Stuff as Identity

Your home and all the items in it may represent the person you used to be, you think you should be, you wish to be, you want others to see, or all of the above. We allow this misidentification through our stuff or allow our stuff to meld with our identity. Either way, stuff and identity are a poor paring, but this problem is common and difficult to undo.

Since we tend to gather and hold onto things, this is hard. It is overwhelming to consider sorting through our past lives and aspirations. It is heart-wrenching to say goodbye to the person you used to be, as the piles continue toward toppling. This excavation is also time consuming so the gathering and holding onto becomes the default.

Since we tend to get lost in memories, this is hard. Antiques and objects passed down from previous generations and relics from our childhood are memory dead weights. They’re artifacts in the museum of our lives. The emotional pull of memories is almost enchanting, and the spell keeps us holding on.

Since we tend to struggle with change, this is hard. As I wrote about in We Change, But Our Stuff Doesn’t, the overabundance of stuff in our homes is a symptom of not addressing or recognizing the changes in our lives. Many struggle with change because it feels uncomfortable and we tend to seek the things that make us feel most stable. You must recognize that you’ve changed, reopening the discussion of identity with yourself, in order to get rid of the stuff that no longer serves you.

Since we tend to struggle to define ourselves and use stuff as a placeholder, this is hard. How many times have you completed the rest of this statement, “I am a …”? Tinkerer, avid reader, musician, crafter, fitness junkie, baker? To be these ideals, you must have the stuff that supports the associated activities. When you move away from those activities and interests, you don’t want to lose your “I am a …” You keep the stuff so you can keep the title that serves to define you.

Since we tend to buy something rather than do the work, this is hard. It’s simple to decide to learn Portuguese, build a bench, or become a skier. We go out right away to purchase the relevant equipment, which may sit around, since buying something is easy and feels like an accomplishment. We avoid doing the hard work of improving ourselves, learning something new, or completing a project. If we don’t get on the slopes to practice, we may feel guilty about the purchase and keep it around, thinking that someday you’ll get around to the work. But we don’t.

Since we tend to seek external validation, this is hard. Sometimes we keep a bookshelf full of interesting books (whether we liked them, or read them, or not) and collectables from our travels so that guests think we’ve smart and well-traveled. It’s not for us, it’s for them. 

How do we undo these patterns? As with most challenges, we must first recognize the problem. That simple acknowledgement will allow for a new perspective as we look around our homes. It’s a new filter that invites a specific type of investigation into the ways stuff has mixed with your identity: how you define yourself, holding onto the past, a future that will never come, an image of yourself you want others to see. By analyzing how this has played out in your life, removing the stuff becomes a bit easier and more targeted. Untangling stuff and identity will ensure that your stuff supports you, rather than weigh you down.