The Downside of Decluttering

Right away, I should confess: I am a compulsive declutterer, a thrower outer, a ‘Mom! What did you do with my (whatever)?’ Not because of some spartan views on life (I love nice stuff), but a lifelong habit of perpetual moving: since the day I was born I have moved every three years of my life - across cities, states and countries - until three years ago when I broke the streak. For me, it has always boiled down to this -- what do I want to repack and schlep on my next move? (Considering that we live in NYC with three kids, such that even the next move will not have a basement or enough closet space for extra stuff — better to get rid of it now.) All this to say, I am a fan of getting rid of stuff that you don’t use or love (or whatever Marie Kondo says, she’s got this thing down).

But I am also wary of it.

Not because I don’t enjoy the peace of mind that a streamlined and organized space brings - I like it very much. As well as the feeling of peace that follows after I have lightened my space from things that were just hanging around, begging for my attention, like a toddler holding onto my leg while I try to do the dishes. Sort me, file me, take care of me! Just my paperwork can work up a ruckus which is enough to drive me bananas. A clean space makes me happy, calm and more productive. That, I like.

What I don’t like is the way I can become when my mood is low and my inner critic is in full force. Then the tidying is not about tidying at all. It’s not about going through my clothes or sorting through knick-knacks, it runs a little deeper. It's about the awful decisions I made that got me to this point where my house (my life!) is such a mess. It’s about the ways in which I have lost control, and how decluttering will help me regain mastery of my domain. It's about how if I fix this one thing, I will be able to fix that other thing, and, as a result of the fixing, things will be better. Or maybe they won’t, but at least I will have done everything in my control to make them better. To live my best life. (To maximize my potential.)

The downside to decluttering is the false promise of the purge.

That being cleaner than means being better than. That being better than gives you an edge on life. A better life. Because that is the premise to the promise - given that life is short, you need to live your best life. Even if that means being on edge to make sure that you are getting the most of this life. Not factoring in the cost of what it means to always be on the edge, always be your best, always be on the lookout for what’s next. It’s exhausting.

And while it’s true that a cleaner environment causes less stress, it is equally true that if you’re not stressed about your environment, you can let it get a little messy. You can let it reflect the messiness of your life in that moment and find peace with it, too. Heck, you could bask in the glow of your messiness, of how full and rich your life is. Of how you are blessed to be stressed.

The urge to declutter extends into our lives - we yearn to erase the bad decisions we made, the poor choices of our past, the relationships gone wrong. When, in fact, these are all very much woven into our lives. Whatever led us to bring that item into our home, bring that person into our life, bring that job into our career, was all true of who we were in the moment that we decided to do so (even if you were drunk, delusional, desperate - whatever - that was also true of you in that moment. Leave yourself alone.) The rush of excitement followed by regret and then, possibly, relief, are all part of the human experience.

As are, by the way, the humans you live with. You’ve got your mess tolerance and they have theirs. Finding that sweet spot is sweet. As is dealing with all those unwanted gifts that you receive from the other humans in your life. Yes, it’s all just stuff, but for a moment (or more), that stuff was eyed and considered before it was purchased and bestowed upon you. You don’t need to keep it, but you do get to keep the moment of being cherished. (This is true for both things and for people. In every old relationship there was a moment, or more, of being cherished. Those moments are also yours to keep.)

The more compassion you have for the stuff you can’t believe you bought or the items you have held onto for too long, the more compassion you might find for the choices you regret making or the relationships you kept around for too long. Approach all of them with kindness to yourself, as they have been a part of your life and have served you in some way. And continue to do so, even now, by providing you with the practice of letting go.

Wishing you a gentle and kind spring cleaning.