Fighting American Hyper-Consumerism and its Negative Side-Effects

J. Nyla McNeill
Mar 10, 2019 · 8 min read

We have too much stuff.

What is Hyper-Consumerism, and who is affected?

Many people living in America have been affected by an economic crisis, war, or other trauma-based insecurity that is correlated to hoarding. In the absence of trauma, all of us live in a hyper-consumerist society—a society in which consumption extends beyond need or subsistence—with the fear of scarcity and “losing everything” that has been ingrained into our housekeeping behaviors so much so that we have lost sight of the obtuse materialism it has manifested. From the creation of the Great Depression, to the economic crisis of 2008, to surviving the Trump administration today, most Americans are struggling with housing, finances, and overcrowding, especially low income families, families of color, migrant families, and communities at the margins of society.

An average, cluttered apartment. Doesn’t look too far off from what I came from! What about you?

According to three UCLA social scientists and archaeologists who document clutter in contemporary American living spaces, the average household only use up to 40% of the allotted space in their home. Clutter and hoarding objects are a normal practice in America. Researchers found that Americans are the only society in the world who hoard objects in this way in excessive amounts.

Clutter creates stress, which is suggested by high levels of a hormone called cortisol. Stress leads directly to illness and diseases that are not absolved by mere treatment, and worsen under additional stress. The majority of those who suffer from stress—or increased cortisol levels—tend to be women, and particularly mothers. Stressed mothers make stressed babies, and stressed babies become stressed adults who are more prone to become sick. The cycle thus continues.

Hyper-Consumerism’s Many Other Negative Side-Effects: My Story

This now near-unconscious practice has burdened many of our lives. It definitely burdened my own. I’d created attachments to material items that gave me a sense of identity, value, and security, but felt awfully lonely everywhere I went. I was (and still am) part of many supportive communities, families, support groups, and programs, but still felt incredibly insecure. Even if I had been enjoying myself somewhere, I always felt hesitant, held back, as if I were missing something. I was a reactionary, fearful human with an insatiable material need. At my worst, I was always looking at what others had rather than valuing them for who they were.

Growing up in a cluttered, overcrowded household as a kid, I was often not allowed to have company. We were “too poor” to have people over. The house was “too small”. The house was “dirty”, and no matter how much cleaning we do, the house would never be neat… So on, and so be it. The only time I was able to hang out with people was at school, and when I was allowed to spend time with my close friends, their homes were cluttered and sometimes impossible to navigate, too. I became accustomed to the clutter and the anxiety that came with it. Unbeknownst to me, I sought the loneliness it created, and allowed it to perpetuate exactly what my parents taught me about my our living space: Shame.

Steeping in the suffering of a cluttered, disorganized life before moving away to college, I was terrified when I began my career while earning my first degree. I wanted to begin traveling (and when I say traveling, I meant to the other side of town), meet new people, and invite abundance into my world, but found no space within myself or my home to support these desires. These “desires”, I came to understand, are human needs. We need to be able to freely move to meet more humans. We need to be able to have unobstructed, undistracted human touch, eye contact, support, conversation, etc. in our lives. I could not afford to go out, spend time at coffee shops, or pay for my family members’ travel to my house or to visit campus as I began college. Plus, I was surrounded by objects of great monetary value that did not spark joy, nor touch my heart. Thus, I became deprived of these simple human necessities, trying to understand why I wasn’t passionate about anything in particular despite of my many talents. I became greedy. At one point I thought I would be better at guitar if I built an entire studio around the instrument. Instead of practicing, I bought more and more accessories, until I eventually gave up.

I often found myself sick, in bed, and unmotivated. This continued until my junior year of college. I began to convince myself that I was not good at anything I did. Despite of having been a first-chair musician with a near-perfect academic track record, my family being supportive and inviting, and my communities lifting me up, I still could not bridge the gap of wanting to expand my life and feeling as though I needed all of these things that were holding me back.

With the prospects that my last years of college offered—the possibility of a career in STEM, my poetry being on the rise, expense-paid travel, and the freedom to write my own projects outside of my research—I became desperate to reach my full potential. But, I did not feel ready to enjoy the fruits of 20 years of academic labor. I began to blame myself, my identities, and my ambitions for my stress, loneliness, depression, social anxiety, and disordered eating habits, not realizing that most Americans suffer from these issues regardless of class, race, and gender, and that Americans have been more depressed than they ever been in decades.

What the hell was wrong with me? I had never been much of a therapy person, so I began to do exactly what I usually did—drown myself in self-help books. Just before I gave up on searching for another neoliberal JUST-PICK-YOURSELF-UP! book, I found Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

And the rest is history, in action! Currently, I am offering minimization sessions to friends and colleagues and aim to begin serving families.

My Rise to Self-Empowerment via Minimalism

My passion for organization on all possible levels was reawakened by Marie’s excitement and quirkiness. I got back in touch with all the dreams and hobbies that made me jump for joy as a child as I let go of all my unnecessary crafting supplies, books, old toys, etc. I got rid of all of the clothes that made me feel weird about my body. I trashed and deleted years worth of writing borne from insecurity and started presenting and publishing my work. I took up music again as I pared down my vast collection of instruments and accessories to those that make me fall in love with music over and over again.

I learned to make my body my home, and my home my sanctuary. I began to eat better as I let go of snack foods I was addicted to. I quit binge drinking. I began to exercise daily: my body has returned to what it was in high school. My body, mind, and abilities became incredibly flexible. I found my core values. I let go of all of the things that supported my victimhood to depression and anxiety—and, though I still have depression for reasons related to living in the “united” state of the Disillusioned as a Black-Pinay, transgender, and queer person—my joy, happiness, healing, and life in general are in my hands.

I learned to make my body my home, and my home my sanctuary.

I am currently beginning to return to the traditional plant medicines and practices of my own heritages, giving away all of the chemically, symptom-hiding, root-cause-evading medicines of the West that cluttered cabinets, purses, and travel bags. I am thus less sick than I ever have been.

I am learning horticulture. Becoming closer to the Earth and my people, all of my relationships have strengthened. My finances are more stable. I now travel often, cheaply, engage in my passions daily, and can work wherever I go. I spend a lot of time working in a hammock. I no longer become burnt out. I do not own many things, nor do I watch much television, so there is ample space at home to just be. I even started a brand new life goal: get good enough at skateboarding to be sponsored in the future.

I’m chillin’ like a real-ass, american villain.

This sounds too good to be true. What’s in it for me?

All in all, I believe we all need to address how much we have collected due to fear of scarcity or feelings of insecurity. KonMari is not the only way. Radical minimalism is not the only way. Throwing your things away is not the only way. However, we must commit to unlearning American hyper-consumerism in order to reclaim space in our lives.

Overconsumption is holding us back. And, again, minimalism is not merely a practice of throwing things away. Quite the contrary! It is the recognition that “Less is more,” that letting go of objects creates the physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual space to invite more people, and their love and support, into our lives. I have never been more social in my life. I have never been this happy! (Believe me, I was a devout emo kid before all of this).

Letting go is not just a material practice. It is a gateway to learning how to modify our negative thoughts, gain gratitude, and practice appreciation, similar to addressing negative or intrusive thoughts during psychotherapy. When we let go of the objects we are surrounded by that do not align with our joy and purpose, we may also be remapping the physical neural networks in our brains that create connections to these previously practiced insecurities about our selves. In addition to hoarding clutter, many of us hoard emotions, self-judgements, and negative thoughts about ourselves without ever letting them go.

Let’s start right here, right now. What are you holding onto that is holding you back? How aware are you of the attachments you have made to thoughts, media, and items rooted in negativity? Are you willing to decrease your stress, increase your memory, neural plasticity, physical activity, time with loved ones, and practice mindfulness in your mind-body?

If so, you may want to consider parting with everything—and everyone, as you may learn that people who treat us like objects shall be treated like objects themselves in the minimization process— that does not serve you.

Minimalism and unlearning hyper-consumerism is an easy way to get free, to learn about ourselves, and to address our insecurities. If you are considering minimizing your living quarters, you are also considering a fuller life.

Stay tuned for more writing on minimalist resources for people of marginalized identities, Black/Afrikan minimalism, and minimalism based on location. I will also write more on practice and finding core life values, our items’ connections to our health and stress, and overcoming self-judgement and unnecessary attachments to things.

Your free life is waiting for you, and I want to support you in it.

J. Nyla McNeill

Written by

Poet, educator, musician. Researcher in the fields of psychology and trans/gender studies. Relearning medicine, skateboarding, parenting hundreds of plants.

J. Nyla McNeill

Written by

Poet, educator, musician. Researcher in the fields of psychology and trans/gender studies. Relearning medicine, skateboarding, parenting hundreds of plants.

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