“I want our family to sell or get rid of the most our possessions, including our house.”
This was part of the plan I shared with my husband, John, when I was trying to get him to agree to begin traveling and living abroad. To him, this was an extreme thing to do on top of an already extreme plan.
The plan was to hit the reset button on our lives. It was to change our family dynamic and stretch in new ways. It was to figure out how we wanted to spend our lives going forward.
To start out, we would be doing a cross-US road trip over the summer and follow that up with our first time living internationally as a family. Specifically, we’d be living in Costa Rica in a permaculure-based sustainable community. After our first six months in Costa Rica (where we are at the time of this writing), we will figure out what comes next.
Living internationally was something that had been on my mind for multiple years, but it wasn’t quite something I was ready to jump on. There were a few things that felt like giant roadblocks that I hadn’t felt quite capable of overcoming. One of those things was all our stuff.
Rationally, it didn’t seem financially-logistical to simply move all our belongings from our house in the United States to a house in a different country. Additionally, it didn’t make sense to simply stick everything in a storage unit.
While rationally I knew that living internationally would require downsizing, I wasn’t psychologically ready to make the decisions about what to keep and what to discard.
I had to get to the point where I had a deeper awareness about my relationship to my things to then be able to acknowledge why getting rid of the majority of our stuff would be so beneficial.
This realization came with observations made while my mom was in the last months of her life. I was able to understand from a much more objective place the role, and essentially power, our things have over our lives.
Conversely, I was able to see the insignificance they actually have to us as we are at the end of our life. I could see how the purchase of certain items was to give us some immediate gratification, but in the end, there is little meaning to many of the physical objects we fill our spaces with.
This observation allowed me to reflect much more deeply and see more clearly the role my and my family’s physical objects were influencing and shaping the life we were living.
This clarity helped me see that it was time to make some dramatic, and potentially radical to us, changes.
Here are some of the realizations I made regarding the impact our things had over our lives and why getting rid of most of our things was such an important next step for our family going forward.
Our physical possessions contributed to a daily sense of overwhelm
The managing of our things on a daily basis and my tendency to be a “keeper” were major contributors of stress and overwhelm within our family dynamic.
I grew up in a family of “keepers”, which meant I didn’t develop the muscle of being able to detach myself from my things. I was emotionally attached to things because of what I felt they represented. This meant I kept things in boxes from my past because letting go of those things was equivalent with discarding the memory or identity associated with the items.
This meant that our storage areas were filled with unused items, which left little room for the things we actually used.
The effect of not getting rid of things we no longer used was amplified once kids became part of our life. The influx of toys at every holiday and birthday and the constant change of clothing sizes meant that we were needing to manage things a lot more.
In retrospect, the revolving door of things because of kids made me more aware of my tendencies to hold onto things. It was almost impossible to hold onto things to the degree that I had been because our floors would have been 100% covered. It forced me to find solutions and ways to part with their thing as they moved on from them.
However, that being said, there was an almost daily sense of overwhelm due to the managing of more things than we had space and need for.
The managing of the kids’ things just skimmed the surface and was superficial maintenance, as the underlying boxes from the past that had yet to be dealt with. I felt there was very little time and energy to go deep with the stuff in the garage because I was dealing with the other stuff, and really, the stuff in the garage was more than I was emotionally ready to deal with.
The role our things were playing in our lives was not teaching our kids to have a healthy relationship to things
It was becoming apparent to me that our kids’ relationships to things were going to be what our relationships were, unless we did something to change the model we were showing them.
Our children have been well-loved with gifts and clothes over the years from loving family members. Because John and I didn’t have clear intentions about what and how many things we’d like to have in our home, we never came up with alternative gifts to suggest.
Cedar, our daughter, ultimately had a bedroom overflowing with toys that would cause me angst to enter. Because I had trouble myself with discerning what to keep and what not to keep, it became tremendously difficult for me to teach her how to filter out things once she no longer used them.
It seems she also had a strong tendency to attach identity and emotion to her items, even if she didn’t use them… at all.
Our kids didn’t have an understanding of how many toys they actually needed in order to feel satisfied. An overabundance was the norm they knew, but they were only using a small fraction of what they actually had.
When I was sitting there at my parents’ house among my mom’s things, it occurred to me that this tendency to attach our identity and memories to our things was something I inherited. And, my kids were in the process of inheriting that tendency as well.
We needed to learn how to discern and make choices about the things in our lives
Our house getting to the point of the closets and garage filled with an abundance of items that serve little use in our lives at that point was because we needed to strengthen our discernment “muscle”.
Is this item useful, needed, valued? How much stuff do we actually need?
Selling or passing on the majority of our possessions was going to cause us to finally make some decisions, very tough ones at first, about what and how much we needed going forward.
We planned to take eight carry-on bags with us to Costa Rica and keep a small storage space back in our old home town.
This would reframe the reference point for us of what we kept while going through every single item we owned.
It was easy to not make decisions when items were out of sight and out of mind in the garage. It was easy to kick the decision-making down the road on an item when there was a spot in an extra closet to tuck it away.
However, getting rid of most of our stuff would raise the bar on what we allowed ourselves to hang onto. When you’re a “keeper”, that bar is pretty low..
We needed to figure out first hand the relationship between how much we own and how content we are
When we have a tendency to hang on to (way) more than we actually need, it can be in part due to this underlying irrational belief that more things make us more secure and/or satisfied. It can also cause us to buy more than we really need.
By getting rid of a good majority of our things, I had a feeling that we would be able to better understand how much we really needed.
Up until that point, our things were mostly causing us an abundance of stress, which was really weakening our family dynamic. I had a sense that by decreasing our possessions, we’d have more energy and time to go into family experiences, which I thought would strengthen our relationships.
If we wanted to see how this effect worked, it made sense to downsize to what we felt were essentials for what we planned to do. Additionally, by having a limited amount of space to store and keep our things, we’d have to be a lot more thoughtful about each thing we purchased.
In the end, this experiment would challenge our long-held beliefs about the roles our things play for us. It could help us see what are the factors that really influence how we feel in life.
Our possessions play a role in our ecological impact, and we weren’t living in alignment with our ecological values
Both John and I are people that care about the environment and how we are impacting it. However, our consumption of goods was out of alignment with that value.
Because our relationships to things were somewhat unconscious, we weren’t necessarily buying things or choosing things for our children with a level of ecological consciousness.
This created in myself a level of angst because I knew my values and our practices were contradictory. I was able to rationalize to allow myself to feel somewhat better because our level of consumption is acceptable by societal standards. However, inside, I knew I wanted to make a change.
When you don’t have a real sense of what you actually need and value with regards to your things, it’s much more difficult to make intentional and conscious purchases. It’s a lot easier to make the impulsive, late-night purchases on Amazon when you aren’t really aware of your needs.
To me, I saw that improving our relationship to our possessions would also have the benefit of us living in more alignment with our ecological values.
Getting rid of our possessions has been a period of tremendous growth for our family
Initially, John did see this idea as extreme, but he eventually came around to it.
He saw that logistically, it made sense to part ways with unused things, and that it would free us up to make this move. He also saw all the things I previously mentioned.
We did sell or get rid of 90-95% of our possessions before embarking upon this journey. It didn’t come without a lot of emotions and stretching of our comfort zones.
We were forced to examine our relationships with the items we’ve kept over the years and what owning those items have meant to us. We parted ways with things we did value and enjoy, but due to the practicality of keeping them, it didn’t make sense for the next phase of our lives.
I can say that I’ve transformed through this process. I can see my old thought patterns and beliefs much more clearly that allowed me to cling to things due to the meanings I attached to them.
I can see that I am much more free to pursue my future, rather than being held back the possessions of my past.
Our journey with our relationships to things is not over, but it’s definitely changed our life experiences, which I’m quite grateful for.
I’m curious. Is there anything that you can relate to here? Have you seen a correlation between your things and feeling overwhelmed? Have you simplified and experienced a shift in your life experience? Let me know in the comments.