What is Enough?

I wasn’t going to write an article this month – I’m still recovering from surgery and it’s been rocky. So, this newsletter had a very late start, plus re-formatting and editing the Overcome Hoarding book to get it up on Amazon is my primary focus (nearly done!), so this article won’t be at all polished, but the topic is too relevant to the season to pass up.

A pile of things I was giving away triggered a twinge of concern: were they really not needed? There was a flannel fitted sheet, fancy towel, books, some clothes – all expensive, potentially useful items in good condition, except that there are enough others that these wouldn’t be used unless those remaining became unusable. Perhaps they should be kept in case they might be needed and not affordable? But no. My desire for uncluttered space is much stronger than concern for any imaginary future. The underlying question, “What is enough?,” is most acute for people who hoard, but is also relevant for others, particularly at this time of year.

Several questions arose from my brief hesitation:

What is the right number of items to own?
Many people struggle to learn the balance between too many and too few belongings. Both interfere with effective functioning, though too many is probably more harmful than too few, up to a point (too few belongings stimulate creativity but too many are likely to suppress it – feel free to argue with me on this point). If the most important criteria is the ability to function, then distinguishing between too many and too few becomes clearer. We all need enough material goods to get our work done, care for family, friends, and our health and well-being, be financially solvent and have savings (and perhaps investments), learn and grow, and express our creativity. Deciding what meets this criteria may be a matter of trial and error and an ever-changing definition: too much is whenever you can’t carry out some worthwhile activity because belongings get in the way, and too little is when you can’t meet a need because you lack an essential item, such as a tool or supplies (not time – except when the missing items would save time, more belongings probably cause inefficiency).
What makes knowing what is needed difficult?
What gets in the way of seeing what is enough and what we really need? Many factors make this realization difficult:

- social expectation
Our culture is based on materialism, consumption, and acquiring. TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, sales flyers, store windows, online ads and email, all constantly assault us with messages to buy, buy, buy. The adverse impact of acquiring on ourselves, others, society, or the planet, are all irrelevant in our society. New things are believed to reflect our taste, wealth, status, caring, and many more traits that are actually independent of any object. Having old belongings is considered a bit disreputable and unsavory. Resisting the incessant pressure to shop is hard any time but particularly relentless during the holiday season. Resistance to consuming is considered unpatriotic, failing in one’s civic duty, and vaguely suspect on many counts.

- emotional issues
From childhood, we associate receiving gifts and owning things with love and being cared for. This is part of why retail therapy works – by buying a thing we want, we tell ourselves that we are loved or lovable, that we deserve to be cared for. We associate our worth with external measures and often have no internal guidance that tells us we are ok without some visible, tangible measure. We associate things with memories and often believe, wrongly, that we would not recall events without our mementos; we use these souvenirs of the past to soothe ourselves when times are hard: ‘see, life was once better than this’ (and maybe will be again some day).
         Fear is another dominant reason for keeping many items we don’t use. We fear we might need it, or that whoever gave it to us will be upset if we don’t keep it. We imagine the object would be harmed or would go unused if we let go of it. We don’t trust ourselves to manage well if we needed it.

- denial
We sometimes (often?) struggle to accept reality as it is rather than how we want it to be. Life is full of disappointments, and many people refuse to accept that a pain or disappointment exists, and instead pretend that nothing adverse has happened. So there is no need to clear out things we no longer needed after a life change because we tell ourselves that everything is going to go back to normal – but it won’t. By refusing to eliminate unneeded belongings, we can more easily mentally avoid the new reality.

- confusion
Life is busy, sometimes hectic. Taking time out for reflection and contemplation is not the norm or even easy given the demands and pressures we all live with. This is why it is so beneficial to do a regular morning meditation or relaxation: it helps to clear our minds and see life in perspective. Even a five-minute session helps and is immensely better than none – after taking this small but powerful break, we think more clearly, are less likely to waste energy on fruitless activities or thoughts, and can make better decisions. 15 – 20 minutes a day would be better still, but never let not having the full amount of time keep you from enjoying the benefits of just sitting as straight and still as you can and clear all thoughts (as much as possible) from your mind. Writing, too, helps us experience the benefits of clearer thinking and priorities, and to see through the mental muddiness we pick up as we go through our days. (see The PRESENT Principle for more on this subject)

- not being able to distinguish between actual and potential
Many folks don’t distinguish between actual needs (those that occur in the present, such as food, clothing, and shelter, health, safety, ability to function, and relationships) and those that are only potential (they might occur but they might not). Indeed, actual needs are often neglected in favor of potential needs, harming the individuals and those around them.
- life changes
Our needs change many times throughout life. Starting or finishing school, starting or ending a career, raising children, becoming elderly or disabled – all these and many more major life changes affect what we do and don’t need to own at our stage of life. Giving up items associated with no-longer-possible or relevant activities can be tough – it means accepting what one cannot do or have, a hard thing. But resisting won’t help – needs and capacity won’t change because you do not like the situation, and the belongings for that stage of life will still be clutter, no matter how useful they were in the past.

- Intermittent rewards
Inconsistently rewarded behavior (such as, keeping an object for a long time, then finding a use for it immediately after throwing it out) is more powerfully reinforced than consistently rewarded behavior (such as, finding a use for each item you as soon as you bring it home). This happens because unusual situations are more noticeable, and stand out in our memories more than more regular events (we don’t notice the thousands of times we kept something we never used or the inconvenience we suffered for keeping excess belongings). We associate regret with errors but rarely celebrate or even notice correct discards. (see the article on Intermittent Rewards on my website for a more complete discussion than is possible here).

 Acceptance of the truth about what we actually need rather than what we want or are afraid to discard is the key to being able to live in peace and harmony.


I LOVE HEARING FROM READERS! Comments, questions about anything in this newsletter or any organizing, time management, or hoarding issue, or suggestions for future newsletters are all very welcome. Your replies inspire me to write and are a service to other readers who may share the same concern, but just not articulated it yet. I never charge for answering questions or for cheering people  on from the sidelines.

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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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