It’s an interesting metaphor when you think about it – the rapper Eminem was singing about dealing with neglected emotional baggage from his past in his song Cleaning Out My Closet, and most of us can relate to that. There’s a connection between our own feelings and the shut-away and neglected clutter we surround ourselves with.
Stuff isn’t just stuff. Stuff is emotional.
Our stuff defines us. It reflects our interests, tastes, means and especially aspirations. Why we choose to buy what we do is the basis of the entire advertising, marketing and sales industries, but that’s not the subject of this article.
This article is about why we choose to hang on to our old stuff, long after we stop needing it, and why we sometimes simply hoard it away somewhere out of sight and forget about it.
It’s also about when I cleaned out my own wardrobe a couple of months ago.
I’m actually a pretty organised person most of the time, but for some reason my wardrobe has a habit of being a bit of a dumping ground for stuff I don’t have a proper place for – not just clothes, but assorted books, magazines, papers, unopened things in boxes, letters, old shoes . . . you get the idea.
I do clear it out from time to time, but I felt the need to really empty it out. I went through everything in there (and anything left lurking on my ‘floordrobe’) and ended-up getting rid of nine carrier bags of clothes, as well as a large amount of other forgotten and misplaced junk. Most of it went off to charity shops, some for recycling and one bag was destined for landfill. The photo above is the ‘after’ – I didn’t dare show the ‘before’ !
It’s not just me.
According to a recent QVC survey, the average British woman has 22 unworn outfits hanging in her wardrobe. If true, this means that across the country there are over £1.6billion of unworn clothes hanging in women’s wardrobes! If we assume men are equally as bad, then that’s a clothes rail hung with never worn clothes stretching from London to New York nine times over. That’s a lot of ‘stuff’ just hanging around unused; what would Gok Wan say! And you don’t have to be an environmental scientist to realise there’s a huge environmental footprint associated with the growing, dying, making, transporting, packaging and retailing all those clothes.
The trend in society is to live in households with fewer and fewer people, but with more and more storage for our stuff, and if we can’t cram it all in there are companies happy to rent us storage space for all our extra stuff we can’t fit into our attic! We need to reduce our constant buying of things just because we enjoy the buying part. I’m firmly of the opinion that a sustainable future must see us all buying and consuming less. If we had a better grasp of what we already own, better managed and organised our belongings, took better care of our clothes and other things, repaired things occasionally and bought new things in a more mindful and considered way, we might find our lives a little less filled with clutter and perhaps even be a little less stressed as a result. Additionally we’d save ourselves a lot of money – which we might be inclined to put to some other beneficial use, or use to buy better quality and more sustainably produced clothes. Less is more, and all that jazz.
Psychologists say the extent to which we tend to surround ourselves with clutter and junk is connected to our underlying beliefs about life, especially how we feel about the future and the past. Everyone takes some comfort in familiarity and routine, and change can be stressful, and supposedly the more optimistic we feel about the future the easier it is to embrace change positively. If you think all your best days are behind you, it seems logical to try to hang on to them. As we get older it gets harder, our worlds often shrink, he world seems more scary and being optimistic about the future is harder.
There is an mental condition known as Diogenes Syndrome, named after an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. It describes extreme compulsive hoarding behaviour. It’s more common than you might think, in my last six years working in an Environmental Health Department I’ve encountered it a number of times. It reflects a person’s inability to cope emotionally, and their retreat from a wider world they simply can’t cope with into a smaller existence they have more control over – often just a corner of a single room. This tendency to retreat into our own little space with all it’s comforts of routine seems to affect us all to some degree. I think it’s something we’d be well advised to actively fight against, becoming less fearful and more embracing of change, and less willing to define ourselves both by our past, and by our stuff.
I’ll be continuing with my own decluttering journey throughout the year – simplifying and minimalising wherever I can. If you’re minded to do the same it would be great to hear how you get on. There are several people who make their living as professional declutterers helping other people dejunk their lives – you’ve probably seen them on TV. If you’re after advice on decluttering your life try these websites.
There are limits though – a man called Dave Bruno has created something called the 100 Thing Challenge, to combat the Western consumerist lifestyle and promote a life of simplicity, characterised by joyfulness and thoughtfulness. I can’t see me getting even close to 100 items any time soon, but the stories on his blog are quite inspirational.
If you want to go even further you could follow the example of the artist Michael Landy. In 2001 he catalogued and then destroyed everything he owned, saying it was “an examination of society’s romance with consumerism, and the amount of raw material and energy that goes into making things”.
It might be easier for now, just to tackle your cutlery draw.
So did clearing out my closet change my life ?
Honestly . . . yes, a little bit.
Photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/puuikibeach/5208654120/