If there was such a thing as a decluttering guru, Marie Kondo would be it. Her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was, in a word, life-changing for many. In fact, I believe it caused a global paradigm shift when it came to our relationship with our stuff. Kondo encouraged us to take everything we own out by category, pick each item up and ask the now-famous question, “Does it spark joy?”
While Kondo is known for this question, and keeping the items we truly love and cherish is important, what’s sometimes forgotten is that she also talks in the book about whether a belonging has fulfilled its role in our lives. As she explains, “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.”
Kondo’s approach, therefore, encompasses the items that we love, cherish, and that serve a purpose. This may help us with the majority of items in our home, especially if we start (as recommended by most experts) in unemotional areas such as our car or bathroom. But what happens when we get to items that are saturated with memories from our past, or things that remind us of the ones we love? What do we do when the item isn’t expired prescription medication or an extra wooden spoon, but something that causes us real emotional pain?
Perhaps the question we need to be asking is, “Does this represent a wound or a scar?”
Letting go of Scars Instead of Wounds
Glennon Doyle said, “Write from a scar, not an open wound.” In other words, when we are vulnerable and choose to share something with others, it is better to have processed our pain and write from a place of a scar rather than a painful wound that we are still working through. Or in the words of Brené Brown, “Share from your heart, not your hurt.”
This concept applies to our belongings as well. Our possessions have physical weight, but oftentimes their emotional weight is far heavier. When we, as Kondo suggests, hold the item in our hands, we may notice its physical weight is light, but the emotional weight is heavy in our mind, heart, and soul. It reminds us of a painful part of our past, or reminds us of a loved one that is no longer a part of our lives. The question is, have we processed this pain? Is it a scar and we can consider letting it go? Or it is a wound that we need to work through?
The best example I can give is from someone we will call Roger. Roger emailed me after reading an article I wrote about letting go of my high school yearbook. He thanked me for encouraging him to let go of the painful parts of his past. In his case, he had a Boy Scout uniform from 30 years ago in a box collecting dust. Although it took up little physical space, it weighed heavily on his mind. The reason? He was sexually abused in the same uniform as an adolescent. Every time he thought about what had happened he was filled with anger, shame, self-blame, and so much pain. While he had talked about the experience with others and had sought counseling, the uniform still served as a reminder of the scar. So he threw it in the garbage and never looked back.
Sometimes Freedom is Painful
Roger did the work to process his pain, but was still being held back by a physical belonging collecting dust in a box. What is collecting dust in a box that is out of your sight, but not out of your mind? What memories are whispering to you? Are you afraid to face them because you know that processing the emotions associated with the memories will be too hard?
Letting go is not easy, and is oftentimes painful, when it comes to our belongings or anything else. But there is freedom on the other side of letting go. Joshua Fields Millburn from The Minimalists said, “Letting go isn’t always fun, but it is always freeing. Freedom doesn’t always feel good. In fact, sometimes freedom is painful.” To which I would add, “It may be painful, but it is still freedom.” Freedom is far better than holding onto the fear and pain we’re afraid to face. Because as Richard Rohr said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
Until the painful memories surrounding our things are processed, by talking to a therapist to work through our wounds or recognizing that we are holding onto something that represents a scar, we will continue to be imprisoned by the pain or even project it onto the people we love.
Heal Your Wounds, Process Your Past, Live in the Present
While Marie Kondo is best known for asking, “Does it spark joy?”, one of the most insightful parts for me of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was her focus on how “the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
If the things that we own reflect unprocessed pain from our past, we can’t live fully in our present, or create the future we want and deserve. Uncover the wounds hiding in dusty drawers and boxes. Hold them tenderly as you would hold your own heart. Care for them. Do the work until they become scars. And then, let them go.
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.