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Flipping The Switch: Materialist To Minimalist

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This is a guest post by Robert Wall from Untitled Minimalism.  It’s the first post in my new occasional series, Stories of Transformation.

I never wanted to be a minimalist.

I actually liked my stuff. In fact, I liked it so much that I had huge piles of it at five different addresses. I had an apartment full of stuff, stuff at a friend’s place, stuff in an unused office (rented – not in my apartment), and stuff in two separate storage units. All of these places were packed full, and none of them were neat and tidy.

What I wanted was to get all of my stuff under one roof. Due to discovering a decluttering book in my messy front closet, I’d even convinced myself that I could part with some of my stuff in order to be able to “get control”.

But don’t get me wrong here. My idea of “getting control” and “being decluttered” were, at the time, what I’d now call “organized excess”. I wanted a place for everything, but I still wanted everything….mostly. I figured I’d do this “decluttering” thing, and I’d come out on the other side of the process with most of my stuff consolidated into my apartment. It would be efficiently packed in boxes or bins, and stored on several nice shelving units. I’d be “making efficient use of vertical space”, as the organization gurus put it.

The Obstacles To “Control”

The primary obstacle, of course, was that my apartment was currently full of stuff. There was no room to bring in stuff from the other four places.

Since the totality of the plan at that point was “get the junk out”, I did what any sane person would do. I went to the hardware store and bought a large outdoor garbage can and a box of 50-gallon drum liners. Then I made myself a simple promise:

Every week, that garbage can would get filled and hauled out to the dumpster.

Once I created some breathing room in my apartment I could bring the stuff from the other 4 places in, go through everything, and organize it into efficiently-packed boxes.

What I didn’t realize, however, is that garbage cans have magical powers.

While my clutter was boxed up and out of sight, it was possible to romanticize it, to believe that all of those boxes contained valuable stuff. After all, that’s why I was storing it….right?

Believing that an unopened box contains immensely valuable items that, one day, will save you from a dire situation is one thing. But opening that box and finding a bunch of cheap, junky kitchen supplies from three apartments ago is quite another. The arbitrary goal of filling the garbage can forced me to systematically unbox, excavate, and physically handle every item I’d ever stashed, stuffed, or stowed in the past decade. And without fail, box after box, bin after bin, drawer after drawer, I kept pulling out things that were poorly made, in poor repair, of little value, or were duplicates of other things I owned.

Bottom line? The more I filled the garbage can, the more stuff I handled. And the more stuff I handled, the more I realized how much of my old stuff was, well and truly, junk.

Plumbing The Depths Of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be deceived by somebody else. It was another thing entirely to realize that I’d been deceiving myself for the better part of a decade. Realizing that I’d moved all this junk from place to place, and it was really mostly just a bunch of junk. Strike that, “bunch” isn’t severe enough. Boxes upon boxes of junk. Truckloads of junk. Junk that required me to call in favors from friends, because moving it by myself was almost unthinkable.

And then the switch flipped. Suddenly, minimalism made all the sense in the world.

Magical powers, I tell you.

This might sound silly to some of you, but clutter is rarely just a physical thing. Apartments (and houses!) full of stuff are frequently the end result of incorrect beliefs about your world. These incorrect beliefs create a powerful inner conflict, and that conflict is what really matters. And the middle of that conflict is where I’d been living for over a decade.

With me, I can identify two notions that were radically out of whack – the notion of security, and the scarcity mentality.

I say “out of whack” because they’re not completely false. A few meals worth of food in the cupboard, a flashlight in case the power goes out, those things bring a little bit of security. And there are things in my life that are beyond scarce. If I destroy or dispose of them, I can’t get them back. There’s a bit of truth to both notions, but that’s just what it is – a bit of truth.

The larger truths are almost the polar opposite: compulsive accumulation of stuff doesn’t bring security, and the supposed scarcity of most things is greatly exaggerated.

The Aftermath Of Enlightenment

I’m not going to give you a pie-in-the-sky story about how I figured out the Secrets Of The Universe and all of my clutter vanished within days, but I can tell you for a fact that once you begin dealing with the underlying conflicts, the clutter becomes much easier to deal with.

That’s not to say it didn’t take some time. My initial decluttering took the better part of a year. And it’s not saying that decluttering is a “once and for all” thing. As my mind moves away from the scarcity and security mentalities, I find that I need less and less. In fact, where I used to need a large U-Haul truck just for my own personal stuff, my wife and I are now capable of moving using less than half of a 16′ moving van. Our bed is the only piece of furniture that requires a moving van (or trailer) at all.

Most importantly, as I move forward, I find that removing superfluous stuff from my life gives me more flexibility and freedom to focus on the things that matter the most to me. And that’s the sort of security and abundance that no amount of stuff can purchase.

Robert Wall  is a reformed packrat who writes witty and thought-provoking articles on the topics of consumerism, minimalism, simplicity, and frugality at Untitled Minimalism.  He also hosts a regular podcast dedicated to the practical aspects of living a deliberate life.

Thank you for reading.  If you’re new, please subscribe for free updates by email. And, if you liked this article please share it on social media – it makes a huge difference.  Thank you!  With love, Sandra

 

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22 Comments

  1. Thanks for having me over to guest post on your site Sandra! 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Robert. I’m especially fascinated by how we find a sense of security in an ever-changing world. Your epiphany – the fact that security doesn’t come from stuff – is very illuminating for many of us.

  2. Wow that is quite story Robert. Thank you for so much for sharing it. I was really taken by what you had to say about the notion of security, and the scarcity mentality. That really resonates with me and I see it at work in my life. I liked your approach to decluttering- who knew a garbage can could be so magical?

    • Sharon, it’s amazing how goofy little things (like a garbage can!) can help us on the path to big results, isn’t it?

      I still wrestle with the security/scarcity issue sometimes, because (as I mentioned above) they’re both occasionally valid concerns – the key is finding the balance. I’ve found that balance of any sort takes a bit of ongoing maintenance. 🙂

  3. I could immediately connect with the story! we all have stuff we want to discard yet keep…some weird attachments, I guess! it also reminded me of a friend who gave away most of her clothes, thinking somebody might need them more than her!
    Each year I keep reminding myself…this stuff needs to go.Thanks Robert for putting it across so convincingly!

    • Balroop, I like your friend’s thought process. 🙂

      I know all about weird attachments, both from my own life and helping others. It’s amazing how much importance we sometimes assign to completely worthless things, isn’t it?

      Of course it’s not the thing or lack of the thing that matters – it’s the consideration of our relationship to those things, and our actions that reflect that consideration. 🙂

  4. Wonderful post! Love the part about garbage cans having magic powers! Wonder if I can get my daughter to buy into that…

    • Maybe somebody could make a comic about “the magical garbage can” that would appeal to kids? 😉

      Thanks for commenting Kayla!

  5. Thank you Robert for sharing your path to minimalism in such a humorous, entertaining and inspiring story.

  6. Hmmm, I’m not sure I classify as a minimalist or a materialist. I hate shopping, I don’t like unneeded stuff, but then again I like good food… and when I do buy clothes they are new, not used. Plus I have a relatively new computer, and an android phone. Necessities? I’m not too sure.

    The cool thing about not having a lot of stuff, is that it is easy to move around. I need to declutter a bit before I (hopefully) leave for my travels around the globe.

    • Hi Ragnar!

      There’s an underlying question to minimalism that goes (roughly) “so I’ve minimized my stuff….now what?”

      In your case, if having a nice phone, a nice computer, and good food are all important to you, minimizing the junk in the rest of your life gives you the space for those things to flow in.

      Based solely on the information here, I’d say you’re closer to minimalism than you think. 🙂

      Thanks for your comments!

  7. I’m so in agreement here! I’ve actually always (or for a long time now, anyway) found more security in having fewer things, because possessions tie you down both physically and mentally, and take up far too much energy to maintain. Every time I move I get rid of more stuff, and every time I feel better. In fact, getting rid of stuff is probably one of my biggest coping skills, and has been for ages. It’s just so…enlight-ening, as you pointed out. Great post, thanks! 🙂

  8. Glad to hear you enjoyed it Jennifer! I always find it amazing that most every time we move or go to re-evaluate our stuff, there’s always a little bit more. Not new stuff, but older stuff that we’ve finally come to terms with releasing. 🙂

  9. “Organized excess” — great phrase. I guess I would call myself a middle path person. I’ve decluttered quite a bit, but certainly not to the minimalist level. But now that junk drawer that hasn’t been cleaned out in more than a decade…. Time to get to that right now!

  10. Hi Galen! I’ve found junk drawers to be huge energy drains, because of the huge variety of stuff that can be in there. Best of luck with it!

    That said, if the junk drawer is all you have left you’re doing pretty good. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  11. great post Robert and Sandra! Really well written Robert. We’ve been on the minimalist path for about 4 years. While it feels good to have less, I find it’s a constant process. We are always re-evaluating what we really need, always making buying mistakes and finding things to donate/trash/sell. I wonder how many years it takes to actually get good at this!! 🙂

    • Crystal, I definitely agree that it’s a constant process. Because of that, I don’t think there’s a concrete “good” as much as there’s an abstract “better”. And getting there is pretty easy. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Boy you sound just like me! I like to “collect” things too. Unfortunately, in my case the correct term is probably hoarder. Ouch! I find it really hard to get rid of the stuff that I don’t use, need or is broken or duplicates. I also like to find ways to organize my stuff, this way I have the illusion of control over it, instead of it over me. I really enjoyed reading your post.

    • Janet, organized is better than not. 🙂 The follow-up question to your comment about difficulty getting rid of things, of course, is “why”?

      Have you ever taken some time to work through the reason you’re attached to your stuff?

      That can be some insightful stuff. 😀 Thanks for commenting!

  13. Great post! I love that there is so much support out there for the minimalism journey! So good that we all can be honest with ourselves and wake up to what materialism has done to us. It’s so easy to slip back to old ways and I catch myself doing that over and over again. Opening up on blogs has helped me focus and really commit to the journey with joy. Thanks for sharing your story! I…will…get…there!

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 I like to think it’s not as much about whether we slip back for a bit as it is about whether we keep moving forward.

      If there’s anything I can do to help you along, feel free to reach out via my blog (comments or contact form).

      Best of luck on your journey!

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