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Are You Defined by Your Stuff?

Over the weekend I was listening to an interview with Adam Minter, author of the book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale on the Zestful Aging Podcast (listen to the full episode here). His book reveals the complex global industry that processes secondhand goods, and his conversation with my friend and colleague Nicole Christina was truly fascinating. At one point he relays the painful experience of cleaning out his mother’s home after her death, and the revelation he had during that process:

“Part of the way we build up our own identities, but also the identities of the people around us, is we start associating things with them. This is mom’s china, this is part of how we view her: this totality of stuff.”

He goes on to describe how we broadcast our personal ideologies to the world via the material goods we purchase, the stores we shop in, and the restaurants we frequent. Basically, our decisions as consumers allow us to craft our own identities and communicate them to others.

I found this such an interesting concept, and one that definitely rings true. Do you think of yourself as an iPhone or Android person? Walmart or Target? Patagonia or J Crew? Converse or Nike? Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts or indie coffee shops? Years ago when I started on my own journey to simplify my life I made a conscious decision to not wear clothing with visible logos: I had already paid for the garment, so why would I want to give the brand free advertising? But I realized, after listening to Minter, that my decision was just another way of crafting my identity through my relationship to stuff. My avoidance of logos is how I communicate my values about simplicity and non-materialism to the world, through the material goods I choose to purchase and wear. The irony is not lost on me.

He hypothesizes that we do this because we have lost some of the identity markers we used to use. Past generations who would live their entire lives in one place were strongly identified with their town or city. We used to define ourselves and others by religion or ethnicity or social organizations or schools. As we have become increasingly mobile and interconnected, our identification with these things has weakened, so we turned to purchasing decisions to define ourselves.

This theory also sheds light on why it can be so difficult to part with things, either our own or those that belonged to a loved one. It’s not just stuff, it’s a person’s identity that we are parting with. Minter says, “Taking apart a parent’s stuff and start letting it go into the world via Goodwill… it is a second mourning process because you are deconstructing that person’s material identity.”

So the next time you are struggling to part with things that are no longer serving you, be kind to yourself. If you are tasked with cleaning out a loved one’s home, know that it will be emotionally draining and you will likely need help through the process. There’s a lot more to getting rid of things than simply putting them into piles to keep, donate, and throw away. There is emotional work and even grief to contend with, so give yourself a break.

If you found these tips helpful be sure to subscribe to the Pretty Neat weekly email! You'll get a short and sweet message each week with my best advice for a more beautiful and functional home. Click here to sign up, and you'll also receive my FREE guide: How to Get Rid of Stuff!

Make it fab!


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