Identity detox: what our possessions say about us

Identity detox

Do your possessions reveal or conceal who you are? Peter Walsh explores the ways in which our surroundings impact on our identity.

Great art isn’t just the result of the brushstrokes you see on the canvas or the notes that reach your ear. The same is true of great writing: Far more goes into it than the words you read.

The genius you appreciate also comes from marks the artist didn’t make, notes the musician didn’t play and words the author erased from the first draft.

This makes sense when you stop to think about it. It’s why one particular carving, more than all the others, catches your eye at an art fair and compels you to bring it home. Its creator envisioned a beautiful figure within the chunk of log, then removed wood from just the right places to reveal it.

But too often, we don’t apply this approach to the spaces that surround us. We mistakenly think that all empty space needs to be filled. We don’t appreciate that unfilled space can be beautiful and functional, too.

If your home is like most people’s, it probably contains half-completed projects that the kids abandoned a year ago, an old coffeemaker that you keep in the kitchen just in case you need it again, a broken printer that holds up the working printer and gifts gathering dust in cabinets, still in their packages.

Your stuff displays the characteristics about yourself you choose to value. It tells the world, “This is how I imagine myself. This is how I spend my time. This is what I dream about.” Your stuff may tell your story more eloquently than your words ever could.

Such homes are filled with what I call un-objects: things that were unwanted and unopened, that go unused, that are unappreciated or simply unnecessary. Our society encourages ‘more’ as the normal default setting, even when it means more useless stuff.

If the surfaces in your home groan under the weight of objects you don’t treasure and value, the stuff you own is not only consuming a huge part of your living space, it’s also hiding large swaths of a different life that would provide more joy than the version you’re now living. A less-stressed, less-overwhelmed version of you waits in there somewhere, too, but you can’t see it.

Your mass of belongings—your ‘material convoy’, so to speak—is parked in front of a door that leads to somewhere better. But you can’t even find the door, let alone open it.

Passive hoarding

The paper, plastic, electronics, wood and fabric clogging the typical home has power because it’s not just stuff. Every item in your home is there because you have allowed it into your space. Each has a history, an associated memory and a cost, although you may not recognise them.

Your stuff displays the characteristics about yourself you choose to value. It tells the world, “This is how I imagine myself. This is how I spend my time. This is what I dream about.” Your stuff may tell your story more eloquently than your words ever could.

To a major degree, the things you own help create the person you think you are. When you refer to yourself—when you say “I”—much of what you’re talking about is connected to your possessions.

The clothes in your closet present the identity you want to display. The world understands your clothes’ messages, just like members of the military can read each other’s entire careers in the insignia on their uniforms, or hospital employees recognise their coworkers’ roles by the colour of their scrubs. If these people put on a different uniform or other scrub clothes, they might pass as someone with a different story.

Your books, magazines and Web pages in your tablet’s search history provide a sense of your education, occupation and political views. Conversely, the ideas contained in their paragraphs work their way into your mind, nudging your imagination and point of view in new directions.

The size and location of your home itself give clues about your income, your age, your tastes and perhaps your cultural identity. Everything you own in that home—all of it—creates a record of where you are in your life and the path you’ve taken to get there. It also can predict where you’re going, if you let it.

Many of the items throughout your home are also tied to particular feelings. A lot of them evoke happy thoughts. But too often, others bring up a pang of sadness, anxiety, or guilt. These may only feel like a vague discomfort that you don’t fully notice. But even then, these feelings can still affect the direction you take, just like a hidden magnet makes a paper clip slide around a table.

The possessions around you can keep you locked into a particular life. But I’m guessing that as you look around your home, you know that you didn’t consciously choose all these possessions that represent you. Nor did you keep them in your home for all the right reasons. Maybe they kind of showed up and never left. Maybe it’s time for some of them to go.

Pause long enough to critically examine the objects surrounding you. It’s a chance to unburden yourself—before you step into your new life—from the stuff that’s keeping you from who you really want to be. Now you can decide, with clear intention, what’s truly important to you. Now’s the time to disinvite the things that no longer have a place in the life you’re creating.

That goes for your unwanted belongings and all the unwanted emotions and memories attached to them.

Clear away stuff that doesn’t represent who you are

What new turn is your life taking? How are your circumstances changing? Your life is giving you new opportunities, but with all your stuff piled around, you may not be able to see them. You’ll have to sort through your layers of stuff in order to find these opportunities and seize them. Letting go of the following things will also free you to become more open, authentic and true to yourself.

• Objects you never really liked

• Things you regret having paid so much money to buy

• Stuff you inherited and hold on to out of a sense of obligation

• Outdated belongings that identify a version of you that vanished long ago

Think about the possessions in your home. Do they represent the person you want to be right now? Do they present the best version of who you could become? As you go into the next phase of your life, will you be steady on your feet or will your stuff pull you off-balance because it’s tugging you back into the past?

If you were to break up and downsize the layer of stuff that announces who you are, what would you look like underneath?

You don’t need all this stuff. It’s concealing who you really are. All you need to keep around are the items that you treasure and the items that you use. That’s it. These are things that don’t prevent the world from seeing who you really are. Instead, they celebrate what you’re all about for everyone to see.

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