When most people think about clutter, they think about a large quantity of unused items in their home, perhaps even bordering on hoarder status. But clutter can also apply to a few items we hold on to that keep us stuck in the past. And, by stuck, I mean preventing you from living the life you want to be living.
How do we know what items are tethering us to people, places, and things from our past? How do we know when we're stuck and just reliving the past instead of creating our future?
To answer these questions, we need to understand why we hold on to things to begin with.
At around two years of age, we begin to realize we are separate beings—separate from our caregivers and separate from things. This is the beginning of our identity formation, or individuation, and we do this through our possessions.
"This is mine. Mine. Mine. Mine."
A child begins to find his or her individual expression, or identity formation, through his or her preferences. "I want this doll." "I want this green truck." Of course, this is also the beginning of parental and societal influences on who we should be in the world and therefore what items we should possess.
Our innate desire towards possessing things for individuation doesn't stop in childhood. Our things have always been and will continue to be an integral way of expressing our identity in the world.
"I prefer the rose gold iPhone."
Translation: I'm elegant and appreciate design.
"I prefer the black Samsung phone."
Translation: I'm smart and don't fall for fluff.
Possessing, owning, liking, desiring, or buying things is not the problem. The problem comes when we outgrow certain identities, but keep holding onto those items representing the old identity.
Around adolescence we encounter our first of many identity crises. Who are we separate from our family? Life gives you more chances, especially during mid-life crisis. Our identity is up for review during key phases and transitional times, such as a job loss, career change, divorce, death of a loved one, or a major move.
The problem comes when we don't completely shed the old identity to make room for the new one. And since our identity is reflected through our stuff, we hang on to those items that represent the past identities.
The past not only remains present, but also piles up. This can lead to stagnation, confusion, emotional claustrophobia, regret, lack of direction, weight gain, and depression.
Here are a few of the common identities we tend to hold on to.
- Past Jobs and Careers
Understandably so, we form strong identities around our work in the world. But what about when we change jobs or careers? It took me years after practicing law before I finally let go of my last business suit.
Even though I had no desire to practice law, or, for that matter, to wear business clothes ever again, that last business suit still hung in my closet: Pin-striped from Banana Republic. My cover excuse was "just in case" I need a business suit one day.
The "just-in-case" excuse is a mental trick for holding on to an old identity. I was getting a lot more out of the attorney identity than I realized. Being an attorney was an aspect of myself that was solid, legitimate, smart, provided well, and, most importantly, positively acknowledged by my family as opposed to the woo-woo self-help junkie.
Items from past jobs and careers could be clothing, manuals, files, supplies, or even awards. If you're holding on to any of these items from the past, use self-inquiry to get to the root of why you're really holding on to them. Are they still necessary or keeping you from fully stepping into your current job or career?
- Past Relationships
Our identity through relationships runs deep and can be incredibly difficult to move on from. When we go through a break-up or divorce, we have no idea who we are separate from that person. This is often the impetus of what's known as "the dark night of the soul," and also why many people try to avoid this identity crisis by staying in a dead-end relationship or quickly moving into a new one.
As you establish a new sense of self outside of the relationship, you are able to let go of items associated with the past relationship. Decluttering items related to the relationship can be extremely cathartic. It can take months or years, depending on the emotional depth, and assist with the grieving process. On the other hand, ignoring or stuffing items away that relate to the relationship can prevent you from attracting a new relationship.
- Beauty Products
Are your cabinets cluttered with beauty products? These are usually stashed in bathroom cabinets and finally get our attention when we run out of space or upon moving. The excuses for hanging on to these products run the gamut: There's almost a whole bottle left. I might still use it. I could use it for travel. Even though it broke my skin out, it might not the next time I try it. It was expensive. I don't want to waste it. I should give it to my sister. Believe it or not, all of those are cover excuses for what's really going on.
When one's identity is significantly wrapped around appearance, insecurity can easily rear its head. This is especially true as one gets older and looks begin to fade, at least in terms of societal standards. If I lose my looks, who am I then? Who am I if I'm not the beauty queen? What happens when I no longer look attractive? These are the subconscious fears that lend to purchasing and subsequently holding on to beauty products, even if not used.
In an attempt to hold on to our beauty, we hold on to beauty products. There is an irrational subconscious belief that by simply possessing these products, even if unused, one's appearance will be maintained or perhaps even improved. Know that loosening your grip on extraneous beauty products will allow more space for your true beauty to shine.
- Papers, Magazines, and Ideas
If beauty products aren't your thing, then maybe piles of papers, magazines, or books are. Papers can come in the form of mail, household papers, magazines, notes, to-do-lists, books, or any other resource on paper.
For information junkies, being resourceful is very much a part of their identity. It's where they feel valuable and helpful to the world and derive self-worth. They enjoy the exchange of information on the mental level—learning it for themselves or sharing it with others, usually both. The idea of getting rid of these information resources feels preposterous to them.
Papers are certainly valuable, but when do they become too much of a good thing? People with too much paper are rarely in denial that they've exceeded their threshold. When you have too much paper, it impedes upon your resourcefulness. There's a desire to lighten your load, but fear swoops in. What if I throw something useful away? What if I need it later? Am I throwing away a good idea? I might need that for a future project. My client might need it.
The excuses for keeping information run wild. And suddenly these information junkies are stopped in their tracks, feeling paralyzed by the thought of discarding a sliver of paper. When feeling overwhelmed, making logical decisions is impossible. When this is the case, then there's something else at play. The fear that represents the shadow side of being resourceful is feeling out-of-the-loop. This frightens anyone whose identity is based in resourcefulness, even if not aware of it.
If this feels all too familiar for you, simply acknowledge that information gathering and sharing is a part of who you are. If it is transacted through your work or art, acknowledge that as well. This is an aspect of you that can't be taken away even if every scrap of paper, magazine article, or news clipping were erased from your home or deleted from your hard drive. Life will always bring new and fresh information to you. Resourceful people fear being out of the loop so much that they hang on to paper and information to the point of stagnation. As a result, they lose their resourcefulness—exactly what they fear.
- Past Associations and Accomplishments
Our identity can also get stuck around the glory days, such as captain of the football team, PTO president, Homecoming Queen, being a mother, or even Best Salesman (1998). These are usually viewed as positive times in our life. And although fleeting moments, we try to hold on to them and make the past present.
Positive memorabilia certainly has value. But if you are viewing these times as the best days of your life and you're under the age of 99, then consider lightening your load of items related to past identities that are no longer relevant to your current life. There is a fine line between nostalgia and living in the past.
As you continue to grow and expand, life will only get better and better with each past identity and experience being either a positive reinforcement or a growing pain from which to launch you further. You will experience life to be more enriching than your wildest dreams or even your best past memory.