Real Life Minimalists: Vanessa

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

Today, we meet Vanessa. After embracing a consumerist lifestyle for many years, she’s now finding freedom by slowly shedding her excess stuff. Visit her blog to read more.

Vanessa writes:

Vanessa and her son

I was never fond of the word minimalism. It connotes want, frugality (another term I hate), lack, and scarcity. I didn’t like the word simple either – it means boring, unattractive, pared down, too retiring, lacking in imagination.

I like having the good things in life, I like pleasurable experiences and a comfortable place to live. And so for a long time I’ve always surrounded myself with things that made me feel complete, that signified abundance, prosperity, and fullness. I like being stimulated, the exhilaration of buying a brand new handbag and satisfaction of wearing a long-coveted piece of clothing. Having anything I wanted, when I wanted was my definition of freedom and liberation. Earning my own keep allowed me to buy the things I wanted, go to places I wanted to explore, eat whatever my palate craved for.

But somewhere along the way, I felt trapped. All the things I accumulated became even more glaring within the confines of the tiny 37 square meter apartment I was living in. I suddenly needed more – more room to store my things in, more money to sustain my lifestyle, more clothes to put up a professional facade at work.

I was running the proverbial rat race. I was living knee deep in stuff, tchotchkes I’ve been holding on to for years, for fear that taking away the things surrounding me would somehow diminish me. Getting rid of things meant letting go of parts of myself that I wanted to preserve – the image of smart, up and coming yuppie who could conquer the corporate world was the ideal that I had in mind. I’d look up to the female VP at the financial firm I was working in and thought that it was an image I should work towards, position to aspire for.

I had officially bought into the consumerist lifestyle, hook line and sinker.

I silenced the sensitive voice deep in my being, the voice that was telling me that this was not what I really wanted to do. I tried to squelch the urge to create something for creativity’s sake. I shushed the part of me that was willing to do noble things without asking for any monetary returns, because those are childish, impractical matters that I should have grown out of a long, long time ago.

Hadn’t I indulged my writing aspirations by spending ten months after graduation working as an editorial assistant for a non-profit cultural organization? I should get my Pollyanna streak out of my system, because that is not how the world works. I beat it out of me by joining a stock market firm, learning as much as I could about finance and other practical things I wasn’t really interested in.

I did it because I thought I had to, if I were to survive and thrive in a dog-eat-dog world.

Fifteen years later, I was on the verge of a breakdown. Everything felt heavy. I suddenly understood what having a burden on your shoulders meant. I was crushing under the weight of all the clutter and baggage that surrounded me, and I only had myself to blame for it.

And so I started to remove some items from my closet. Just a few things at first – the tattered shirt, the faded blouse, the jeans I’ve outgrown. And then I began to clear out more and more things and felt better, lighter, more energized.

But it gets harder as I was left with the things that I still wanted, but no longer served their purpose. I started to get stuck, and abandoned my de-cluttering efforts altogether.

Which brings us to Project Shed. Knowing my attachment issues with stuff, I’ve decided to go slow with the process. This is not fast, easy-peasy process. There are so many resources online that provide guidance on how to effectively get rid of the mess surrounding you, and they do it in an efficient, no-nonsense manner.

My process is more deliberate. I am allowing myself time and space to ruminate on every item I am about to eradicate. Much like ending a long, drawn out relationship that should have ended years ago, I intend to celebrate each item, write about it, contemplate on it before I finally release it.

Sometimes the things I see online jumpstart some long-buried memories that I should have eradicated years ago. Things like a cassette tape, or song, or movie that once defined who I was a long time ago. Those will be included in my little project.

Call me narcissistic, a sentimental fool, melodramatic, or a stay at home mom with way too much time on her hands. But I’m doing this, in the hopes that maybe it might spark a project of your own, too.

As for the words minimalism and simple – I’ve come to terms with identifying myself with them. I’ve aligned myself with others who have decided to redefine those words to connote abundance, plenty, freedom, lightness, and the state of being unencumbered.

Yes, I am a minimalist. Yes, I am simple. I am enough.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

30 comments to Real Life Minimalists: Vanessa

  • Ruth

    A very well written story Vanessa! Loved how you changed slowly. I find getting rid of things slowly and reminiscing as I do it, helps a lot. It gives me closure with the item/part of my life. Saying goodbye to those things that once meant a lot.

    • Yes Ruth, going slow does help, doesn’t it? The story behind the stuff is what makes it so hard to let go of, so that’s what I’d like to capture, not the thing itself. Because it really just clutter, you know? thanks for the lovely comment :)

  • mrs Brady Old Lady

    Nice to hear from someone else who feels best decluttering slowly. I’ve been decluttering for over 10 years, getting there, but some things just take time to say goodbye to, don’t they?

  • Mark

    “But it gets harder as I was left with the things that I still wanted, but no longer served their purpose. I started to get stuck, and abandoned my de-cluttering efforts altogether.”

    I think this is something so many of us can relate to when we first tread the minimalist path! I know I certainly can!

    • Mark, getting rid of the ratty shirt and underwear that has seen better days are so easy to toss, but the sentimental items, no matter how old or unusable they are, are the hardest to let go of. The ones I’m having a hard time getting rid of aren’t even expensive items, just clothes that remind me of a fantasy self, as Francine Jay would say.

  • Diane

    What a terrific story Vanessa. No two people have the same experience during the decluttering process and it’s nice to hear from someone eradicating slowly. You are a great role model for your son who will no doubt grow up knowing what’s important in life — time with family and friends!

  • Love your slow, deliberate way of decluttering and that you’re going to write about each item! Sounds good to me. And healthy. Now I’m off to check out your blog!

    • Hi Karen, I try to get rid of clutter as best I can, but when I get stuck with certain items, that’s when i take the time to figure out why. Writing about it helps me do that, plus the memory it triggers still lives on with the story, somehow :)

  • Lindsay

    Love your story, Vanessa, as it is very similar to mine. I’ve worked in finance for the past 15 years and it has mentally and emotionally worn me out. When I was in college, I never stopped to think that I never really enjoyed business classes – I chose it because it was practical. I’m also working slowly to pare down my life and my commitments, with the intention of changing careers in the next year or two.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • I remember a quote I read somewhere about choosing practicality over going after what you were meant to do: “it’s impossible”, said pride. “it’s risky”, said experience. “it’s pointless”, said reason. “give it a try”, whispered the heart. “and for the final verdict, in every situation, listen to me” said the gut. elizabeth gilbert said the last part :)

  • Hi Vanessa, I love how you describe your early reaction to terms such as minimalism and simple…I felt that way for many years myself. But just like you, I’ve come to feel like the things hold me rather than the other way around. A strangle hold it seems.

    Take my Martin guitar for example. It became a member of the family when I was a child. My father played it, we all played it. It came into my possession as a young adult and it has moved with me over the last 30 years. Mostly it has been shoved under a bed or in a closet where it lay unplayed; ignored.

    Earlier this year I decided to try to sell the guitar, after all, shouldn’t someone who would play it have it? I took it to a local guitar shop to get it appraised. But a strange thing happened…when the guy took it out of the tattered case, tuned it and then strummed a few chords, my heart melted. How could I sell this treasure? Maybe I’d start to play again…

    So instead of selling it, I spent ~$500 to have it repaired and get a new case. Guess what. It has been carefully shoved under the bed and not a single note played. Good grief.

    I really need to sell it!

    • Lindsay

      Maybe you could hang it on a wall somehow if you’re not quite ready to see it? Then you could see it and have happy memories, and wouldn’t feel guilty every time you look under the bed.

      • Or Ree, maybe you can take a picture of the guitar and frame it so it doesn’t collect dust under your bed? Either way, when I hit a wall in my decluttering efforts I try to get to the bottom of the discomfort I feel, and the process of writing itself is enough for me to finally get rid of it.

  • Heather

    :I’d look up to the female VP at the financial firm I was working in and thought that it was an image I should work towards, position to aspire for.” Oh my gracious, this was me!!!! I was chasing an image, the proverbial “dream” which was really a nightmare. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Heather, we all have our own unique dreams and desires, we just need to listen to it and not be drowned by the noise of what society deems a success. Thank you for taking the time to comment :)

  • Unlike you, I’ve been drawn to “minimalism” and “simplicity” for years, but I knew I wasn’t going to sell everything and move into a tiny house so I just kept living my life (and buying stuff). Finally I realized I could declutter slowly. As much as I admire the people who live out of a backpack, it’s just not me. We’ve gotten rid of a ton of stuff over the last couple years and are continuing to do so. Each day it gets easier. It’s funny how I look at something one day and want to keep it and a couple of months later I realize I never use it and it’s easy to get rid of.

    • Christy King, my sentiments exactly, on what you said about extreme minimalists. We all have different ways of practicing simplicity & minimalism, but to me, what matters is it allows us to focus on what truly matters without distraction.

  • Love your journey and how you recounted it, Van! Such a blessing to hear that you are taking the road to intentional living! I’m always rooting for you, you know that! Much love <3

  • Why hello, Dainty Blogging Belle. Thank you for taking the time to comment dear, much appreciated :)

  • Angie Hall

    Nicely done, Vanessa. I love your go-but-slow approach. Please forgive me for not using the adverb “slowly,” but you get my point. I, too, declutter in fits and starts, but eventually, I get ‘er done. The slower process is, for me, too, more thoughtful, less angry and self-condemning, and effective, just the same.

    One thing, though, if you’re a SAHM, as I am, you certainly do not have too much time on your hands. But with less stuff, I am finding somehow I have more time to enjoy the kids without having to swim through, store, or maintain the stuff I used to accumulate for them.

  • Thank you, Angie, for pointing our that SAHMs don’t have too much time on their hands! I agree of course. I guess I was coming from what non-moms might perceive my slow-but-steady project to be, because back when I was a singleton who didn’t know any better, that’s how I’d have seen it. Wow. That just made me realize how judgmental and clueless I used to be, and can sometimes still be if I don’t watch out!

  • Gil

    Very inspirational, Vanessa!..At once like yourself, I took stock in owning “stuff”. I used it a way to validate my success and to some degre, my existance. I used to get a “high” by obtaining things and this went on for years.

    I can say I have been de-cluttering for 3 years now and this is the first blog i took inspiration from. Now, when I let go of things, I actually feel a cleansing of sorts and yes, simple is good. It forces us to concentrate on and experience what’s really important in life.

  • A wonderful story, because it shows how deep the urge toward minimalism goes, for example it is not just a way of decorating your house in a spare style. I found it interesting that you connected a simpler lifestyle with the past to the extent that you daydreamed of time travel.

  • Tina

    I’ve given away 6 bags of clothes, towels, and books in the past few weeks. When we moved from our house to a small condo 11 years ago we got rid of a lot of things. Every year we get rid of more. I’ve gotten only things from rummage sales, thrift shops, and garage sales for a very long time. One of the things I enjoy doing is buying necklaces at rummage sales and remaking them into something I’ll wear to accessorize an outfit. I also do art work and try to get the supplies second hand. If someone mentions they want something I try to find it for free or second hand and my friends go to yard sales, etc. and look for things for me. A lot of us retired folks live on much less money by not consuming much. If you are working, try to save money so you can retire as early as you can. We use the public library a lot and donate to the local food bank, Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc. The kids are grown and are careful with money from watching us. Your time is too precious to spend it shopping at the mall. My kids got clothes second hand when they were young because they grow too fast to spend money on new things. We used to get together once a month or so and trade clothes.

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  • Tina

    Still giving away a big bag or 2 every week. There is a lot more empty space here. I have no friends who are interested in simple living or minimalism. Most spend a lot of time shopping and collecting. I feel I am more in touch with younger people who don’t want to acquire as much.

  • Tina

    I just gave away 2 big bagfuls to Goodwill. I know what will be next- another trip to the library. As I keep sorting, recycling and donating, the empty spaces are growing. There is so little I want or need in the way of keepsakes.

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