At first sight not so much, but if you dig a little you’ll find that many a reason to keep something nearby, or not being able to decide on letting go, or getting a feeling that something is important, be it a physical object or an idea … are really just stories we have learned to tell ourselves. In some cases those stories have been implanted into our minds in the form of guilt and expectation (“this is something really dear to me that I entrust you with to keep forever”) or they might contain some elements of shame (“I couldn’t possibly throw this out or admit I have broken it”).
Another classic set of such stories concerns paperwork: “I just keep it because you never know when you’ll need it” or “what if I cannot replace it” are pretty common stories we tell ourselves. Having those stories does not mean they are all wrong or bad, but seeing them as such helps determine that we might not actually have all the right facts or simply don’t know the whole story or how it came to be.
It might be useful to look at decluttering from the point of view of a storyteller, then. We are all familiar with stories and how they go: if we look closely at any of the above stories, we’ll probably be able to find all kinds of missing bits in the storyline, assumptions that are never spoken out loud, inconsistent reasoning or clear breaks in the logic of the whole thing. Those are the spots that you can use to find out more about the reasons behind your hanging on to certain things, and why they appear to be impossible to let go of.
Maybe you’re just missing the point of the story? Or maybe the story behind an item is just too confused to untangle? In those cases I would surmise that the reason might be bogus and there really is no point in keeping that thing…
Then there are the stories we tell ourselves to keep away from harm – or so we think. “I have to hang on to this thing because …” followed by some reason that, investigated in the bright light of a laser torch, does not really hold water. Maybe we have convinced ourselves at some point that this reason is a good enough one, or we have been told something and have incorporated it into our belief system to a degree that we take it for granted. Stories can be inconspicuous things with long-lasting effects. How much of what we were told as kids has been sticking to our mind since that time, forever reinforcing itself whenever we started to investigate and not delving all the way to the bottom of that belief. One of those would be “you have to hang on to everything in case times get tough”. Of course that would be horrible, but how much do you hang on to? And how useful does it have to be to warrant hanging on to? Is it worth hanging on to that broken chair in case you’ll ever manage to get that open fire working again? Wouldn’t it be better to make space for something more useful and get some more broken furniture when the time comes, IF that time ever comes?
As you can see, a lot of the things we take for granted are really stories we tell ourselves, and the very first step to make a breakthrough in decluttering is to debunk some of the stories that really don’t serve you, and may actually never have served you in the first place.
Some stories make sense when they are first created, like not leaving fish sitting out for a day in a little village in Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C. These days we have fridges and fish can keep okay for a day or two if kept cold enough. The story was a life-saving one back then, but today? It is obvious to most people that there has been a change of parameters because it just makes sense. However, many of the stories we tell ourselves are not quite as obvious, especially when there is more at stake than physical health, when the storyline is silly on a perception level: something as simple as “do not eat the yellow snow” makes sense to anyone in a climate where snow is a regular occurrence. “Take care of grandma’s knives set” makes sense if those are the only knives around, but if you only keep them for sentimental reasons, together with 200 other items that used to belong to grandma, maybe the story is flawed?
We manage to deceive ourselves with stories to ensure that we stick to the status quo – maybe because we are intrinsically lazy – and to validate our beliefs, but in the end it’s only a way to avoid the ultimate confrontation with those objects or beliefs. This behaviour is not productive and in order to move forward, you’ll have to start investigating many of your most treasured stories, and start debunking them. And free yourself from those stories that are holding you back.
Ask the ClutterMeister
Ideas to help clear away the mess in our homes and in our minds.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.