“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important — so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” — The Minimalists

Despite fully agreeing with this quote, after months of living a very rewarding minimalist lifestyle, I somehow drifted away from its true meaning.

At some point during my downsizing and decluttering adventures, I stopped focusing on the benefits I had gained from this lifestyle (mental clarity, inspiration, physical and emotional space) and became obsessed with having as little as possible.

I was willing to pay an extra $200 for a sleeping bag that was 50 grams lighter than one I already owned, yet I judged myself if I felt like buying an extra shirt or a nice piece of jewelry. Eventually it became clear to me that something wasn’t right. Simplifying my life had been working miracles so far; what was I doing wrong now?

I was about to find out.

What Minimalism Is Not

Countless people have adopted a minimalist lifestyle and have seen their lives flourish with newfound joy and purpose.

Many of them can be found online, sharing their unique journeys and inspiring others on the same path. Jenny Mustard shares simple vegan recipes and minimalist fashion inspiration. Leo Babauta is the founder of the blog Zen Habits and lives with his wife and six kids. Tammy Strobel lives with her husband in a tiny house, and Colin Wright travels the world with his portable studio that fits in a carry-on bag.

When you look at these examples, one thing becomes obvious: Despite calling themselves minimalists, these people’s lives look completely different from each other.

When I realized this, I finally understood what I had been doing wrong: Instead of using minimalism to improve my own life, I was trying to live up to someone else’s standards.

This wasn’t the first time something like this happened to me. I had subconsciously been doing the same thing throughout my whole life: I wanted to have someone else’s perfect body, and I envied other people’s brilliant talents. When I was a teenager, I even wanted to be someone else. (Most of the time that meant pretty rock-star girls like Avril Lavigne.)

The same thing was happening with minimalism: I was trying to fit a mold that I had seen somewhere else. I was hiding from my own emotions, convincing myself that perfection could be achieved by ticking a few boxes and following a few rules.

My brain was creating those rules without me even being aware of it: My clothes had to be black or white or plain, and there couldn’t be more than a dozen items. My website had to be all in Helvetica regular, gray on white, immaculately clean. I had to eat certain foods and lead a certain lifestyle that I had read about somewhere and that I held as perfect.

Was it really perfect? Yes, probably for someone else. But not for me.

The Minimalists accurately describe some common misconceptions about minimalism. They point out how some people think that “to be a minimalist you must live with less than 100 things, you can’t own a car or a home or a television, you can’t have a career, you must live in exotic hard-to-pronounce places all over the world, you must start a blog, you can’t have children, and you must be a young white male from a privileged background.”

Sounds ridiculous, right? Intellectually, I never believed minimalism to be that inflexible and plain. However, my desire to fit in — to “do things right” — tricked me into pursuing something that didn’t feel authentic for me.

So, how did I escape the trap?

Minimalism Is For You — You Just Need to Make It Your Own

It’s very simple: If your goal is happiness, then you want to find whatever tools you can to help you achieve it.

Those minimalists I mentioned before live happy and fulfilling lives because they use minimalism as a tool to achieve their own goals.

So that’s what I did.

As soon as I realized this, I got back in touch with myself: What is it that I really want from life at this point in time? The answers were clear:

I wanted my life to be meaningful and purposeful, I wanted vibrant and loving relationships, and I wanted to be an inspiration for myself and people around me.

You Can Do the Same. Here’s How:

  1. Answer these questions: “What do I want from life at this point in time?” “How can minimalism help me achieve that?”
  2. Read about minimalism. Get inspired. Look at how others do it, gather your tools, and observe how beautifully unique we all are.
  3. Digest the information and apply it to your own dreams and goals. Do what serves you, and eliminate what doesn’t. Allow yourself to evolve, make changes, fail and learn and try again.

After I took a moment to think about this, everything became much clearer to me. Did it matter if I wasn’t traveling with a tiny 20-liter backpack and if my wardrobe wasn’t as homogeneous as Steve Jobs’? Of course not. Would I like to travel light and keep my outfits simple and organized? Definitely.

After I had clearly set my intention, I wasn’t falling for the same traps as before. Once you know what you want, it’s easier to stay on track. You can still enjoy beautifully written blog posts about minimalism like this one, but you will be less tempted to follow them blindly and without question. Instead, just let them inspire you: Process the information and adapt it to your own life and experiences.