While it's absolutely true that streamlining and simplifying has improved my mental and emotional well-being, it's not always the seamless transition neatly packaged for your viewing pleasure. If you've watched documentaries and television shows about people who purge their belongings and begin happier, more fulfilling lives, remember that life is messy whether you're a minimalist or not.
Growing up in a family that moved every three or four years, I've never been too attached to stuff. I knew the glamour of packing, moving, unpacking, and resorting every item in my house, and I made an effort not to drag anything unnecessary along for the ride. As an adult, there were seasons of over-spending to try and make my home look more grown up and less like a dorm, buying décor in bulk to suit the trends each season. My husband and I registered for massive amounts of stuff when we got married, a lot of which has been donated in the twelve years since we tied the knot. Periods of insecurity in my body (swinging from severe illness to having babies and back again) caused bulk buying of whatever fit rather than clothes I loved that would serve me long term. These examples are typical of any person, and through it all I made efforts to constantly reassess and purge what no longer suited my life.
The more sure of myself I become, the more I am able to shed the stuff. A clearer focus on my life helps me see what I need versus what I think I need because I saw it on Instagram. I have three kids and a husband who collects video games, so my home isn't an empty monochromatic shrine, but my own belongings have been significantly pared down over the years.
When I did a severe purge of everything I owned a few years ago, I was in the zone. If I didn't need it to survive, it was gone—into a donation bin or out on the curb. When embarking on a drastic lifestyle change, you can be a little cutthroat in your purging, and there are three possible outcomes. The first is the one on TV: My life is so much better now! Everything is wonderful and I don't buy anything except milk and bananas. I only own three pairs of underwear! If I didn't get at least a slice of that satisfaction I wouldn't continue to live this way, so let's assume that, within reason, the first option is the most typical.
Second, if you purge your entire home in a week, you could become completely overwhelmed and consumed with doubt when you notice your garage is full of bins and bags of stuff you're losing while your home seems suddenly bare. What if I need this stuff? How will I live? Minimizing all at once brings more immediate satisfaction, but you run the risk of ratcheting up your anxiety and second-guessing the process when you see the damage in the garage. Every cord whose function is a mystery can suddenly become indispensable, because what if?
The third option is panic that happens once the purge is complete. Here you are, enjoying your new Spartan lifestyle, when you decide to reread a chapter in Everything That Remains, but when you check your bookshelf you remember that, of course, you passed the book on to a friend who asked about your transformation. What have I done? Where is my stuff? Things you've gotten rid of flood your mind and you regret getting rid of all the junk you never needed but now seems vital.
I have experienced all three outcomes when minimizing my belongings, so trust me when I tell you it will all be okay. Your purging muscles are all pumped up, and now it's time to flex your mental muscles:
1. Honor your past self. You bought all this stuff for a reason, and you're not a stupid person. Think back to when you acquired the item—did it serve you well at the time? Does it still serve you? Acknowledging the life cycle of stuff can help you let it go once you admit it doesn't really meet your needs now. Maybe you thought it would benefit your home at the time, and it did for a while, but now your needs have changed. There is no shame in that. It's only a shame if you're holding on to something that will not benefit your life but instead steal the physical and mental space required to live a full life today.
2. Honor your present self. You purged that item for a reason, and you're not a stupid person. Have a frank conversation with yourself about the item you just remembered is missing—how long had it been gone before you noticed? Do you need it now, or are you just thinking about it? Frequently after I get rid of a mountain of clothing I'll decide to wear something that I forgot I tossed out. It happens because the clothes I just looked through are top of mind, and I temporarily forget they were put in the donation pile for lack of use or poor fit. If I tossed it, I had a reason, and if I still pine for the item in a few months I might look for an updated replacement that actually fits.
My advice would be to purge your home all at once of stuff that has clearly completed it's life cycle, but anything you are on the fence about losing should get to hang out in a special place until you feel more comfortable. Enter the Probation Station. I've got a spot in my laundry room where I put things I'm not sure about. It's not a place to hide your stuff—it should be visible on a daily basis so you can decide whether it brings joy and function to your life. In my laundry room there is currently a Crock-pot on top of the dryer. I have an Instant Pot with a slow-cooker function, but it's smaller and fussier than the Crock-pot. However, I use the Crock-pot at most twice a year. Do I need both machines? If I end up going to the Probation Station to liberate the Crock-pot in the next few weeks, I'll know I need it. If I don't, I can pick it up and carry it the few steps to the garage and take it to be donated.
Minimalism isn't a destination, it's an ongoing process, so don't feel like there is a deadline for when you have to have gotten rid of all the excess in your life. Every day we make decisions to further the journey. We decide not to buy something, or choose to get rid of something we bought before. We clear out the mental clutter to better understand ourselves and the life we lead. You don't have to empty your closet in a day to call yourself a minimalist, and you don't have to refuse to buy anything new for the rest of your life, either.
Life is messy, but you can trust yourself.