You are not your stuff

I was recently captivated by the article “The mess he made: A life-long slob decides it’s time to get organized” by Michael Rosenwald in the June 7 issue of The Washington Post. As the title of the article references, the piece is a first-person narrative of a diagnosed hoarder who went to see Randy Frost for help to change his ways. During Rosenwald’s visits with Frost, he came to the following inspiring conclusion:

This didn’t feel as bad as I had thought it would. I kept telling myself, This stuff isn’t me. If it all disappeared in a fire, my body would not implode, my identity wouldn’t turn to ashes. I would emerge, walking out the front door with soot on my face, the same person I was before the flames, only without the stuff. The stuff was not me, the stuff was not me — it felt like some self-help mantra. The more I told myself that story, the easier the tossing became.

Rosenwald’s realization — that his things are not him — is one we all have to go through if we want to make the transition from a clutterer into an unclutterer. This change of mindset was essential for me when I started my transformation. I saw my vast collection of things as proof I had lived a fun and exciting life, when in fact my clutter was actually preventing me from having a good life. It wasn’t until I realized my unhealthy relationship with my things that I could finally let go of all the trinkets, papers, doodads, and memorabilia filling every inch of my space.

Unfortunately, Rosenwald reverts to his messy ways at the end of the article, but hopefully he’ll keep practicing his new unclutterering skills. He seems to have already made the hardest step — a change in his relationship with his things.

21 Comments for “You are not your stuff”

  1. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    In 18 years as a Professional Organizer, I’ve come to believe that there are different types or styles of cluttering. Some clutter types simply don’t care, or don’t even see the mess. When the mess is taken away, it’s not an earth shattering ordeal for them. They also do tend to revert back to cluttery habits unless there is an immediate and powerful reason for them to change. If that reason exists, then they make the change relatively easily.

    Other clutterers have (or believe that they have) an emotional attachment to each item in the mountains of stuff. They remember when they got the item, and why they need to keep it. The attachments are specific and detailed. For this type of behavior, getting rid of a broken toothpick takes a deliberate effort. These folks need a lot of hands on and in the moment support, and other interventions as well. Decluttering is long, painful, and ultimately, many of them give up. They believe they are incapable of change.

    Sounds like Mr. Rosenwald is of the first type. I hope he is enjoying his new found space and decides to keep it up.


  2. posted by infmom on

    My parents called me a slob more times than I could possibly remember. My mother went so far as to tell me no man would ever marry me because I was such a slob. The two of them had solid, old-fashioned views of the roles of men and women, and in their view, it was a woman’s primary job to keep a house clean, and I was falling down on the job because my room wasn’t as antiseptically clean as my father demanded it be. (His mother was an obsessive neat freak, but SHE had a housekeeper and three thoroughly controlled children.)

    Did my three younger brothers ever get called slobs and get yammered at about their untidy rooms? They did not. One of them grew up to be one of the biggest slobs I’ve ever known (and he’s not a hoarder, he just doesn’t give a crap about how messy his house looks). I’m not a neat freak, but I will say that if we knew company was coming in half an hour, I could have our house looking perfectly presentable. Well, except for the pile of magazines and journals surrounding my husband’s chair. He’ll tidy up the checkout at the supermarket if a magazine or candy bar is out of place, but getting him to quit leaving magazines lying around… sigh.

    Oh, as for marrying, my parents fought like crazy and divorced after 27 years regardless of how the house looked. My husband and I will have our 38th anniversary in September… regardless of how the house looks.

  3. posted by Sandi on

    I found this article incredibly sad…and yet hopeful. I think Mr. Rosenwald WAS incredibly brave. I hope he remembers the process he went through…one doesn’t wave a magic wand or magic organizational tools and “fix” this once and for all – it takes ongoing, gentle re-organization, just as we all do! I wish him (and his wife and son) the very best.

  4. posted by Matt on

    Thank you for printing Rosenwald’s realization.

    It reminded me of this: In 1688, the samurai-poet Masahide lost all his goods in a fire. He responded by writing a haiku:

    Barn’s burnt down.
    I can see the moon

  5. posted by *pol on

    Inspiring way of looking at it.
    I see a little bit of both kinds of people that Ruth mentions in her reply. I don’t see the books and magazines so much, and my desk’s “natural state” seems to always be a skim of papers and disks and writing utensils (it doesn’t feel right leared right off — I can’t FIND anything then!) And the storage clutter is more of an attachment issue. Things that I cherished from an earlier time that still make me smile when I dig them out. I realize they are weighing me down by dragging them around all these years, but they still evoke positive feelings, so I can’t let go entirely.
    Since finding Unclutterer, I have seriously pared these things down though! Keeping only the most precious items that remind me of all the other things I can let go of. I have gone from 5+ rough-totes of artstuff and toys to just 2 — a massive improvement especially as my children’s things encroach on every inch of storage!
    I am not my things.
    My experiences will not be lost if I lose the item.
    I need to LIVE with the finite space I have, leaving space for “NOW” instead of filling it up with “when” and “if”.

  6. posted by Amy on

    If you are aware of something and it bothers you enough to hire an expert to help you I wonder if that means the problem is a CHOICE and not an illness. I watch the Hoarders shows and I read this article and I struggle to believe that this is really an illness and not just a lifestyle choice.
    This guy has maybe bought into the idea currently being sold that this is the illness du jour, like back in the 80’s there were child molesters behind every bush, and half the parents in America were child abusers and all sorts of witch hunts went on.
    I am not a pycho therapist, I just wonder why all of a sudden there are so many diagnosis lately of this particular mental illness. Maybe because there is a lot of money in it?
    I have trouble feeling sympathy for people who make life difficult for everyone around them.

  7. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    Sadly, the fact that Mr. Rosenwald reverted within two weeks to his previous habits doesn’t sound encouraging. I wonder if a hoarder’s brain processes insights in such a way that they are profound at the moment, but then are integrated into the status quo way of thinking — especially in the case of an intelligent and articulate man like him. (I haven’t read Randy Frost’s work; maybe he discusses that.) It would be interesting to find out where Mr. Rosenwald is after a year or so.

    @Matt: Brilliant haiku! Thanks for sharing it.

  8. posted by Dubious on

    “Unfortunately, Rosenwald reverts to his messy ways at the end of the article, but hopefully he’ll keep practicing his new unclutterering skills. He seems to have already made the hardest step — a change in his relationship with his things.”

    I would have to vehemently disagree. The hardest step is to MAINTAIN change. As with a diet, the real test is not whether a person lost weight, it’s whether s/he kept it off a year later, five years later.

    A friend of mine was considering hiring an organizer. I encouraged her, but told her to make sure to schedule monthly follow-up appointments because simply cleaning up the mess and creating a system probably would not be enough. People backslide all the time. Habits are hard to change.

    There’s definitely an emotional component to my sloppiness. I was constantly told what a slob I was as a child, but I never received any positive reinforcement or guidance on how to be neat.

    I was discussing (arguing about) this with my father not long ago (he wasn’t around much during my childhood) and he accused me of being “naturally” sloppy (!) When I replied that most kids learn to be neat because their parents instill habits of neatness, he turned a deaf ear. But he’s never responsible for anything. Meanwhile, my mother was a pig and in fact when any housework was done, I did it, although in a day or two things looked exactly the same. Then I’d get beaten for complaining about it.

    When I can afford to pay someone to help me, I do. (Just finding someone trustworthy and discreet is a challenge.) Otherwise, when I try it alone, I invariably get bogged down in the past — I get depressed by the detritus of the past with which I’m surrounded. I feel doomed by the squalor of my childhood. Then I get depressed that I can’t a “simple” messy space.

    I’m not really a pack rat. But added to my problems is that I don’t have easy and convenient storage.

    I don’t have the same problem helping other people get organized because it’s not my stuff. Once or twice I’ve tried to find someone with whom I could swap organizing visits, but it hasn’t worked out. And it is an intensely private thing.

  9. posted by Dubious on

    I think a headline more to the point (at least for me) would have been:

    “You are not your habits.”

    If you actually believe you can change, effect the change, and manage to maintain it, that’s true success.

  10. posted by Kat on

    Doesn’t a haiku have to have 5 syllables, then 7, then 5?

  11. posted by Julia1060 on

    I am reminded of lines from the John Mayer song “3×5” –

    we tend to keep stuff because we’re often trying to keep our mind and arms around experiences, people … we remember what we do, not what we own.

    . . .

    Today I finally overcame
    Trying to fit the world inside a picture frame
    Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to
    Lose my way but let me say

    You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
    It brought me back to life
    You’ll be with me next time I go outside
    No more 3×5’s
    Just no more 3×5’s

  12. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kat — Since most of the famous Haikus are written in Japanese, translations don’t always follow an exact syllable pattern into English. When I taught high school English, the definition we used for Haikus was “typically poems of three lines with 17 or fewer syllables, often referencing nature.”

  13. posted by on

    It is hard to imagine that people can be cured of probably life-long illnesses, lifestyles, call it what you will, these are ingrained deeply in their individual psyche and a weekend of de-cluttering is not going to make things all better overnight. Sure there is the exception, such as someone mentioned earlier about seeing an extreme dieter after 5 years, how do they look? Some make it, most don’t. For me personally i would be surprised to see a ‘hoarder’ after 5 years still living clutter-free.

  14. posted by jane on

    one thing I can’t get over with hoarders on tv and in real life is that they are always saying ‘I was going to do something with that’. The big question is what kept them from doing it?

  15. posted by Elaine on

    This is great topic sometimes you need not one or two strategies but all of them applied at different moments – from stopping aquisition to managing/getting rid of what you have to learning new systems of living (life is not things but experiences)

    I was happy to learn there is more than just a need or desire required to make a change (they inspire but do not instill new behaviors) I highly recommend the book

    This Year I Will…
    How to finally change a habit, keep a resolution, or make a dream come true… by M. J. Ryan

    I do wish I had someone with whom I could swap organizing visits – a clutter buddy – learned that language from Organizing for ADD 🙂

  16. posted by Mletta on

    We are not our stuff. Politely disagreeing.

    We ARE our stuff, no matter how little or how much we have. Why? Because we literally, in some cases, believe this, feel this, etc.

    I respect the work of professional organizers, however, I think that many folks (not just hoarders) would benefit from some form of therapy that really explores their associations with their physical space, material stuff, etc. It is complex and it’s not just about decluttering, which is why so many people revert.

    It’s a very complex issue.

    We are, many of us, emotional creatures. Yes, we value people first and our experiences. But for many, stuff does help us “reconnect” with experiences, people, etc.

    Stuff is never a substitute for the real thing, but tell a loving grandparent that her collection of stuff made by her children and grandchildren is just stuff. No. It’s a visceral reminder of people who may not often be physically present. just one example.

    As people age, stuff can often become even more important as parts of their lives “disappear.” (Literally in some cases)> Stuff is also family history.

    Personally, I believe we have to look carefully at our accumulations and really think about why we have stuff. But what’s interesting to me is how relative all this is. If you live in a 3,000+ huge home, many people have lots of stuff but it doesn’t seem that way cause it’s spread around. However, if you live in under 1,000 sq feet, you may have far less stuff but it may take up more “volume.” Who is the real horder?

    I liked the comment “We are not our habits.”

    We aren’t, unless we allow them to dominate our lives.

    Same with stuff.

    I think you have to look deeply into families and their “history” and how you were raised to really understand how you approach stuff.

    Although, even then, family members often differ in their approach to hanging on to or tossing stuff.

    Some people really float through life with little to no need for stuff. And then there are the rest of us, who have varying degrees of attachment.

    I think we become attached to stuff for many reasons, some of which can be acknowledged and released. But some, not so much.

    And it’s the rare person who does not have stuff, only some folks manage to position it so much more positively. (I recently saw photos of the home of a woman who is the head designer for an apparel company. She has converted two rooms in her home into “closets” for her clothes.

    She can afford it, of course. But seriously, does even she need two rooms for clothing? HOw much can you wear? How much is really just upscale storage? But…she gets praised for it while others, with less space and money, are called hoarders. Think about it.

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mletta — I say this with great care and concern, people are not their stuff. Volunteer in a prison, work with the homeless, or help people after a home fire to see that there are vibrant personalities, great amounts of living, that occur without possessions.

  18. posted by James on

    Agreed. I thought the last sentence was a bummer.

  19. posted by "The Stuff Was Not Me, The Stuff Was Not Me" | Lifehacker Australia on

    […] mess he made: A life-long slob decides it’s time to get organized [Washington Post via Unclutterer] Tagged:cluttermind […]

  20. posted by Daniel on

    Unfortunately, we are our habits.

    It’s what determines whether you’ll get the career you want, the body weight you desire, the success you desire, even the happiness you seek.

    I like Jim Rohn’s definition of failure: a few errors in judgment repeated daily. The corollary of failure is success: a few simple disciplines practiced every day.

    Rosenwald is making an error in judgment everyday in how he thinks about his stuff. When hoarders like him makes a few changes on how good it feels to have “stuff” the same way most people think how good it feels to eat, he’ll begin to make permanent progress.

    For me, I make sure I only hang around people I want to emulate, so that I don’t get infected with the wrong way of thinking.

  21. posted by Dia on

    I recently read Erin’s book (or part of it – from the Library) & was struck by the influence of the different learning styles on how we sort/choose our stuff!! WOW – I’m very kinesthetic, & the comment on re-bonding with stuff when we touch it made SO much sense! I sorted through some clothes using a ‘lay it out to look’ & ‘touch it quickly’ process to go through the pile. Now the trick of getting that pile OUT of the house!

    I have also struggled with the ‘stuff’ in my life, & puzzle over the ‘why’ . . . my mom grew up in a more cluttered home, I recall her telling my daughter ‘my mama also loved her garden; & spent more time outside – I decided I wanted to have a neater house, it’s up to you to decide what YOU want!’ (she is now married to a guy who has no problem de-cluttering & cleaning, & has shifted to that as well!)

    I certainly enjoy being in neater spaces, & am working to find my own balance.
    There’s also the issue of the sheer amount of stuff available to us these days; I am also intrigued with the size of many homes (mine’s in the <1000 sq feet category) & resulting amount of stuff 'spread out.' That said, I still have a lot of paper clutter, etc.
    My pioneer great grandparents COULDN'T have as much stuff as we do! & though we still move around a lot, we have bigger 'boxes' to move the stuff around in!

Comments are closed.