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Every Thing You Own is a Relationship You’re In

socks in drawer

I spent six weeks getting rid of several carloads of possessions, and three days arranging what was left. Now my socks are arranged by color, my apartment is way bigger, and being home feels like a vacation.

Some of you have been following my experiment with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. For those who haven’t, it works like this: you go through every possession you own, hold it in your hands, and keep it only if it evokes some kind of “joy”.

That criterion sounds kind of flaky, but it works surprisingly well. When you hold an item in your hands, its psychological effect on you becomes clear in a second or two. The theory is that any possession that gives you bad or mixed feelings is too costly to have in your life, if it’s possible to get rid of it.

I ended up getting rid of hundreds of things. Now cleaning up takes five minutes, and everything I do in my home—cooking, recreating, cleaning even—has a fun, effortless quality to it. It feels like everything I own is on the same team.

I had achieved an “everything in its place” household before, so I’m familiar with the euphoria of having extra space and no homeless possessions. Tidiness simply feels great, on top of the practical benefit having more space and less clutter. But this time there’s a different kind of euphoria, because for the first time nothing in my house gives me mixed feelings.

Every possession is a relationship

Most of us own lots of things that make us feel bad. Unused gifts. Clothes that don’t fit. Supplies for hobbies you never really got into. Books you’ll never read. Plastic crap from the dollar store. When you hold a possession in your hands it becomes clear that it makes you feel something—joy, guilt, weariness, fear, very often mixed feelings—sometimes very strongly. If it’s normal to have hundreds or thousands of possessions, then we are each, at all times, bearing the weight of hundreds or thousands of these relationships. So it makes sense to very carefully consider what we keep in our homes. 

The result of Kondo’s style of decluttering is that you’re left only with what evokes joy or other good feelings. Unless you’ve done the “KonMari” process already, that’s a sensation you’ve probably never had, because we don’t usually apply a “how does this feel” criterion when we acquire the stuff in the first place. We buy things because they do something we need done, we accept gifts we wouldn’t have bought, and we don’t get rid of things as our tastes and values change.

Now that I care about all of my stuff, I treat it differently. It feels disrespectful to leave something out, especially when it has a perfectly good home.

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I sorted things by color just because it felt good. It makes a meaningful difference: I’ve never felt attracted to my closet before. The stuff hanging in there used to be at least 50% repulsive. I’m also storing things vertically wherever possible. It takes up less space and now I never have to remove an item from the middle of a stack. I can’t believe how long I put up with stacks of things.

Unexpected side-effects

Culling things like this forces you to make some austere decisions about your identity. You have to confront certain truths about what you’re going to make time and space for in your life. I decided that I will probably never do A Course in Miracles and got rid of my copy. Now that I use a streaming service for my music, I got rid of all of my CDs, officially ending that era. I donated a turntable I’d been sitting on for years, finally admitting to myself that I’ll never be a vinyl-collecting music dude.

All of these “goodbye” moments felt liberating. Much of this process is about deciding who you are and who you’re not going to be. You can’t move forward when you’re trying to keep a foot in every door.

Getting rid of the joyless stuff can reveal that you never really had what you thought you had. I always had lots of clothes, but when I culled them down to what I actually wore and liked wearing, I barely had enough clothing to fill a large suitcase. Suddenly it’s clear that I only have one pair of non-dress pants that I actually wear, but it seemed like I had more because of the five pairs of pants I never wore. That’s like owning one pair of pants and five pairs of anti-pants. This discovery is pivotal—now there is a clear problem to address, when before it just felt like nothing looked good on me.

The last thing you’re supposed to cull is mementos. This was where the psychological effect of possessions was most obvious. Most of the cards, letters and hand-made gifts in my box of keepsakes gave me mixed feelings at best. It seemed like keeping photos of old friends and letters from old girlfriends was a sensible way of commemorating significant life experiences, but they sure didn’t feel good to look at. Getting rid of them felt awesome. Now I just have a few select gifts from people I love, and each of them makes me smile.

That was a major theme in this process: things that you think should make you feel good actually make you feel bad. Not everything my dad built makes me feel good to own. If I don’t use it, or it doesn’t fit my life for some reason, then the predominant feeling associated with owning it is guilt. I decided to let those items go, and keep only the ones that feel warm to me.

For those thinking about doing this:

The process isn’t perfect. You find a lot of things that you need to keep, yet spark no joy. To help address this I keep a running list of things I eventually want to replace with a more pleasing version.

It also never quite ends. Marie Kondo recommends culling everything in a single swoop, and you do need to do that, but we acquire new possessions without even trying, and so you need to keep vigilant. Keep the joy criterion in your mind when you shop, even just for groceries.

A lot of you said you can’t really do this because you live with someone else that’s not on board. In that case, just do it with your own possessions.

Also, a warning. It’s easy to forget about the joy criterion once you’re in the middle of it, and slip back into asking “Should I keep this or not?” which is not the same question as “Does it spark joy?” If you forget what you’re doing, you might end up keeping things because you think you should, or because they are “worth something”, or because you “might need it”, and suddenly you’re getting nowhere but not realizing it. Trust the process, and don’t forget the purpose. The real benefits are emotional, and so the process is all about assessing your emotional relationship to each thing.

Our possessions are more psychological than physical. What a thing is is much less important than what it does to your mind when you own it. But it’s hard to see what each item does when you’re feeling the effect of a thousand such relationships at once. That’s why you need to audit every single object on its own, and why owning fewer things is better overall.

Probably the most common reason people keep things they’re not using is because they “have value”— meaning they once cost money. But the real value in things is the experience they create for us. Even things with a monetary value can lower the quality of our experience in a lot of ways, by making us feel guilty, taking up space, or keeping us preoccupied with goals we’re not really committed to. And the money is already gone anyway. The important question is always “What does it feel like to own this?” and you can have the answer in seconds when you hold it in your hands and ask.

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Photos by David Cain

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Tony W September 14, 2015 at 8:59 am

Never thought about the relationship I have with stuff. It makes sense that you would treat possessions that stir feeling and possessions that you care about better.

Gayle Fitzpatrick September 14, 2015 at 7:51 pm

Great article! I’m currently in this process and returning back to who I was before a marriage and family (when I lived in a 600 sq ft house of my own design with only items that I cherished).

Ten years ago, I left that marriage, the house, the too numerous to count things, bringing my children, cats, father and the tools of my work.

Somehow, more stuff has accumulated.As I opened a kitchen cabinet last night, I encountered two blown glass vases, made by a former friend who moved on and away from what my life is about. Your article just gave me permission to let go of them because I felt bad about a former friendship.

I’m slowly working on this recent cleansing. Questioning whether each article resonates with me is a perfect stance.

And I own way to many anti-pants….

Jen September 16, 2015 at 1:34 am

Three things I love about this post:

1. “It feels like everything I own is on the same team.” What a bright way to put it! That statement could even go a step further and say “on my team.”

2. “You can’t move forward when you’re trying to keep a foot in every door.” Yes! Holding onto things from too many “potential identities” keeps me trapped.

3. “Anti-pants.” That’s just dog-gone funny. =)

Ron September 24, 2015 at 11:38 am

When people come to my house and see that I have very few things, and minimal furniture, I almost always became the butt of cheapskate jokes. I have several friends who are constantly trying to get me to take their used furniture, so that they can have an excuse to buy new things. One time I make the mistake of “storing” someone’s old dining set in my house. Eventually, almost at the cost of the friendship, I had the furniture removed from my house (four years later). These days I don’t invite people to my house. I love being a minimalist and won’t apologize for my choice.

Jenny Dumas September 26, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Great article! I got rid of everything that doesn’t bring me joy. Now I have no microwave, cooking utensils, pens, pencils, socks, underwear, refrigerator magnets(cuz I ditched the fridge too). I no longer have tools, socks, underwear, toilet paper, cooking utensils, phone chargers, luggage, or dishes. I feel so much better knowing that I’ll eventually need to repurchase all the stuff I just threw away. I feel so smart.

David Cain September 26, 2015 at 5:27 pm

I think you might have missed some of the nuance here.

Megan May September 26, 2015 at 11:35 pm

Weird and unnecessary sarcasm you’ve got going here.

But seriously…You don’t find joy in cooking? Eating? Writing? Creating? Travel? REALLY COMFY UNDIES? Your definition of joy is really different from mine.

Megan May September 26, 2015 at 8:48 pm

This is fantastic. I am in the middle of creating this journey for myself, and there is so much I love about your process! After I read it again and sleep on it, I’d love to share it on my blog. Do you mind?
Thanks,
Megan

Maggie September 28, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Best written essay on this book and doing the process first hand. Twice I’ve let go of everything and the results were amazing in different ways. The first time color emerged and I became a painter. The second time, I ended up living overseas for a couple of years. Now, I was about to have another massive purge, but this time I had this book. Reading it, I saw her methodology and was really impressed. I could see the sense of it. I wasn’t able to one group at a time as she suggests. But I did rooms in this order. What I found was how easily I slipped into keeping things because I might need them, or I wasn’t sure, or whatever. What really struck me was I had forgotten the main question – does this spark joy? I did the best I could and I have moved (about 8 weeks ago). As I unpacked I had another opportunity. I have to really love it to keep it. And I see the attachment to things that maybe that person made for me, I love it, but it saddens me that they are not in my life anymore…so letting go of the item represents letting go of the relationship…that isn’t really even there anymore. Not able to do it in one fell swoop, but certainly 90% of the time. Kudos for you doing it full boat.

The other thing tho, is that I have parred down to so few socks, so few towels, etc., that there is nothing to roll horizontally. You can ‘see’ everything as there is not enough to stack. Just using what I need. But still, I want to go further I know the benefits of Conscious Clearing.

Great read. Great topic. I invite people to let go more to make room for ‘other’ things/experiences to come forward. It’s fun! It’s invigorating! You will be surprised and feel more alive. I promise.

Laura Dodson October 6, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Letting stuff go can be quite freeing. I was always looking for places to put stuff before I cleaned everything out. The condo literally feels lighter in weight. Highly recommend!

Lasse November 11, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Thank´s for the article, wanted to try this for a long time now:) But my question is, what should I do with things that gives me no feelings at all, for example a pair of socks? /Hälsningar from Sweden

MilitantRubberDucky December 8, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Donate them to local charities. Clothes to the homeless or orphanage, towels/bedding to the animal shelter, furniture to a school or church.

Debra November 13, 2015 at 7:04 am

Thank you, this is a great summary. I have already read the book and culled my clothes but I’ve got a bit stuck and slipped off the path. You’ve reminded me of the bigger picture and the main focus of joy and I feel a renewed energy to get going again!

Norah Charles November 16, 2015 at 8:10 am

I loved this book and am ready to do another round of purging. Your essay came at the perfect time for nudging me into action–again.

Linda December 6, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Hi David,

Wonder how neat your home still is after a couple of months – are you still reaping the benefits of this big clean-out? :)

I’m tempted to have a go at this, and take before/after pictures to remind myself of the chaos I accumulated over 30+ years, every time I want to buy more stuff…. Now if only I could persuade my Mom that I really, really don’t want a present for Christmas :(

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