This year has been one of letting a lot of things go. Before this year, I’d struggled with clutter my whole life, even as a Buddhist who practiced cultivating non-attachment diligently. I would walk into a room and marvel at just how much stuff I’d accumulated.
I’m not entirely sure what the tipping point was for me. But after a year and a half of being (more or less) trapped in my house, I have become exhausted by my stuff. What I realized, after being home so much is that I long for the days of travel, when I could move from place to place lightly. Where I had only what I needed and not much more. Where I didn’t have to open my closet or kitchen cabinets and feel the pang of regret or shame of all the things I had spent money on but wasn’t actually using.
When I embarked upon this process, I knew that emotions would come up. There would be family or sentimental items I wouldn’t want to part with—and I gave myself permission to keep anything that felt too difficult. I knew that there would be things I found that would be garbage: broken or expired or otherwise not donate-able. And I gave myself the permission to learn from those mistakes without shame.
What I didn’t anticipate was releasing what (I’ve now learned) the minimalism community calls, “The Fantasy Self.” I didn’t even know I had a fantasy self!
This is an idealized image of ourselves that we hold in our minds—or the perfect image of how we want to appear to others. This might be an emulation of a real or fictional person who’s had a big impression on us. Or this might be an aspirational version of ourselves: perhaps one who has more time, money or energy. The Fantasy Self might point toward what we want more of in life or how we would like to be spending our time in an ideal world.
This is a version of ourselves that we may buy for, but doesn’t really exist. We might buy crafts projects for the Fantasy Self who has loads of time and skill for crafts—that then go undone. We might buy fancy dresses for our social butterfly Fantasy Self when, in reality, we don’t actually go to very many fancy events.
Over the years, I’ve bought beautiful but impractical shoes; magazine-worthy home decor that collected immense amounts of dust; and gourmet items I never got around to actually cooking. Your mileage may vary.
In short, this fantasy self can feel quite connected to our dreams and ambitions for ourselves. Which means that it can feel complicated to let go of that Fantasy Self: it can create feelings of shame or regret. And it means that letting go of those Fantasy Self items that are going unused in our homes—and quite physically standing in the way of our real lives—can feel highly emotional.
When we’re purchasing these things, we’re not purposely being wasteful or unrealistic. We honestly believe that we’re going to become the Fantasy Self who would use these things. We genuinely want the experience of being the kind of person who would use these items.
I personally had to grieve certain parts of myself: in both admitting to myself that these items belonged to my “Fantasy Self” and in letting go of the items themselves. It’s not that these things aren’t beautiful or valuable. To borrow a cliche from the realm of decluttering: they did spark joy!
But what I’ve learned is that, for me, sparking joy is not enough.
My time and space and mental bandwidth is too valuable for things that only spark a fleeting sense of joy, but don’t meaningfully add to my real, actual, imperfect life.
Of course, I felt guilt for the waste—and tried to re-home my items in as low-waste a way as possible. But in decluttering my Fantasy Self, I’ve also developed an immense amount of compassion for myself and my dreams. Those parts of myself that were yearning to break through and breathe. Letting go and developing non-attachment is honestly worthless without that compassion.
In this process of letting go of these items, I thought that I would have to let go of the Fantasy Self who helped me accumulate them in the first place. And, to some extent, that’s true. My Fantasy Self may not have nearly the inventory in my house that she used to. Which is okay.
I’m not living for the imaginary, the fantasy or the future anymore.
I’m more playfully embracing the life I really have and appreciating it for what it is. But what that Fantasy Self represented is still warmly welcome. This is the part of me that loves beauty and has big dreams. This is the part of myself that craves adventure and curates her home and life intentionally. She has a lot to offer. What I’ve learned in this process is that I don’t have to cater to her every whim, but she’s still welcome to sit at the table.
Christy Tending is an activist, educator, and writer. She teaches online courses about sustainable self-care to students all over the world, and hosts the podcast Tending Your Life. She lives on occupied Ohlone territory (Oakland, CA) with her family. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com.
Image courtesy of Elizaveta Dushechkina.