Marie Kondo is (again) having a moment. Her Netflix show, which debuted New Year’s Day, has been a huge hit across the globe. If you, like me, devoured her book back in 2014 when it first hit our shores, you’ll enjoy watching transformations happen before your very eyes: cupboards cleared of moldy food and lined with neatly organized spice jars, piles of clothing disciplined into smartly folded rows, garages returned to their proper usage as ... actual storage for cars.
The results are certainly more organized, beautiful, even. But are they life-changing?
First-Order Decluttering: Protocols
The KonMari approach is usually summarized by the methods that she demonstrates in the show, methods that have become mainstream:
sorting items by category rather than location;
keeping only those that “spark joy”; and
folding clothing to stand up in a drawer.
All of this is great, but I don’t think it is the real value of the KonMari technique. After all, this step-by-step advice has been around long before her book. I call this “first-order” decluttering: using methods and processes to evaluate our possessions. Ever since moving into my very first apartment after college, I had been addicted to such first-order advice. One site I visited religiously was Apartment Therapy, an interior design site with tantalizing photos of impeccably designed apartments. It also had lots of tips for curating one’s own space. As a self-professed organizational obsessive, I quickly learned all of the tricks. Some of the classic ones included:
I ate it all up. I had an outbox. I had a photo outbox. I took things to Goodwill every month, and I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about a capsule wardrobe. These protocols did make a difference, but they also raised lots of questions for which I had no answers. Why did I find it so hard to part with things that were clearly no longer useful? Why did I continue to accumulate things after repeated declutterings? Why was the process so emotionally taxing?
Second-Order Decluttering: Stuff is Feelings
There’s a reason those articles come back year after year: they’re a short-term fix. They focus only on what to do, rather than why we do. Any effective behavioral change must deal with things like motivations, emotions, and values. Diet habits work this way. Exercise habits work this way. Why would our stuff habits be any different?
The genius of Marie Kondo’s teachings is the connection between stuff and our emotions. She knows that stuff is often a manifestation of our inner lives. This is why cleaning house often has a cleansing effect on our spirit. The magic of decluttering is that it is slightly easier to deal with physical manifestations of our feelings than our feelings themselves. The KonMari method forces people to confront the physical manifestations of their feelings by piling them into a gigantic pile, the visual absurdity of which encourages those people to face the reasons why they created the pile in the first place (btw, seeing people’s shock at the enormity of their clothes/toys/shoes piles is a highlight of every episode of the show).
The first life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it is based on feelings. Rather than think about an item’s cost or current value, how broken or useful it is, Kondo’s famous “spark joy” test requires that you think about how you feel about something. It is an emotional test! There are two holistic benefits to this approach: one, if you are not someone who likes to connect with your emotions, this is an excuse to work on that, ratty t-shirt after ratty t-shirt. Two, the hardest decisions about our stuff likely will flag deeper emotional issues standing in the way of our dreams.
Indeed, it is in the most challenging moments of discarding that our deepest emotions emerge. The second life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it tells us specifically WHICH feelings tend to hold us back. I found this wisdom on pages 181-184 of the book when she explains why it is so hard for us to let some things go:
“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
BOOM. That’s the bombshell. It’s a bombshell because I’ve found that failure to thrive IN LIFE is due to these same two things. Consider that. How many people do not take the steps towards a better job, a creative passion, a relationship, because of fear? How many people barter their own chance at being joyful today for yet another day to dwell on the bitter wrongs of the past? So many of us, including me, do these things. Fear and regret and anger and bitterness and all of the emotions that hold us back similarly manifest in the things we hoard against all reason.
Consider the fear of scarcity, perhaps the most common fear I saw on the Netflix show. Many of us know that person (are that person?) who keeps everything JUST IN CASE. The fear of scarcity often has roots in a different time, place, or circumstance -- the Great Depression, a developing country, or a poor childhood. However, it often no longer serves a rational purpose in our lives. Although raised by immigrant parents who save every piece of molded plastic (because, true, it is very hard to manufacture molded plastic yourself), I learned from thrift stores in Manhattan that ALMOST NO MATERIAL POSSESSIONS are scarce. People threw out nicer thing than I will ever own in gigantic piles every, single, day. Scarcity for most of us is not a present-serving reality, but an emotional delusion created by fear.
Marie Kondo suggests that holding on to these fears can have ramifications beyond the Mt. Everest of takeout containers in the pantry, and I’ve seen this to be true. Those who are afraid to part with things often are afraid to risk capital and time and reputation, even if it means gaining immense reward.
Similarly, not processing the past can hold us back, in our closets and in our lives. A prime example of this for me were my law school notes. Did they spark joy? Hell, no. But I had a hard time throwing them out. Why? Because I was attached to aspects of my life as a lawyer. I was proud of my law background, of my honors at Harvard Law, of working for a prestigious and demanding law firm, of serving the public through nonprofit and government organizations. When I was trying to throw out my notes, I had quit my law job and been reincarnated as a lowly piano grad student, slaving away day and night on my craft for seemingly no affirmation. Those notes represented a time during which I was a well-paid suit working in a skyscraper with brass elevators, supported by around-the-clock secretaries. And now? I sure felt like a nobody. If I gave away the notes, would anything be left of that former me?
Confronting Yourself/Your Socks
In challenges like these, Marie Kondo’s wisdom helped me formulate two ideas that helped me stop fearing the future and start processing the past: the Superior Substitute and the Culmination of Self. Briefly described these phrases mean that:
1) I am the superior substitute for all of my things, and 2) I am the culmination of all of my things and when I go, so will most of their meaning.
Whoa. How did I get from folding underwear to pondering my own mortality? Don’t worry; it’s a good thing.
Superior Substitute/Culmination of Self
What helped me to process the past was realizing that almost all tangible things are a piss-poor substitute for the ACTUAL SELF. I can never lose my law training because the ultimate result of those experiences is ME! And I’m still here. Same with gifts and such. The relationship with the person is the actual self, and I won’t lose a relationship because I got rid of that tchotchke you gave me (Mahan, I’m looking at you). I’ve realized that memories and my personhood are way more effective embodiments of our sentiments than things.
This means that EYE MYSELF -- as the person, as the culmination of all of my experiences and relationships and achievements to date -- am the best relic to keep around. The fineries of my law school notes pale in comparison to the stories I could tell you of my time there. No present from a friend evokes nearly as much warmth as when we chat. And so on. We and the people around us and our memories are the most precious keepsakes. This realization is in part why I wanted to write a blog - to put those memories somewhere, to ponder the person I am and hope to become.
The flip side of that, of course, is that our stuff remains after we leave this world. If my self is gone, what matters? Very little, I know. Let’s be honest. Nothing of mine is going into a history museum or memorial library or really anywhere except maybe into the hands of those who love me. And they will have their own memories of me that are more real than any little trinket I can leave them. So, if we are truly afraid of the future, we should know that, in the end, our fate is exactly the same as any other living being on this planet. After that, the reality is that no one will care about your things as much as you do. They might even feel weighed down by it! Which is not a nice thing to do to the people close to you.
That’s ultimately the life-changing magic of tidying up - the focus on a life well-lived and the recognition that our stuff is just here to help us do that. I’ve come to recognize more quickly items that help me live my best life. Some of these items include the one birthday note I have from my parents with actual sentiment -- feelings were never vocalized in our family, so I save that note to remind me that we do love each other. I also cherish handwritten letters and notes from friends that really showed me what support, or heartbreak, or vulnerability look like. I’m trying to cull everything down to a “Juliana’s Life” binder, including funny sketches from coworkers at my first job, certain school acceptance letters, and pictures, of course -- stuff that is so evocative of a memory or emotion that it makes sense to keep. And very few things make that cut.
Freed from THINGS, I can better focus on what matters - the quality of my life and the memories I will share with those around me for as long as I’m here.
The rest? is just stuff.