My astute husband said something to me a few weeks ago that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
I was having a bad day. Well, more than a bad day. You could call it a panic attack… or a mini mid-life crisis. I was sobbing. Why? Because I was overwhelmed. I have HG (a pregnancy condition called hyperemesis gravidarum) and have been sick all day most days for about 11 week now. But this day, I finally hit my breaking point. I was struggling to be at my full-time job regularly. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even cook for my family. I’d lost about 20 lbs. I had zero energy and was exhausted all the time. I felt like a failure. I felt depressed. I felt worthless.
Something needed to change. I could not keep going this way. So I finally told my husband how I was feeling. Lol! Why didn’t I talk to him before? I guess I just don’t like asking for help. I kept telling myself “buck up soldier, only a few more days.” But it wasn’t a few more days. It kept going, and going, and going. I was finally low enough to ask for help.
So I told him everything. I explained how I was feelings and all the irrational thoughts running through my head. “Let’s give up our lease and go squat on some property in a tent!” “Let’s cash out my 401K and move to Guatemala- we can learn Spanish and we wouldn’t have to work for a few years and it’s beautiful!” “I’m just going to get in my car, drive into the desert, and build a solar-powered-eco-mud-house.” Needless to say, I really needed something to change.
Hubby talked me off the edge of the cliff. “Hey, I hear you. How about we try some little changes first instead? You could go part-time at work now, instead of after the baby comes. How about you look into that? It sounds like you’re stressed and you need more time to rest.”
Reluctantly, “Well yeah, I could try that first.”
“And how about we make sure you’re not so busy? Maybe you can do less at church and we can schedule fewer events on the weekends? You don’t need to do everything right now.”
I thought about it and replied, “That could work. I do need less on my plate. I just feel like if we could throw away all of our stuff, then I could breathe again!” (Note to readers, I’ve been minimizing for a while. We definitely have less stuff than the average person, but I’m obsessed. I want even fewer things in our house!)
This is when he dropped the truth bomb. “You know, getting rid of stuff won’t change how you’re feeling. It’s a physical solution. But you’re having an emotional problem. It won’t work, like hoarding.”
The thought stopped me in my tracks. Is minimalism like hoarding?? Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks now and I think he’s right.
Minimalism is great when we have too much stuff.
Don’t get me wrong. I love minimalism and still intend to pursue a minimalist lifestyle. But now I’m recognizing that minimalism is a physical solution made to fix physical problems, but it can’t fix everything.
For example, having too much stuff is a physical problem. A team of anthropologists from the University of California recently conducted a fascinating study of middle-class homes in America. They recorded their results in a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.
The researchers made an interesting finding about how our stuff generates stress. They found that family members who noticed the mess or who felt responsible for tidying up (mostly the mothers) had measurably higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) while at home. (For anyone interested in learning more about this study, there’s a link to an excellent 20 minute mini-documentary about it below.)
There you have it. A physical problem (too much stuff) caused the stress. In this situation, minimalism is the perfect physical solution to a physical problem. Minimalism reduces stuff-related stress. Similarly, if our stress arises from spending too much money, then minimalism can help us to spend less by being more conscious of our buying habits. Here again, minimalism is the perfect physical solution to a physical problem.
But minimalism can’t fix everything.
For example, looking back to my mini-crisis, what was my problem? I was stressed and burnt out and overwhelmed. Why? Not because of my stuff. Because I’m really sick a lot of the time. Because I don’t like reigning myself in. I don’t like not being able to do everything I want to do. My expectations are different from my reality and there’s not much I can do right now to change that reality. Coping with that lack of control is an emotional and spiritual problem.
Trying to use minimalism to fix emotional and spiritual problems is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. If I’m unhappy because I’m too busy, then spending extra time cleaning and decluttering doesn’t solve my problem. It makes me even more busy! If I feel overwhelmed, like I just can’t get it all done, then fixating on all the stuff I want to get rid of only makes me feel like I need to do even more! For these types of problems, minimalism could actually be making the problems worse!
Emotional problems call for a spiritual solution.
This is where minimalists need to be careful. Take a moment to close your eyes and think. What is bothering me right now? Is my stuff causing my stress? Or is something else causing my stress?
Most people will do just about anything to avoid sitting in silence and facing what’s really going on inside ourselves. But getting to know ourselves in that way is the best way to find solutions to our emotional and spiritual problems. When we feel powerless, we can learn to accept it instead of running from it. Think about it. Addictions, instant gratification, entertainment, overeating, etc. are all ways that we attempt to avoid our stress.
The same goes for hoarding. Those of us who feel the impulse to buy, collect, and save more things than necessary are usually trying to fix an emotional or spiritual problem with stuff. Maybe we feel unsafe, lonely, insecure, or unloved. Maybe our root chakra is all kinds of blocked. Maybe we have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Maybe we haven’t yet recovered from a traumatic time in the past when we did not have enough. Whatever the reason, having a ton of stuff doesn’t make us less lonely or more loved. Having a ton of stuff can’t erase what we’ve been through in the past.
What my husband explained to me that day was that I was using minimalism just like these other coping mechanisms. Instead of pausing to be with myself, I just wanted to throw everything away and feel better. It sure makes me think twice about the false assumption we sometimes make that minimalists are somehow more balanced or healthy than hoarders. In my case, that is so not true.
But now I realize that our attempts to use a physical solution for an emotional or spiritual problem treat only the symptoms but not the cause. The root of our stress, the emotional or spiritual problem, is still there. And no matter how much we minimize or hoard, we will still be unhappy because we have not addressed the underlying spiritual or emotional problem. The only solution is to change what we can change, but learn to accept what we cannot, to learn to live mindfully, and to hand our distress over to God or learn to release it into the universe.
The moral of the story: when we minimize, let’s make sure we understand why we’re doing it.
Like I said before, I love minimalism. I really do feel better with less clutter in my house. I feel less stressed about the mess and I love saving money.
But, like my husband pointed out, I need to be mindful when I use minimalism. I need to notice when I feel the urge to minimize. Am I minimizing from a place of joy? From a desire to create my dream-life? Or is my urge to minimize triggered by a stress reaction?
Conventional wisdom gives us guidelines to curb other stress reactions. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “Don’t drink when you’re alone.” Or “Don’t shop when you’re hungry.” Or “Don’t eat when you’re upset.”
I think minimalist need a phrase too! “Understand why you are minimizing.” Or “Before minimizing, pause and identify the problem that minimizing is going to solve.” Or how about this: “meditate before minimizing”? Whatever it is, let’s just be sure we are minimizing for the right reasons.
What do you think? Do you ever minimize for the wrong reasons like me? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Now, here’s that great mini-documentary I promised!