Minimalism, revisited

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo. Minimalism.

It’s been many months since I embraced minimalism and attempted to make it a part of my life. Immediately I saw the benefits of owning less stuff and was relieved to see that if I parred down my belongings I could actually keep my house in order. For the first time in my life, house keeping seemed somewhat manageable. This is a HUGE accomplishment and if this were the only benefit it would be enough for me to embrace minimalism forever.

It’s not the only benefit of course. Minimalism helps me stay within my budget, which is another thing I’ve been failing to do for pretty much my entire adult life. For one overarching philosophy (we are happier with less stuff) to improve, or even resolve, two of my biggest challenges is a pretty extraordinary thing.

Clearly, I NEED to embrace minimalism.

So why is it so fucking difficult for me?!

I read so many stories of people who decide minimalism is the thing for them. They get rid of their stuff. They realize they don’t need any more stuff. They are exceedingly happy. They never look back.

They don’t seem to have relapses or struggle with the new arrangements or restrictions. They are born again, they have seen the light and will be forever bathed in it. Then they go out into the world and preach.

That has not been my experience.

Even though I can see the very real, very concrete benefits of embracing minimalism, even though I absolutely agree with the philosophy and recognize why it is not a only superior, but necessary, way to live if we want to achieve sustainability as a species, even though I agree with it fundamentally, I still find myself struggling. I still want a new purse and that cute pair of shoes my friend was wearing last week. I’m still pining after a new pair of jeans because I just don’t love the way the ones I have fit (that whole keeping only what inspires joy exercise has actually made me want to get more clothes–getting rid of the ones I have that I don’t love of course–which I don’t think was the point). I still want to get my kids new toys, even though I’m constantly giving away the ones we no longer play with.

I guess I thought it would be easier. I thought I’d embrace this ideal and all my previous wants and desires would melt away. I expected something would click and this new mindset would override a lifetime of messages (subliminal and overt) asserting that acquiring more makes us happier. I assumed it wouldn’t be so much work, that it wouldn’t require constant admonitions, that it would just be the way I was.

But I am the way I used to be. And it’s hard work to override a lifetime of one message with its complete opposite. I’m constantly reminding myself of my new ideals. I’m continually assuring myself of how good it feels to have less, and how buying things doesn’t actually make me feel better. The habit of wanting to solve problems with more things is so deeply engrained, that I find myself constantly talking myself out of wanting something.

It’s exhausting. And I’m disappointed in myself. I’m disappointed in my materialism and how easy it is for me to fall back into my old, destructive patterns. I want to be the person who doesn’t care if she has new shoes or a new pair of jeans. I want to be the person who cares about the things in life that really matter.

Some of the things are small, like still pining after a new purse even though the one I have now works fine. Every once in a while the desire bubbles up and I do a little online “window shopping” and realize there is nothing that I love so I shelve the whole thing for another month, but the fact that I keep coming back to it makes me feel icky. Who cares about a stupid purse? Why can’t I just be happy with the one I have?

Other things are bigger. We rent an in-law unit under our kitchen so we can afford our mortgage. The “plan” has always been that in five or so years, when we’re done paying for childcare, we’d build inside stairs connecting the in-law unit to the rest of the house and make it our “master suite.” We currently sleep in what is supposed to be the living room of our house, with only a Japanese screen between our bedroom and what is supposed to be the dining room (but what we use as a living room). Right now the layout works fine for us, but when our kids are older and want to watch TV when we want to sleep, or when we find it hard accommodate four people’s needs with only one bathroom, we’ll want the space, or so we assumed.

But then we watch documentaries about tiny houses and see the spaces people live in and I wonder why we I’ve let myself be convinced that we need more space when 1200 square feet is way more than 99% of families around the world inhabit (and most of them are bigger than ours) . We clearly have enough, we clearly can make it work, and we are resourceful enough as a family to manage with only one bathroom even when our kids are older. If we kept renting our in-law unit we could save that extra money for our kids’ college funds, and maybe even travel some day. Aren’t those things so much more important? Why do I feel such a devastating loss when I think about giving up the dream of moving into that space?

Sometimes I get the feeling that really, deep inside, I want to be a fundamentally different person. I wish I just saw the world differently, that I didn’t spend so many weeks and months of my life slipping into and crawling out of depression, that I saw the world in a more positive light, that I was more grateful, that I complained less. I wish I were kinder and more giving, less selfish and less self-serving. I meet people who seem to live life in all the ways I wish I did, and they seem to do so effortlessly. I always wonder if were they born that way, or if they have to work at it.

It feels like I have to work at everything that matters to me in my life. Nothing comes naturally to me except depression and disorganization and overspending and negativity and despair. I have such an amazing life and yet I spend all the time trying to get myself to see how amazing it is. And when some incredible way of living becomes known to me, and I’m 100% sure it’s the way I want, and NEED, to live myself, I can’t even embrace it. It’s hard not to feel frustrated with myself sometimes.

When I write these posts people tell me I need to be kinder to myself. And while I’m sure that’s true, there is something more here that I need to figure out. I can’t just shrug these feelings away telling myself to be kinder and more forgiving. I feel like something needs to change inside me, but I don’t think that kind of change is possible, and I’m not sure where that leaves me.

Have you been able to embrace fundamental changes in your life? How did it happen? 

22 Comments

  1. GOOD GRIEF!!!!!! You are human! Who could have guessed.
    I am now 1/2 my lifetime spent in minimalism. And the first half sure didn’t have the asset option to Consume in a way to make American Business happy. It is still tough. I still look at other people’s wardrobes and wish…. I still fantasize about being able to … just go buy a 100% new wardrobe under the guidance of a guru of apparel and fashion and have a master seamstress custom adjust everything to my non-size/shape compliant body. ( I am 5’10” and shall we discuss darts and empire waistlines or hemlines) I spent more than a year lusting after a bread machine (when I wasn’t eating bread because it has bad impacts on my blood sugar) before I beat that desire for the bread machine that, I wouldn’t be able to use, into a semblance of submission and advertisers had taken up some other appliance.
    What will save you is finding the humor and gently laughing at yourself and accepting your humanity and imperfection. It really is ok. PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION.
    SO glad you wrote about this today. Because it is a reminder of how lovely your husband was when you were able to tell him about your problems with spending. How simply amazingly lovely. You demand such perfection of yourself….almost as bad as I am at it….. It is hard. HUGS!

    1. I adore your bread maker example. That is EXACTLY the kind of thing I do, want something that I absolutely DO NOT need. I am getting A LOT better at squashing those desires, but there are others that I have a harder time talking myself out of. I just find it so frustrating. I don’t understand where this insatiable need comes from. Maybe I’ll never know. And maybe that is okay. 😉

  2. “And I’m disappointed in myself. I’m disappointed in my materialism and how easy it is for me to fall back into my old, destructive patterns. ” This sentence is exactly how I feel about myself in relationship to food. I want to eat better, I feel better when I do, however I’m back to eating like shit again (take out galore!) and I’m gaining back the 9 pounds I lost. Sigh, so disappointing.

    It’s hard to not beat ourselves up over things and the way we handle life. I guess we both just need to remember that we ARE trying. Little steps, day by day, one step forward-two steps back. Slow and steady. You really have done wonderful though! Keep it up!

    1. I guess it little steps it will have to be. And with most things I get that, but I swear reading other people’s blogs about minimalism I felt led to believe that I was going to just see the light and BOOM! my old inclination would wash away. It seems so silly now, but it’s how those blogs read. I wish I could find one where the writer struggles like I am.

  3. TRY TRY TRY AGAIN!!!!
    Fall down 6 times, get up 7.
    TRYING even if you fail is way better than not trying at all.
    Remember watching your babies try to turn over or stand no hands or walk. Learning and changing takes practice and kindness to ourselves and trying again.

    1. Thanks for reminding me to watch my kids fail and fail and fail and then do it. It’s so great to watch when they finally get it. It’s hard to remember, after they’ve mastered a skill, how long it took for them to learn it.

  4. I know that I’ve been trying to sway you toward my vision of minimalism since you began this project but, at the risk of becoming annoying, I am going to make another try. I urge you to put a little time into identifying the things that bring you joy. What is it in your life that really makes you happy? What are your best moments? What is it that you think is really worth pursuing? I continue to believe that the best approach is to zero in on those things and work toward making them a bigger part of your life. From my perspective, minimalism shouldn’t be about learning to do without but learning to highlight what matters (to YOU).

    I get the feeling that you are convinced by some compelling arguments about what is important and valuable but it’s important for you to come up with your own version of these arguments. So my question is: what is most important to YOU?

    1. Thank you for recommending this exercise. I definitely need to think long and hard about what brings me joy. It’s funny, because I feel like I am really good at identifying what does NOT bring me joy, but it’s harder for me to identify what does bring me joy and what is important to me. And I worry that I might not have had some of the experiences I need to know what brings me joy or what is important to me. Like, I think writing will bring me joy, but I’ve never actually had to write in the ways necessary to be a writer, and if I had to write like that I might hate it… It’s just hard when I can’t give myself the experiences I may need to learn.

      This may take a while…

      1. I do think it’s worth the time. I doubt that there are any minimalists (or anyone else, for that matter) that don’t struggle to define their lifestyle and make it work. I do think that it can be a valuable philosophical framework, though. But, if it means beating yourself up for not living up to the values that you perceive (key word) others to live by, it may not be helping.

        I have begun to write about my own approach (https://slowmamma.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/minimalism-slowmamma-style-part-1/) and have outlined other concepts that are important to me for a series of future posts. I hope to get to writing them soon. Perhaps they can be of some help??

        1. “I doubt that there are any minimalists (or anyone else, for that matter) that don’t struggle to define their lifestyle and make it work.” I really wish people would write about this, if it is happening. I’ve seen a few people say, rather off handedly, that stuff still creeps in and they need to work to keep culling the crap, but they never suggest that it creeps in because they are buying it. And that is my issue, I still want the stuff sometimes. No one ever writes about still wanting the stuff.

          Thanks for the link. I feel like your posts are not showing up in my reader, I think I need to add you again. Something must not have worked the first time. I REALLY hope you keep writing about minimalism. I’m sure it would be super helpful for me, and for others.

  5. My life had this very sharp corner where who I was and what I did went from one direction into a very different one, so I’ll describe how that happened and how it continues to happen. I had a moment where I realized I couldn’t keep doing what I had been and I was willing to change whatever needed to change to make the new way work. Then I set out how to get where I wanted to be, broke it into steps, got some support people involved to help me figure it out, and took it a tiny step at a time. Every day I go over where I’ve been and how dramatically things are different now and take some tiny step toward that big goal. This shift has meant that I can never be finished with it and that’s fine by me, so I accept that I’ll be repeating myself often in actively avoiding pitfalls. Every now and then (it was weekly early on, then monthly, now when we get to it) I’d get together with my partners-in-goal and go over how things are going. I continue to be wrong about how much I’ve changed. I don’t see the changes but those who’ve been on this journey with me do, and that helps a lot. So I guess what I’m saying is that you can probably trust commenters who say to cut yourself some slack – you may not see how far you’ve come because you’re in the middle of the storm, but we may and are trying to help you see it.

    1. You’re story is always so inspiring to me, not just in the enormity of what you’ve accomplished but in the clarity of intention with which you’ve accomplished it. I always appreciate your perspective and have put so many of your suggestions into action in my own life, with positive results. Thanks for helping guide me through my own story by sharing yours.

  6. As the others have said, you can’t change the habits of a lifetime in a day, a few weeks or months even. I struggle with food, and even though I know how I want to live, it is still very hard to change those habits, and to change the way I think. I know I can change the way I think though – I need to focus on the positive end result, rather than feel that I’m a failure if I slip into old habits, or if I even think about slipping into old habits. I just have to recognise those thoughts, and adjust them accordingly. I wish it was as easily done as said!

    Your last paragraph really got to me. You’re essentially refusing to be kinder and more forgiving to yourself, insisting that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. But in my experience, being kinder and more forgiving to yourself, and accepting who you are now without beating yourself up, allows you to see yourself more deeply, to understand the motivations behind those behaviours you don’t like. With a more compassionate understanding, it allows you to make any changes you want to make, to decide what needs to be “fixed” and what doesn’t, and to go about it realistically and enthusiastically. Acceptance doesn’t mean you never change. Acceptance can be the beginning of change.

    1. I had to come back and add something that I’ve just read, and feel it sums up what I was trying to say. Self-acceptance (kindness/nurturing) is about working WITH yourself, rather than AGAINST yourself.

      1. Another great way of looking at it. Honestly, before you commented all I could think was, what is being kind to myself actually going to get me, in the end? Usually, for me, acceptance looks like apathy. I just don’t do anything about it either way. But I’m realizing I need to find a way to accept my flaws while still trying to change them. And that in doing that I will end up in a better place than I would if I just berated myself until I ended up where I wanted to be.

    2. “But in my experience, being kinder and more forgiving to yourself, and accepting who you are now without beating yourself up, allows you to see yourself more deeply, to understand the motivations behind those behaviours you don’t like. With a more compassionate understanding, it allows you to make any changes you want to make, to decide what needs to be “fixed” and what doesn’t, and to go about it realistically and enthusiastically. Acceptance doesn’t mean you never change. Acceptance can be the beginning of change.” I really loved this paragraph and have been going back to it a lot since you left it. Thank you for this, I REALLY needed to hear it right now.

  7. Are you me? 🙂
    You have some wise commenters.
    I think you are trying. I think you are trying more than most people would ever have the guts or the dedication to try.
    It’s hard to live in this world.
    Listen to your commenters. You are doing amazing.

  8. I am a total consumer but I know my limits. I get that what you are saying is that you don’t know your limits. And that gets hard.

    When I was reading this I kept thinking about how we are always told that “men will never change” and we need to accept them “warts and all” but as women we are always trying to change – our weight, our desires, our spending habits, our lifestyles, our dreams and settle for something else or this picture of what we should be like rather than what we are. We are always worried and concerned about what other people think.

    I say ray than embrace full minimilaism which makes you unhappy – if it was me I would just buy the shoes – I would say embrace the tiny changes that can make you happy without sacrificing your small joys and will hopefully not make your credit card go crazy.

    1. “When I was reading this I kept thinking about how we are always told that “men will never change” and we need to accept them “warts and all” but as women we are always trying to change – our weight, our desires, our spending habits, our lifestyles, our dreams and settle for something else or this picture of what we should be like rather than what we are. We are always worried and concerned about what other people think.” OMG! THIS!

      Why do they just get a free pass?! It’s so infuriating. I’m feeling a lot of resentment toward men and general and what I feel like they get away with right now. It’s just straight pissing me off.

      The problem is that minimalism doesn’t make me unhappy. In the end the shoes will probably make me unhappy, not because I’ll feel I failed in buying them, but because I don’t really need them and then I won’t wear them that much and then ultimately I’ll just give them away and then I’ll feel like an asshat. My wants and desires are about instant gratification and minimalism is about living in line with a standard that I agree with. I really do believe that I will be happier when these kinds of choices become habit, but that is going to take a long time.

      And to be fair, I probably will buy myself the purse, when I find the right one. 😉

  9. You got spending under control and cleared out a bunch of clutter from your house. That’s some kick-ass progress! Admittedly, I don’t know much about minimalism and how to approach it, but it seems that it would be pretty typical for the “want” to stick around. It’s how you deal with the desire to have the stuff. Do you give in, or do you look around at what you have and can you make that work?

    p.s. I have put so much crap in various shopping carts online and, annoyed with myself just shut down the open browser window. But I didn’t buy it. And neither did you. That’s supposed to be positive, right? Why don’t we feel positive about it, then?

    1. “p.s. I have put so much crap in various shopping carts online and, annoyed with myself just shut down the open browser window. But I didn’t buy it. And neither did you. That’s supposed to be positive, right? Why don’t we feel positive about it, then?” Are you inside my head right now? I have been asking myself that question all week.

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