Are Your Possessions Possessing You?

How to know when enough is enough and put on the brakes.

Posted Nov 07, 2020

 Paul Flebebauer/Unsplash
Source: Paul Flebebauer/Unsplash

Michelle will admit that she is prone to shopping therapy. When she feels down or upset, her go-to is to go online and start “looking.” Eventually, the looking turns into buying and Amazon dumping packages at her door. Sometimes she sends stuff back, sometimes she doesn’t, sometimes she only glances at what’s in the package.

Unlike Michelle, Ron is more particular about what he buys—no impulsive shopping for him. He’s super-fussy, super-careful, going online for hours on the weekend looking up the latest item that he has stuck in his head that he is obsessing about—a new coffee maker, a new garden hose, the right color pants to compliment his sports jacket. And God forbid he decides to get something big like a car—if he could he would take time off from work to do the research.

Tara admits she's got lots of stuff. Her friends would call her a packrat. Is she a hoarder? Not according to the shows on TV—she can see her dining room, doesn’t have to eat on her bed. But still, she’s got ... things—clothes, kitchen gadgets, food that she’s put in bulk because “it was a good buy." And yes, she wants to stop and declutter but doesn’t know where to start.

Things, possessions, can possess us in varying ways. Always first-world problems, but also psychological ones as well that take up not only physical space in our lives but emotional and physical space as well. But our relationship with things can have several underlying drivers. 

Here are some of the common ones: 

Michelle: The Shopaholic

Without too much probing, Michelle will acknowledge how much her shopping is driven by her down moods. When she goes online and looks she is at the start of trying to fix an emotional problem that she is having right there and then. This is not much different from the person who gravitates towards the liquor cabinet after a hard day. Maybe not quite an addiction, but the purpose is similarher brain is wired to see the shopping as an emotional outlet, a source of comfort and control.

Ron: The Obsessive

Ron gets easily preoccupied with things because he is overall easily preoccupied. This is how his brain works. Once he gets something stuck in his head, his head can’t let go, he obsesses and like any obsessions, it takes up most of his mental space. But wait, there’s more: he now builds in the behavioral component where he is online tracking the “right” thingbecause he is afraid of getting the wrong thing because he is afraid of making a “mistake."

Tara: The Packrat

Tara’s situation is more complex. Yes, Tara is not the stereotypical hoarder who buys to simply buy and she is not so emotionally driven as Michelle, who uses buying as an emotional suave. Her problem is that she holds onto stuff, she is afraid of letting go of something that she "may" use some time in the future. It is about being prepared, about her anxiety, about having trouble letting go as a result. But adding to the emotional mix is that when she thinks of downsizing she gets way overwhelmedwhere to start, what does she really needand more often than not does nothing.

How to put on the brakes 

Like most psychological problems, change is a matter of defining and dealing with the underlying drives and then taking clear behavioral steps. Here’s how to get started:

Michelle: Identify the underlying emotional driver

Here Michelle needs to figure out what emotions trigger her running toward her computer. It may be because she is depressed, because she is angry, because she is anxious about something that she feels she has little control over. To do this, she needs to slow down and reflect and ask herself: What am I feeling now?

And if she is feeling angry or depressed or anxious the solution isn’t simply about not going online and white-knuckling those emotions, but having some substitute at the ready. This is where the AA member who is craving a drink calls her sponsor, or where the person who binge-eats hightails it up to the bedroom and reads a good book to stay away from the refrigerator. She needs to have some substitute behavior already in place to replace the computer that is calling her name.

Ron: Deal with his anxiety

Michelle needs help in managing her emotions, but Ron needs help managing his obsessions. This is about his form of anxiety. Like Michelle, he needs to learn to change his behaviorsput limits on his internet searches on the internet. But he needs to tackle his anxiety and perfectionism and fear of making mistakes. He may need therapy and/or medication to help him ultimately learn to step outside his comfort zone, and take the risks of being less constrained, and what will feel to him, more impulsive.

Tara: Get support

Tara is likely dealing with a combo of all these. She too needs to find out her emotional drivers and get help with them. Unlike Ron, she may need to be less impulsiveskip that bulk sale at Costco. But she also likes him has that underlying anxiety that makes her feel overwhelmed. Michelle needs support when she gets the urge to shop, Ron needs support when he is going down the rabbit-hold of obsessing, and Tara absolutely needs support when she knows she wants to downsize but can’t emotionally manage the getting started. 

This is where a good friend, an organizing professional, a family member can be helpfulto be that rational presence, who can talk you the emotional ledge, who can help you break things big things into smaller stepsMarie Kondo without Marie Kondo. 

Possessions can possess all of us. What’s your relationship with things? Time to change it?