The Dark Emotional Side of Minimalism

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We ALL channel our emotions into our relationship with things

I grew up in a house with a lot of… *stuff.*

There’s a spectrum of what I could mean by “stuff” (from “high end material goods and gadgetry” to “outright hoarders garbage”) so I should specify: it was somewhere in between.

It was “unapologetic 2000's middle class America” — an explosive collection of things both inherited and found “on sale” at strip mall big box stores: faded fake flowers looking perky-tired in mismatched vases; dusty framed prints of places we’d never been and dogs we’d never owned; heirloom hutches covered in knick knacks the likes of Jim Shore; benches overstuffed with teddy bears that one of the dogs would occasionally get hold of and chew a little before someone rescued the thing and returned it, only a little banged up, to its proper, anonymous spot in the teddy mob.

Everything, a visual representation of how my mother’s decor “theme” evolved over time, from the birdhouses, pink bunnies, and sweet pea wallpaper in the downstairs bathrooms, to the blue and yellow “French Country” kitchen, to the “farmhouse” dining room, every spare surface covered with chickens and pigs. And, most recently… just… owls.

And then everywhere, on top of all that, were artifacts of our real lives: all three sides of the fridge covered in souvenir magnets and family photos, piles of Important Papers (most importantly, coupons) overflowing all the counters, cans of dog and cat food stacked in tiny towers near the pantry in which they can’t all fit.

But despite all of this, the real identifying “theme” of the household has always been: my mother’s emotions.

She was and still is a woman who knows no “even keel.” For her, daily life is a series of ups and downs —compulsive cooing at any of the 2–4 dogs we always had; little outbursts over something as small as dropping a spoon. And not infrequently, of course, there were big outbursts, too — explosions over loss of control, real or perceived.

Over time, all of her stuff in the household came to represent her emotions, as though with each outburst, good or bad but mostly bad, all of that energy would settle into all of her stuff, and after a number of years it was all saturated and sodden with it like the heavy, swampy air of the south in late-summer.

Being surrounded by all the stuff was unbearable by the time I was in high school. It’s still a psychological exercise each time I visit home.

I am aggressively minimalist.

Left to my devices, I will live a life of next-to-nothing.

One of my favorite apartments of my 20’s was an old, 200 square-foot white-walled studio without a kitchen. The entirety of the place was my air mattress, a rack of clothes, and a tiny bathroom where the water pressure was so weak I’m not sure it qualified as much more than an ambitious trickle.

The rent was $500 a month. I was earning six digits.

Not actually the place but you get the idea

I’m in my 30s and have never bought pots and pans, let alone furniture. I read a ton but donate all my books once a year. When I rode my motorcycle across the country, I shipped a single bag — a small black backpack with my laptop and a few change of clothes — ahead of me. A year later, I could still fit all of my possessions (the bike excluded) in a suitcase, if I needed.

My paternal grandparents are now at the age where they’re beginning to ask all us grandkids which possessions in their house we’d like to inherit. I’ll leave the grand piano and fine art and the house itself to everyone else; the only thing that holds my interest is a framed pencil sketch of a rearing horse that my dad did long before I was born.

I can pretend that there are no emotions behind this — that it’s all just “elitist-stoic philosopher” or “the life-changing magic” — but there are.

When I say that I am “aggressively,” minimalist, what I really mean is that I am anxiously so.

This is my own grab for control.

It IS peace of mind — but in many more ways than people talk about.

On the upside: everything people talk about when they talk about the merits of minimalism is absolutely true. We do use stuff to distract ourselves. We do dump our emotions and insecurities into stuff, and we do build up our egos and identities with stuff. So if you don’t have “stuff,” yes, it’s true that you instead build your understanding of your self and your world on “better” things.

They say that you can’t choose “nothing.” A new mom once told me that if you’re not a millionaire then you have to have kids, and one blogger in her late 50s loves to write that you must have kids if you don’t have anything else. Both of them imply that we must have something, and “nothing” somehow isn’t still something. (Which of course it is.) You can reject every decor and you can live in a house of “nothing” and be perfectly happy in that. And if that’s the case, then you can most certainly do the same with your whole life.

On the downside, though: we can just as easily be building — and protecting — our egos by rejecting it all.

Because nature abhors a vacuum, and all of that “nothingness” is being counterbalanced by something.

It’s us. We are “holding it up” by holding it back.

My mom didn’t just have “a thing” with her own stuff. She also had a “thing” with everyone else’s. And not only did she overstuff the house with… stuff… she also used stuff against us.

When we were little and didn’t pick up our toys, she’d occasionally get frustrated to the point of destroying or donating them. The worst was the time she took a knife to a “dress-up” purse over the kitchen trash can braced against the cabinet with one knee. But it wasn’t always that extreme.

She disciplined as most parents do: by “taking stuff away.” This move is always primarily a “panicked power grab” and secondarily a lesson that “having stuff meant you were ‘good;’ not having stuff meant you were ‘bad.’” And by the time she was disciplining by taking my car and cell phone away in high school, I relinquished and realized:

If you don’t have anything, there’s nothing anyone can take away.

Given this, I’m not surprised I don’t own a car, and bought my bikes outright. I’m not surprised I sometimes go months without a phone. (And I’m not surprised that this makes my power-texter mom even more anxious.)

Nobody should be surprised when we turn out to prefer lives without cars or mortgages or anything else given what we’ve seen. From our parents — or “life” overall.

If it wasn’t our parents “taking things away,” it was the market. We watched as those same parents, whom (as far as we knew) were honest workers, lost their jobs or got laid off. We watched families foreclose on homes. In many ways, we were closer to both the Joneses and those “keeping up with them,” because they were our parents and friends’ parents, and we saw with watchful eyes the way they pored over the bills after they came home from smiling social events.

It’s true that minimalists don’t get as much joy from material goods. And it’s also true that they get more joy from not having as many goods as they get from having them. It may also be very true that all people might.

But it’s also true that sometimes there’s some underlying anxiety there; some emotional need to exert control by rejecting things.

And all of this is okay — we’re entitled to move through and manage our emotions and needs in our own way — and there’s just as much, if not more, power in obliteration as there is in ownership. There’s also just as many emotions.

And even if we own nothing else, we should, in the very least, own our self-awareness.


The Dark Emotional Side of Minimalism was originally published in Personal Growth on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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