I spent this weekend doing what I love most, cleaning out a closet. Some people party others go on exotic getaways during their leisure, not me, I would take a good purge over any of those things anytime. The excitement of facing a great chasm of clutter, battling the beast, and surviving without being swallowed forever is unparalleled. The delicious satisfaction of a wardrobe organized by color, fit, and function. The once crammed space emptied and opened. Happiness is clean a closet!

 One of the most fascinating insights during a good clean is discovering what you have and how little of that total amount you use. If you have ever been privy to any organizational advice you have heard of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. This states that for most events 80% of the effects are from 20% of the cause. When applied to your closet, you actually wear 20% of what you own 80% of the time.

 There are countless ways to test this theory. Some people hang their clothes the opposite direction after wear and later assess percentage of clothes worn. Some people pick out the must-haves and wear only those for a month later giving away the rest. I like to turn my clothes inside out after each wear and see what I actually use at the end of the week.

 After my weekend of cleaning out a friend’s closet, and feeling cleansed from that experience I decided to do a little cleaning of my own closet. My once empty schedule had gotten a bit crammed, and my time and self felt stretched, pulled, fragmented, and spread very thin. Cleaning my closet was a great way to create external peace in an internal state of chaos.

 There is no better way for me to gain a sense of control than to sort, throw away, and reorganize. The outcome, living with less, also provides serenity in the madness. Having fewer items to choose from produces limited choices and easier decisions. Additionally, everything that is allowed to stay is considered wardrobe “sure things” so the likelihood of a fashion error or terror of having “nothing to wear” is eliminated.

 After a quiet night of removing, laying out, assessing, eliminating, and restocking; my wardrobe had halved. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I hate having a lot of stuff. Every time I buy a new item, I remove three. And anything and everything that comes into my door has been carefully considered, fits with the clothes I already have, and is a long term investment. To remove half of the little I already had was quite an accomplishment.

 I recall a year living in Newport Beach, California for my internship when closet cleaning was of paramount importance. My life was complete hell. Three hour commutes at minimum into the desert, long days working with emotionally taxing cases, coming home to an empty apartment 3000 miles away from home, and spending free time writing my dissertation. One of the only cures for my emotional and physical drain was cleaning out and organizing. When my day started with a clear view of my perfectly folded almost empty closet I felt temporary relief from the daily frazzle, and the lightness of my stuff removed the weight of the day.

In a world filled with junk, I have always been secretly envious of those who live with less. At night by the light of my computer, I join those lonely millions exploring forbidden pleasures online. Mine is frugality. Could I really live with a pallet, hotplate, and a couple of outfits?  Probably. Would I want to? No! But I still find comfort in the possibility.

Taking inventory of what you have and what you actually use is always a great conscious raising exercise. Pretending you had to move to an island with just the necessities or relocate tomorrow with just those things you could not live without leaves only the bareboned foundation of what is required to live. On my many searches I found a blog of a man doing just that, taking inventory of what he had and listing only those things he needed as he battled debt and relocation

He also encouraged his readers to give away 50% of what they owned. The participants all reported finding relief in this process. So why does less make us feel better? I found the answer to that question when examining the converse, the reasons we continue to buy more.

 Never is there more spending than during the holidays. The most wonderful time of the year has been reduced to filling your home with junk, buying junk for others, receiving junk, and buying junk for yourself. A little cynical?  Yes, but if the pilgrims and Native Americans could see us surrounded by turkey lamp shades and pumpkin earrings they would pack up and leave. Call me crazy, but the last time I checked Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Christ. Try finding a nativity among Santa’s (formerly known as Saint Nicholas) sleigh of presents. The New Year has been reduced to end of the season sales and more gym equipment.

So why do we buy during the holidays and beyond? Consider first the sociological reasons. Does this ring a bell? “Come on. Try it. You’ll like it. It will make you feel good…feel good….feel good”. Fade out. Just like the classic 80s drug commercials, we are told to buy! We are told everyone else is doing it. We are told we need it to belong. We are told there is not enough to go around. We are told that this great opportunity will only come around once. We are told we need it. We believe. We buy.

 We often look to others to determine our response to situations. Classic example is the epinephrine studies. A participant is injected with epinephrine which induces the increase of sympathetic responses such as heart rate and blood pressure. Among other outcomes, when the participant is in a room filled with euphoric people the participant reports experiencing excitement. When the participant is in a room filled with angry people, he or she reports anger. Although a crude generalization and application, if everyone else is engaging in shopping binges than we should too!

Unfortunately, our perceptions of frequency of behaviors are often incorrect, especially with adolescent and young adults. Activities such as sex, drinking, and drug use are examples of behaviors that are overestimated and copied. It is not hard to imagine that we too may overestimate the frequency of other-shopping and feel that we are justified in our behaviors and they become normalized.

Keeping up with the Joneses is certainly a component to the shop ‘til you drop mentality and is often cited as the primary reason for the economic bust. But sometimes just keeping up is simply not enough. The Real Housewives’ series immediately comes to mind. Watching the “ladies” every week buy diamonds, luxury cars, and tacky clothing to impress each other overrides the actual ability to afford the item.

The novelty of the items we buy is also extremely important to continue to stay on the shopping treadmill. Getting bigger, better AND newer pushes us to go to the stores, dispose of what we have, which has probably never been used, and replace. Trends that are forced down our throats are lethal for those with a propensity to shop. You will never catch up so don’t even try!

Societal influences, which include being told to buy, our over exaggerations of other-shopping behaviors, keeping up with the Joneses, and searching for novelty and trends, affect our compulsion to buy, but our psychological influences are equally important. People stuff their closets and drawers to fill the internal void. That emptiness can be anything from dissatisfaction with a job, a partner, or even the self. We all experience that feeling of emptiness but do not allow ourselves to confront it, work through it, and fill it with things of substance. Stuff is a poor substitute for feelings of accomplishment, service to others, social connectedness, and life purpose. The tangible objects we buy are merely short term substitutes for those things that require work and sacrifice which ultimately provide long term satisfaction.

Buying stuff temporarily fills the void and provides a distractor from the difficulties in life that we are not willing to identify. I am totally guilty of this one. Why think about work, deadlines, and bills when you can go shop? The component of shopping that is most cathartic for me is “the chase”. Everything else in my life may be going to hell in a hand basket but being able to find what I am looking for is a small success among a pile of failures.

When I was on the job search after grad school was over, rejections became part of my daily life. Really glad I gave up my twenties studying in school only to have fruitless job searches. The question of the day was “Why did I do this again? For whatever reason it made sense to build a work wardrobe, even though I was jobless. At least searching for clothing was some kind of a job right? My assignment was to find the most perfect sheath dress I had ever been in from Benetton in every available color that actually fit. This dress was so perfect that it had sold out all over the country. I called ever store from here to the West Coast using tried and true retail techniques I had learned during my stint as a sales associate. Always call the stores on Pacific time, always call the stores that are located in small towns so the item is less likely to sell out there, and start the conversation with “ I am doing an item check” so the person on the other end thinks you are official and will help you. After a day of phone calls, emails, and stalking sales associates I got the dresses. After the purchase I was still left without employment. Yes, getting all of that stuff felt good, getting it when it was almost entirely unavailable felt even better, but at the end of the day my situation had not changed.

If you are one of the many who buys without thought delaying your purchase gives you ample time to assess if something emotional is driving the purchase. I often window shop and do not bring my wallet, so I can look at all of the pretty things but can’t buy them. I can then go home and consider if I will actually use all the stuff. Additionally, I also think about the psychological reason behind my desire to purchase. Am I depressed or anxious? Do I feel out of control? Am I lonely? Am I bored? Most of the time, I buy out of boredom or life dissatisfaction and almost never go back to buy any of the junk I so desperately thought I needed.

Recently, I have added one more component to my pre-buy exercise, practicing gratitude. After receiving trainings and using mindfulness exercises on clients, I have started to practice mindful gratitude on myself. Mindful gratitude for me is much more than listing what I am thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner but embodying gratitude, residing in a place of gratitude, moving from a state of wanting, and acting from a place of gratefulness. This may all sound like New Age mumbo jumbo but trust me it really works.

Oprah often refers to her daily gratitude exercise, keeping a gratitude journal. Well, she certainly has a whole lot to be grateful for probably more than the average citizen but when you start acknowledging those things that you have, foster that feeling of gratitude, and sit quietly with that feeling for a while, you have much to be thankful for…maybe even more than Oprah!

So it is my wish for you during this Thanksgiving and throughout the holidays to take time, even if just for five minutes, to allow yourself to feel gratitude for all that you have. Light a candle, listen to some soothing music, take a walk outside, or just sit in silence and become connected with all that you can be grateful for. When you are grateful for what you have you have less mind space to think about all of the things you need. When you are grateful for all that you have there is no need for more. When you are grateful for all that you have you have plenty to give.

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author

Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who examines the underlying reasons for clients' style choices and creates a wardrobe to facilitate positive internal change.

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