Real Life Minimalists Update: Caroline Garnet McGraw

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.

This week, we have an update from Real Life Minimalist Caroline Garnet McGraw. We heard from Caroline in 2011 and 2013, and now she’s here with an account of recovering from perfectionism and decluttering her fantasy self. Read more insights from Caroline on her blog, A Wish Come Clear.

Caroline writes:



We’re alike, you and me: both of us are haunted by our fantasy selves. We’ve spent years in the shadows of perfectionism, so the light of reality leaves us squinting. We want the literal and figurative lightness of decluttering, but we resist because we’re scared to see ourselves so clearly.

My fantasy self is the queen of unrealistic expectations. Perfect Caroline can do it all: read all of the books, cook all of the meals, and wear all of the uncomfortable shoes. (Why do I persist in the belief that I will wear heels more than twice a year?) It would be wonderful to be Perfect Caroline … except that she’d have no personality, no boundaries, and no ability to survive in the real world. Believe me, I should know. I’ve tried to bring her to life again and again, but she’s elusive, a lady vanishing.

I love decluttering because it’s a practical, tangible way to release Perfect Caroline and embrace Real Caroline instead. Letting go gives me something precious: a sense of my true self, which endures when my false self fades. With every unloved item I discard – be it a book I haven’t read or a recipe I haven’t prepared – a cherished fantasy image of myself disintegrates.

At that point, the controlling perfectionist in me freaks out. “You can’t get rid of that recipe! You must become the kind of person who cooks elaborate meals for fun!” She sounds harsh, but when I’m kind to her – “There, there, you’re okay as you are; it’s fine to keep making your favorite salads instead” – she drops her aggressive facade. Beneath the bluster, she’s a trembling child. She doesn’t mean to hurt me; she’s just afraid.

But here’s the thing about facing reality: once you get past the initial anxiety, it actually feels good. As I wrote in my essay In Which I Dare To … Dress Better, “There was sadness in letting [old clothes] go, but there was also a tremendous rush of energy. Facing up to the truth about my clothes made me feel great, whereas staying in denial depleted me. When I let them go, it made me feel like I could be trusted to lead my own life.”

The delight of decluttering lies in trusting ourselves, in the people we really are. Here are a few examples from my own decluttering process:

Letting go of the ill-fitting athletic shorts … and the fantasy that they’d turn me into a soccer wunderkind like Bridget from Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (In reality, I prefer yoga and hiking.)

Letting go of the boring-to-me book … and the fantasy that I’d study grammar rules like a “proper” writer. (In reality, I’ve gained an intuitive grasp of grammar through obsessive reading.)

Letting go of the bulky closet organizer … and the fantasy that my husband and I would travel back in time to the tiny DC apartment where we lived as newlyweds. (In reality, we live in a historic Alabama home with nice furniture.)

Letting go of most of my old journal pages … and the fantasy that I’d want to reread them. (In reality, I prefer to use my journals as an emotional dumping ground and then move on.)

We let objects pile up because we’re scared of who we’d be without them. Who are we without all of this stuff? It’s time to find out. Consider this a spoiler alert: our real selves are more interesting, fun, and vital than our false selves can ever be. Real trumps Perfect every time.

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

18 comments to Real Life Minimalists Update: Caroline Garnet McGraw

  • We work with clients everyday who have the fantasy house in mind when they contact us.

    You are so very right. They reak house is so much more interesting!

    • What a cool connection, littleblackdomicile! One of my close friends is an interior designer, and now I see that while our work seems different on the surface, both of us help people to let go of their fantasy selves/homes and embrace their real ones … which, as you say, are so much more interesting. :) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Caroline, what a lovely essay about your life. Your lists of letting go are inspiring. My big letting go was of my over-the-top athletic gear. Truly, I enjoy a simple jog outside and a few pushups. I don’t need the strength machines, the exercise equipment, and the gym membership.

    • Thank you very much, Priscilla! So glad to hear that the story inspired you. And I hear you r.e. the athletic gear … I have a foam roller in my room that I used to use, but is now collecting dust. ;) Now I can consider whether I want to start using it again or let it go. Keep up with the push-ups and thank you for reading!

  • Heather

    YES! YES! YES! Most of what I decluttered this past go around was some fantasy me..and those dang heels were the first to go! :) LOVELY!

  • […] are we without those piles? Read my new guest post at Miss Minimalist to find […]

  • Tina

    I am always evolving. At 68, I still have the skills I had when I was younger, but I am also learning new ones. I kept a few crochet hooks, a few quilting patterns, some beads and findings, and some paper crafting books. One book shelf. One small basket for each craft. I have also been giving away more earrings I don’t wear.

    • Good for you, Tina! I like your point that we are always evolving; once I started getting more comfortable with change as a constant, it became much easier to let go. Thanks for reading and sharing; you’ve inspired me to let go of a few pairs of earrings that aren’t really right for me!

  • Lana

    I never thought of it in those terms but YES, I do have a fantasy self and it is one that is thinner, richer, and younger than my present self. I buy clothing for HER, but it does not fit ME. Because, you know, I am going to lose those 20 pounds for it to fit. This was a real wake-up call for me. I am the same about my home. I love decorating and have been guilty of buying far too many decor items that I don’t need and tire of after a while. Thank you for such an insightful article!

  • I never connected holding onto old stuff with perfectionism before. I think relating it to my fantasy self will help me let go.

  • Jenn

    Thank you for such a beautifully written post. The post resonated with me. I struggle with attempting (unsuccessfully) to live up to this fantasy self that I’ve created but never connected that with minimalism. I have difficulty parting with certain items and I think your article is really going to help me. Thank you.

    • Jenn, you’re very welcome! Thank YOU for your kind words. You are definitely not alone in the struggle with a fantasy self, and I’m cheering you on as you start letting go. Would love to hear how it goes!

  • Renee

    My goodness! The things I need to let go of! My “To Be Read” pile of books might have actually killed me if it toppled over, so now I have books spread out into smaller, less physically deadly piles. In thinking about what I have, book-wise, I can think of several books that intrigued me when I picked them up originally, but that no longer hold my interest. These would be great to donate to the library. We won’t discuss how many books I have on my Kindle.

    Clothes-wise, I have been able to purge several shirts that I no longer wear, and I’ve gotten rid of some of my old shoes. I still have several dresses that I do like, but in reality, apart from special occasions, I rarely wear them, so obviously some of them can go, too.

    Paper-wise, although I still have a little ways to go, I have made significant progress on getting rid of old bills and assorted other papers from years ago. Psychically, I do feel lighter not having as much paper around, so hopefully the positive trend to reduce will continue until I’ve gotten rid of everything that is not needed.

    Now to get rid of that ancient recliner…

    • Renee, thank you for sharing; I so enjoy reading people’s accounts of what needs to go! And yes, I can totally relate to the books piling up … luckily, our local library is just down the road and they have a used bookshop that welcomes donations and benefits the library. (Of course, I also buy a good many books there too!) It does help to think of decluttering as benefiting a good cause.

      Congratulations on all the progress you’ve made in purging old clothes and papers too … it is amazing how much lighter you feel after letting go! I tend to keep shoes long past their prime, but I’ve enlisted my mom to help with a shoe-replacement excursion over the holidays.

      Good luck with getting rid of the ancient recliner next! :)

  • This is so helpful to me. I read it a few days ago and have been reflecting on it when I have guilty thoughts about what I “should be doing”. It’s been very liberating to day, “no, that’s what fantasy Ally thinks she must do, but real life Ally does xyz, and that’s okay because … And she’s not alone. Many of my friends/family have similar thoughts and struggles. But the way you wrote about it puts a very specific name on it. Perfectionism . Fantasy. Unrealistic expectations. I feel like I’m finally hearing what my heart has been telling me the whole time. Does that make sense? Thanks for sharing and being raw, real and inspiring.

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