7 Things I Learned While Downsizing My Stuff

For most of my life, I’ve identified as a packrat.

I was raised by packrats. For example: during my grandparent’s emigration from Bermuda in the 1970’s, my grandfather paid to ship 2 decades worth of National Geographic magazines and his collection hundreds of found glass bottles across the Atlantic. The boxes have never been opened.

With my own long-distance move looming, I decided to undertake the overwhelming task of reducing my belongings. It’s been exciting, and sometimes difficult, but most of all it’s been eye opening. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1) Approximately 1/3 of my stuff was useless to me.

It’s not a hard number, but roughly 30% of my belongings were easy candidates for rehoming or recycling. Whether it was my wardrobe, art supplies, DVDs or mugs, I was able to pretty consistently dump 30-50% of what was there without having to give it too much thought.

2) ‘Someday’ will probably never come.

There was so much stuff that I was keeping for someday: an ambiguous time in the future when I’ll be interested in making paper again, or need a feather boa,  or finally,watch that film that’s been sitting unopened on my shelf for half a decade. Sure, maybe one day I will take up embroidery again, but it’s been nearly ten years and my box of floss is just gathering dust. Some things in life are one-offs—and there’s no shame in trying a new hobby or buying a book you think you’ll read—but I’ve learned that if it’s been years since I last used something I probably won’t miss it once it’s gone. I’ve been patient with myself in learning this, as it’s probably been the hardest lesson to sink in. It’s helped to remind myself that by getting rid of a ‘someday’ item I’m allowing myself to rebuy it, guilt free, if ‘someday’ does, in fact, come along. In the meantime, I have more closet space.

3) Digital photography can be a stand-in for the real thing.

I’m super sentimental about objects, but if I wanted to keep everything that made me go ‘aw’ I would need a second home to store it all in. By taking a photo of the thing I can still look at the image of it and get misty, but it’s not cluttering my shelves or taking up space in a box downstairs.

4) Letting go is freeing.

There was a surprising amount of stuff in my home that made me feel bad: a memento tied to a bad memory, a gift from someone who treated me badly, or an object that was broken or damaged beyond repair. Letting go of these items felt like an actual weight was being lifted from my shoulders. My home is not a museum of bad memories. It is a place for me to live and enjoy my family and feel comfortable. Anything that hinders that can hit the kerb.
I also feel that by letting go of certain objects I’ve made more room for myself to grow. It’s a little like weeding a vegetable garden: the stuff I want to grow has more room to do so without the unwanted things taking up space and resources in the garden bed.

5) The emotional value of what I have kept has increased.

Keeping only the things that I love (or that are day-to-day useful) has made those things seem even more special. Ridding my home of the distraction of lukewarm (or worse: frigid) objects made the remaining stuff feel precious and actively chosen. What I have now is more akin to a curated museum exhibit of rare treasures than the rummage-sale-bin-hodge-podge of previous years.

6) I had spent an enormous amount of money on things I didn’t need.

And, you know what? That’s okay.
Not okay as in I would recommend it, but okay as in I forgive myself for having made that mistake and by admitting it was a mistake I have learned from it. Downsizing has taught me to reevaluate what I bring into my home. Lately, my spending has decreased, and the few things I have bought have felt right. I know myself better now, and that’s a big comfort.

7) Sharing the wealth feels good. 

There were so many items that were in great condition, just gathering dust in forgotten corners. Owning things I don’t use or appreciate always makes me feel guilty: someone else could be enjoying this instead of me sitting on it like a broody hen. Liberating old toys from boxes and novels from shelves gave me a distinctly good feeling, even if the items in question were sentimentally loaded. As it turned out, setting them free into the world to be used and enjoyed by someone else brought me more comfort than owning that thing myself.

8) I am not my things.

Possessions are nice—and sometimes necessary—but they don’t define me. A keepsake can be lovely, but ultimately the memory is more important than the object associated with that memory. Choosing to get rid of an object doesn’t negate the emotion tied to it, and it doesn’t take any part of me with it when it goes. If I lost everything in a fire tomorrow, I would still be fundamentally the same person, regardless of which possessions survived.

The lessons keep coming as I continue to pick through the objects that I’ve collected over the past 30 years, and the more belongings I shed the lighter I feel. I’m hardly surprised to find that there’s so much emotion tied up in the experience, but I’ve been pleased to find out that it’s a much more positive one than I’d anticipated. I’m excited to carry what I’ve learned into this next stage of my life, and while I’m certain there will always be a little place in my home for the purely sentimental,  packrattery is something I don’t mind letting go of.

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