Sometimes we choose to change; other times we’re forced into it. Rarely does change happen spontaneously and easily as a result of an epiphany—which means if you want to change, it’s probably best not to sit around waiting for an epiphany to strike.
Forced changes can be strictly external when something in a person’s life changes and requires an adjustment. If there’s no concurrent inner change, then the person will just recreate a life similar to the previous one. Forced changes also come about when “rock bottom” is reached. Behavior that creates negative consequences is repeated until the person reaches a crisis point and has to make what is basically a life-or-death choice. To reach this point, all warning signals and insightful feelings related to the behavior have to be denied or suppressed. When a person’s breaking point is finally reached, making a major internal shift is the only way to survive and go forward.
Change by choice seems preferable. Yet, it’s often the most complicated and challenging route to take. Even becoming aware of the need to change is tricky. Not only are we reluctant to change for fear of making our lives worse, but we all have blind spots. What we tell ourselves about who we are often doesn’t match the way we spend our time or the types of people and things we surround ourselves with. But just as a mirror makes it possible for us to “see” our own eyes, our external world reflects back our real goals, our true beliefs, and our actual selves. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accurately observe ourselves in the mirror of our external world. It’s an acquired skill that takes honesty, courage, and compassion.
Once we become aware, we can make an external change, such as modifying a habit, or an internal change, such as modifying beliefs or goals. Any starting point works because external changes eventually lead to internal changes and vice versa. However, inner changes usually create results more rapidly and easily. External changes that modify behavior take more time, need a certain amount of willpower, and are prone to relapses. But both internal and external methods require conscious commitment and persistent effort.
Too bad epiphanies are so rare. If only we could intuitively know what needs to change in order to live better lives and then just as effortlessly make that change, rather than being forced to change or forcing change through self-modification. But epiphanies have a spiritual element to them, and people haven’t learned how to meld the physical with the spiritual yet. We have, in fact, concentrated on the physical more than the spiritual because it’s more readily observed, measured, and explained.
For the past year, I’ve been trying to make a change by choice, rather than wait until I hit rock bottom or wait even longer to experience an epiphany. Yes, I’m talking about my clutter and disorganization problems again. My approach has been to combine inner changes with external changes. I’ve worked on expanding my awareness of all the negative consequences of clutter and disorganization and the positive aspects of having fewer possessions.
This is a reversal of previous beliefs and habits, because, like most people, I’ve spent my life trying to acquire more things. The problem is once a person’s physical needs are met, acquiring additional things is about trying to fulfill emotional needs. Possessions come to represent security, happiness, success, and even love. And it’s the emotional connection which makes it so hard to stop acquiring more things and even harder to let go of possessions. How can you ever have enough happiness or too much love? But the truth is, acquiring and hoarding excess possessions actually represent very different emotions—ones such as fear, insecurity, and neediness. And no amount of possessions will ever assuage these emotions. So dealing with serious clutter problems usually requires finding a way to detach the emotions from things.
Besides working on these inner changes, I’ve been making external changes. For the most part, I’ve stopped buying things unless I actually need them or plan to use them immediately for some activity. And every time I do buy something, I try to get rid of at least two items. Decorative items have been the easiest for me to reduce. I focused on keeping only those things I love and have a place to display them. For gifts from others, I selected the ones that best represent our relationship. The most difficult category for me to deal with is the “I might need it or want it in the future” items because that involves various security/insecurity issues I have. But sometimes asking myself if the item is replaceable at an affordable price helps. If it is, most of the time I can let it go, with the understanding that I’ll replace it when I actually need it. During the past year, I held a garage sale, donated other items (by the bag load), and recycled most everything else. There’s been very little that ended up in the trash.
For those areas that were really out of control, the only way I’ve been able to make significant progress is to require that these things earn their space. Books, for instance, are particularly difficult for me to get rid of. Not only did I have bookshelves everywhere, but I had an overflow of books in bags, boxes, and piles on the floor. Initially I focused on getting rid of ones that were easy to let go. After several passes through my collection, I worked on specific categories I wanted to reduce and made some dramatic reductions in those. Eventually I was able to get rid of three small bookcases (in my garage sale), although that required putting some books in boxes to be sorted through later.
It still wasn’t enough, so that’s when I switched to making books earn their space. I decided how much room each category would get and then emptied the shelves. Now as I sort, I have to specifically choose to keep a book. In a sense, I’m “repurchasing” the book and can only do it if I have room for it on my bookshelves. I’ve been able to get rid of a lot of books simply because I’m unwilling to give them precious shelf space. With this system, I believe I will be able to winnow them down enough so they all fit on the remaining shelves. Of course, I have to admit that my secret weapon is my new Kindle which already has more free ebooks on it than I’ll ever be able to read. But when it comes to reducing clutter, one needs to use every trick and tool available.
I wish I could say that I’ve solved my clutter problem and made significant, permanent changes in my life as a result of my year long effort. I wish I could share some impressively brilliant insights that would make dealing with clutter or changing one’s life easier—for myself and for others. Maybe I should have worked harder at having an epiphany. But even though it’s taking much longer than I had hoped, I’m still heading in the right direction and continuing my slow slog through my clutter. Perhaps I should take comfort in the fact that I did accomplish more than fifty percent of the goal I set for last year. After all, everything takes at least twice as long as you think it will. I probably won’t write about my clutter problem again unless I do discover some amazingly effective technique or have an epiphany of some sort. On the other hand, I might not be able to resist doing a happy dance if I ever reach the point where I can say, “I did it.”