If you’re anything like me, you binged Marie Kondo’s Netflix series and felt excited to spark joy in the new year. You might have stayed awake until 4 a.m., creating mountainous piles of clothing and gently organizing Komono, or miscellaneous items. But after finishing off a Goodwill run or two, you may not have created a game plan to keep your physical and mental space clear.
The link between physical and mental wellbeing is profound. In fact, one of the most fascinating parts of the KonMari method for me wasn’t the stunning before-and-after shots, but the emotions that people endured on their path to simplicity.
As the show proves, often our “stuff” is a stopgap for emotion unfulfillment. We hold onto sentimental items on our journey to grieving a loved one. Or we buy things for a momentary rush, to avoid feeling hard or unpleasant emotions. In my case, as a child I would organize and re-organize my possessions just to regain a sense of control that I had lost.
We might hang onto “someday” items as physical representations of hope we need for tomorrow, particularly if today is not fulfilling. Have you found yourself saying, “Someday I’ll feel more social and host people at my home, and then I’ll need these placemats,” or “Someday I’ll fit into this pair of jeans” or “Someday I’ll be on the perfect date and wish I had this dress”? Do you really just wish your self-concept was stronger right now?
My minimalist journey was closely entwined with my mental health journey. It can’t be any other way. And as I’ve found with practice, if we don’t care for our mental health underneath the stuff, then organization and decluttering becomes a cycle that we can’t break.
I’ve since learned to let stuff improve my wellbeing rather than take away from it. Here, four lessons I’m excited to share for more joy and less clutter.
Curate shopping lists into ‘need’ and ‘want’
After decluttering, your shelves and drawers are at a happy semi-empty state with plenty of room left to breathe. In this white space is where joy lives. But many of us see an empty space and feel an immediate reflex to fill it.
To avoid this pattern, I do all of my shopping on a need-based system. My rules: Don’t go browsing storefronts, don’t peruse Amazon for deals. Instead, create two lists — a “need” and a “want.” When you go about your daily life and realize you have a need, such as “My rain boots are falling apart” or “I’m cooking more, I’d really like a sturdy set of pans,” that goes on the need list.
When you see something that just brings you joy but you don’t really need, that goes on the “want” list. Like a nice art print, or a pair of going-out shoes. Decorative items are almost always in the want list.
When you do go shopping for your need list, be thoughtful. Invest in better-quality items that will last you longer. Read reviews. Shop around for better options. Install a coupon app like Honey and temporarily sign up for brand newsletters to help you find discounts, making that high-end item easier to reach. Make sure what you’re buying will last you many years, as most high-quality things do.
Most importantly, put care into the things you buy: Make investments, not purchases.
And finally, don’t go shopping for your want list. Instead, use that list to feed your joy and practice self-care. When you have a birthday, or want to celebrate a holiday or a milestone, buy one of your want items for yourself. Tell yourself you deserve love and care and good feelings, and that this is just one of many ways to show it to yourself. But don’t buy your want item on a bad day to self-sooth. If you start associating buying things with bad moods, you’ll soon create a roaring habit that’s hard to tame.
Realize the impact that minimalism has
Did you know that it takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans? According to Forbes, the apparel industry contributes 10% of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter after oil.
But the slow fashion of minimalism has a huge impact:
“Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.” –Forbes
Minimalism also improves your ability to save money. If you invest in one expensive item that lasts you five years, you save plenty of money compared to buying multiples of a $10 item that lasts you only a few months. By recognizing the numerous advantages of a simple lifestyle, your minimalism becomes less of a chore and more of a self-fulfilling practice.
If you hang your minimalism on the hook of a higher purpose, you’ll be more compelled to follow it.
It also feeds your self-concept in a long-lasting way that stuff simply can’t.
Find ways to promote better emotional coping strategies
Many of us turn to “retail therapy” to avoid bad emotions. Or we might get extremely sentimental at a loss: When my dad passed away suddenly when I was 19, I developed a quick interest in shopping at thrift stores. I told myself I could fix things up with a fresh coat of paint, brighten my surroundings, and create a happier hideaway. But it wasn’t really the $10 Salvation Army table that needed fixing; It was merely a symbol for the pain I felt and my desire to fix it, fast.
My grief counselor at the time suggested “lean in,” the idea of facing my pain instead of running from it. I was unable to do this for a few years — but when I did, miraculously, “stuff” began holding much less value to me. My mental space was more peaceful, and it manifested in a brighter, lighter space around me.
Lean in is a simple, genius method of working our way through all kinds of emotional issues. Instead of distracting ourselves or burying feelings away, lean in tells us to pay attention and feel the emotion at face value.
Leaning in is painful, especially if we have big emotional scars like trauma or grief. But facing pain lets us pave the way to a brighter life.
To lean in, practice mindfulness every day and check in with yourself often. Ask, How am I feeling? Is something off right now? If you feel the snag of a negative emotion, try pushing towards it, not away. Write down your thoughts in a journal or console in a trusted friend. Try to set up a meeting with a therapist. If you find your emotions eking out when you can’t deal with them — like at work, or in a public setting — set up appointments with your feelings.
During the worst of my grief and anxiety, I set up daily “sessions” with my pain. I would give myself 30 minutes in the evening to lay in bed and feel it fully, no distractions or minimization. Over time, I felt my body preparing for these moments instead of forcing the emotions out at random times. And in that way, I felt more control emotionally, so I didn’t need to grab control in the collection and organization of physical objects.
Digitize what you can’t part with
Some sentimentality is important to keep around for our self-concept. Digitization is one of the best tools at our disposal to declutter the sentimental items. By snapping photos of handwritten cards and mementos, you can use a tool like Artifact Uprising to create bound books with those photos so you don’t need to keep the real things. Or you can scan your favorite magazine articles into nicely organized folders, like Recipes and Good Essays and DIY Ideas, while cutting down on paper clutter.
Find ways to access your joy easily, so you don’t need to go digging when you need to read words from a loved one or a spark of inspiration. These things are soul-building, but they can hurt us if they take up too much space.
If digitization isn’t your thing, think of other ways to make meaning while simplifying. After my dad’s sudden death, my mom took all of his shirts and handwritten cards and created a beautiful quilt.
No matter how you proceed in your journey to have less, remember the emotional person at the core. Treat yourself kindly and manage your emotional wellbeing. Your physical world will follow suit.
As Socrates said, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”