Several years ago, before I started on this journey of decluttering and simplifying my life, I had a very interesting conversation with an acquaintance. She revealed to me casually that the home she shared with her parents and younger brother had recently burned to the ground.
"Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry!", was all I could say to that.
"Yeah, but it was kind of a good thing, too." She said. "We needed to start over."
She proceeded to tell me about a giant bag of arrowroot powder they had in their pantry for ages that they felt like they couldn't throw away, but that they were now, finally, free of. This was just one example of the many things in their space that they felt like they couldn't get rid of.
This story speaks to a real dimension to the clutter that can build up in our space that we may not even be consciously aware of.
After the first big decluttering bender that I went on that was for its own sake and not connected to a move, I noticed a significant shift in the feel of my space. I spent a weekend tackling the "low hanging fruit" - old receipts, expired products, junk mail, and all those little random things that made me think "WHY DO I HAVE THIS???"
All of the trash and junk that can pile up over time is "the top layer."
It's generally not very challenging to part with, at least emotionally. It's just a matter of drumming up the energy to do it - which is much easier said than done.
It's natural to develop this top layer over time if you don't stay on top of your space on a regular basis. You could be the most extreme minimalist ever, and this would still be true.
Stuff is always entering our spaces one way or another - you need to create clear channels for funneling it out as well. When you don't have those channels in place, it can be incredibly challenging to keep a tidy space.
And as your top layer thickens, it becomes increasingly overwhelming to deal with. This is due not only to the sheer volume of small tasks involved in tackling it but the psychologically oppressive environment it can create.
Struggling with this top layer is a big thing for prospective clients who reach out to me for help - they are tired of always chasing their tail, devoting precious weekends to this task only to end back up in the same situation a week or two later.
The top layer was just the beginning for me, and many of my clients as well. Peeling off more layers has allowed us to experience more freedom in our lives.
So what are the layers underneath the top layer, how does peeling them away free you up, and how can you apply this to your own life? Read on.
Declutter the top layer.
Take an afternoon and go for that "low hanging fruit" kind of stuff that might be lying around in your space. The stuff that's not hard to part with, but that it's just a matter of executing. You can find lots of decluttering checklists online. Some of my favorite books that have guided me toward this habit include Magical Housekeeping by Tess Whitehurst and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.
Now that you've stripped back the top layer, you are in the position to see your next layer - it's just a matter of paying attention. The next layer is going to look different for everyone. So how can you tell what your next layer is? Pay attention to the stuff you wish you could let go of - but for one reason or another, you feel like you can't.
For me, this included stuff that I spent good money on and I wasn't ready to admit the mistake; gifts from loved ones that I wasn't using; and creative projects that had fizzled out - but that I still felt committed to finishing.
Ask Yourself What's Behind Your "Can't"
What's the worst thing that can happen if you let that thing go? What are the real consequences? What are the stories you are telling yourself? When you can get under the hood and face your fear, you become empowered to change your narrative. This is precisely why it is so freeing to peel away at the more challenging layers of clutter.
So in my examples above, I had to learn how to practice self-compassion when I make mistakes with money, and to see the bright side of those mistakes by allowing them to inform future purchases. I decided to read more books on managing money and working on my money mindset so I could approach this quirk from a healthier, more empowered place.
For gifts, I had to learn to separate the person from their gift. I embraced the idea that the gift is a but a token of their affection toward me, and that affection is far more important than the physical object. I became secure in the knowledge that my relationships transcend the material and the transactional - even if the other party should choose to be hurt by my decision part with a physical gift.
Unfinished creative projects are still the most difficult for me to let go of - but I am learning to become more aware of this tendency to hold onto them past their expiration date. This involves tuning out my inner critic, who loves to call me a flake when I don't finish something. Yeah, I'm a flake sometimes, what of it? When I feel like I have something else I want to pursue, I have learned to follow that inspiration rather than stay stuck on a track that doesn't excite me anymore, and this has been way healthier for my creative flow.
Allow Yourself to Take Your Time
Now, just because you're becoming aware of your next layer, doesn't mean you have to do anything about it right away. Don't traumatize yourself by forcing yourself to get rid of stuff before you're ready. Instead, take that self-awareness and do something about it to increase your emotional capacity to let go of these things that aren't serving you. Read a self-help book on a subject you need to address. Talk it over with your therapist or a coach. Watch youtube videos. Focus on shifting your mindset, and you'll be ready to let go of that layer in time.
Peeling off the layers isn't easy. It can be scary to ask ourselves certain questions. It can be difficult to give ourselves permission. But this is really where the potential for growth lies in working in our spaces and managing our stuff. When we can claim our power over our stuff, rather than continue to allow our stuff to hold us hostage, we don't have to wait for a fire to set us free. We can free ourselves instead.