units full of stuff.  You tell yourself it doesn't matter...because you are protecting yourself from future possible emotions.

So, I'll leave you with this:  Your stuff doesn't define you.  Your stuff doesn't love you.  Your stuff doesn't prove you're worthwhile.  Your stuff is simply inanimate objects that is designed to provide usefulness and convenience to your life.  It is not supposed to be a burden, a duty, or a source of shame or guilt.  It has no feelings and is not the repository for your memories...for that, you have a heart. 

Think about it.


DarcyLee said...

Wow. I do believe you've hit the nail right on the head. I have a child who fits right into this category and I'm trying to help her sift through the stuff. So much to think about after reading your series. Thanks so much for posting this.

generationsgoneby said...

Wow, that was great. About two years ago, when #1 started to graduate, I decided I was going to feel life as it happened. If it was bad, I was going to go to bed and cry, it it was great, I was going to sing from the rooftops, but life was going to be felt, every single emotion was going to be explored, enjoyed, expressed. It's been a hard two years. Two kids graduated high school. An elderly mother sold her home and moved closer. But you know what, I feel alive and I am no longer tied to stuff like this and old emotions. Mom makes me mad, I tell her so, we work through it, we cry, we move on. The outcome. I've lost about 25 pounds. Granted some of that was medication, but I think some of it was allowing myself to feel those emotions and express them and not cram them down for later. We are a society that doesn't feel emotion. We are always to be happy. If not, we medicate ourselves to be happy. Sadness is bad, unhappiness is bad. Depression is rampant in this country and I think a large part of it is because we no longer feel emotions unless they are good emotions. I've learned to let my husband cry. He and I laughed and cried all the way through Toy Story 3 the other night. Big huge tears. It's good for him and me to express emotions to each other. And cheaper. ;)

We shouldn't be afraid of future emotions but we are, because we are terrified of the emotions today is bringing. Tomorrow's have to be far worse. If we can learn to express and share today's emotions, then we can learn that Tomorrow's emotions aren't as bad as they seem.

pam said...

Erin, this is wonderful. I am astounded by the amount of thought and time that went into this series. It is definitely a subject we all need to think about.

I am not a person that keeps stuff - very easy for me to turn loose of stuff I am not using. In fact, at least once a year I must do a thorough "cleansing" of my home of stuff.

But! There are the collections! A different matter all together. So much of what you have been saying applies to them as well so now I just need to get at that cluster of emotions surrounding them and determine their worth in light of that knowledge. Talk about maintenance!

I have observed first hand many homes turned over to a friend who runs estate sales. We have helped him on occasion to sort through and prepare the "stuff" for sale. Most of it useless. One wonders what possessed these people to acquire and keep the astounding quantity of stuff they had piled in attics, garages, storage sheds, back yards.... I had to stop helping - just couldn't take being around so much junk. Everything from stacks of egg cartons and meat trays to bins of rusted auto tire chains and cast off cooking gear and myriad of old bottles and jars. On and on and endless.

I am sending you a huge thank you for all you have put into this series and the valuable opportunity to rethink our choices and improve our lives.

puttingupwithme said...

Brilliant! Thank you!

loveaphid said...

Hello, my name is loveaphid and I own four sets of china... Hello loveaphid...

Seriously though, It has taken quite an emotional internal (and a few very loud external battles with the Fig man) to even get me to the point of looking at the stuff I have. The china is only the most clear and obvious emotional connection that I have to the myriad of stuff I have collected. Point in fact, my weariness of living as I am today with all of this stuff is the ultimate motivator. I have become more uncomfortable with the stuff than I have with the emotional turmoil of dealing with the stuff. But it has taken YEARS to get to this point, and frankly I am not sure that it is 100%, but it is a start. All I can do is go from here. I am trying desperately to prepare for tomorrow with out worrying about it today. It is quite a balancing act. You don't want to be short sighted, but you also don't want to make choices base on what might be someday. I keep telling myself, is you do the best you can and that is all you can do, so do not fret over the rest.

There my $.02. loveaphid

loveaphid said...

p.s. Any one need some china?

Jen said...

Someone is going to run across that china whereever you take it (goodwill, consignment, garage sale), and they're going to LOVE it, and USE it.

The Muse of The Day said...

Erin, of course I popped over for a visit to your blog as soon as I saw that you had had such a connection with my post. I have read all three of your "stuff" postings. Although the pink curtain (above) was very nice, I had to comment here, under "stuff". You should gather all 3 postings together and give Dwell magazine a ring. I am sure you would get it published. This is right up their alley. They are all about "stuff" - but minimalist at the same time. If Dwell won't have it, keep trying. It is not fair to leave such a great article only on your blog. Good luck, and thanks for the visit. Carolina

BarbaraS said...