Why I Loved And Hated Clearing Out - And Why I Learnt So Much Doing It

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Monday 11 July 2016

Why I Loved And Hated Clearing Out - And Why I Learnt So Much Doing It

"Clearing out", a phrase that seems to bring up widely varied responses depending on who you speak to. To some people it sounds easy, simply take everything you haven't used for a period of time and give/throw it away depending on whether or not it still works. To others it sounds incredibly hard, bringing up images of ripping away long-held, dear and sentimental things. Having spent much of the past few months involved (on and off) in a process of what I would call 'extreme clearing out', trying to get our worldly possessions into just 10-12 plastic tubs, I thought I might take a moment to reflect on my own experience, why we did it, what was easy, what was hard and what I've learnt along the way, especially since it turned out Esther and I took very different approaches to passing on our old possessions.

Now the past few months isn't the first time we've gotten rid of old possessions. We'd had a few more minor 'clear outs' over the years, usually when we've moved home. On one occasion this was a quite drastic clear out because in 2009 we moved from a spacious 2 bedroom flat in Durham to a tiny studio-like flat in Cambridge. That said, when the move was done we still had dozens of photo albums, trinkets, thingy's and a jumbo wardrobe with clothes bursting out of it. However, we still felt at the time we had culled a lot. But, just a year later when we moved back to Durham and into a 4 bedroom house with a garage, the process of accumulating began once again. Before we knew it the garage was full and we were buying plastic tubs to organise all the things we had.

Its amazing what people give you!
Where did all the things come from over the years? Well a lot of things were items that had been useful once, like when I needed a jigsaw to cut the end off a desk but then it never got used again. Or they were things that got replaced but kept anyway as a 'spare', like old hoovers and kettles. But many things were also gifts. Lovely, thoughtful gifts that with each passing year became more and more meaningful and just felt impossible to get rid of, so they stayed in cupboards, on shelves and eventually in boxes in the garage. However, I reckon that the sum total of all one-off, spares and gifts were far outweighed by the mountains of hand-me-downs, hand-me-ups and hand-me-overs from elders, siblings and friends over the years. You could argue that there is actually a clearing out economy going on, with people shifting their possessions between each other. As we had learned over the years, saying 'yes, that might be useful, thank you' can lead to quite a build up of unused things.

Speaking of which we do know some people who 'clear out' at much more regular intervals, even yearly, but we didn't and so the accumulation continued until we felt we were drowning in stuff. We know we aren't unique or even rare in this habit, but we never really noticed we were doing it before. It just felt normal to spend an afternoon 're-organising the garage' every few months. It was even a small part of the reason that when we got the chance to rent out our house and move back into our apartment in 2012 we took it, because it was an opportunity to clear out yet again as we moved back into a 2 bedroom flat.

Yet still, when we made the decision to begin our adventure in 2014 and we embarked on 3 frantic weeks of boxing up our life in Durham, moving most of it to a friends attic, the process just seemed to go on and on. If there is a good way to appreciate the quantity of possessions you have, then it must be carrying 80% of them down two flights of stairs and then up a ladder into an attic. But then this wasn't really a clearing out, just a temporary relocation. Even when we were on the road we still knew we had a 'life' waiting for us to return to it in an attic in Durham, not to mention the still fully furnished flat we had just temporarily moved out of.

When and why we decided an 'extreme' clear out was needed
I suppose motivation is a key part of clearing out. In the past when we had cleared out it had always been because we were moving and/or needed the space, so we'd know in advance essentially how much needed to go. This actually made it quite straightforward to select the easiest, least useful, least sentimental things to go and we never really had to get close to the difficult decisions.

Yet when we returned to Durham earlier this year after 2 years in the motorhome, even though our friends said they were happy hanging onto our things and they didn't need their attic space back just yet, we decided that what we needed for us was to let most of it go. Why?

One reason was that spending two years living mostly in a motorhome taught us many things, one of which was that we both needed and liked having less stuff. I think we already knew this before we set off but the past 2 years really hammered home the point and validated our intuition. We have talked before about motorhome life happiness arising from the simplicity of the lifestyle and part of that simplicity was having fewer possessions around us. I mean, for a start there was less energy needed to make choices and decisions like "What should we take with us today?" or "Where should this go?" In the van everything had a job and a place. For example;
  • Clothes - In our motorhome we each had a small cupboard for clothes measuring about 45x45x30cm, a third shared cupboard for training/hiking gear and a hanging cupboard with a outdoor coats on....and even then there were things we hardly wore. Yet back home, even after taking a few bags to the charity shop, our friends attic still contained 3 huge vacuum packs of clothes, a suit carrier, a dress carrier and 2 suitcases full of....more clothes! 
  • Kitchen utensils - While living in Durham out kitchen contained daily crockery, nicer crockery, special crockery, cups that seem to multiply, frying pans, woks, stir fry pans, a multitude of pyrex dishes, saucepans of all sizes, kitchen utensils, more mashers than we could use.....the list goes on. So much so that when we temporarily moved back into the flat a couple of months ago we were amazed how much we had left. In the motorhome we had 2 cooking pans (one steamer pan and one big pan for boiling things), one bowl each, one plate each and one mug each and a small collection of cutlery and that was ample. Everything was multiple purpose. 
  • Bathroom cupboards - In Durham our bathroom items seemed to burst out of drawers. We had enough pills and first aid to start a pharmacy, spray bottles of chemical cleaning products, dozens of shower gels and toiletries from gift sets, grooming things, sponges, loofahs...... In our motorhome this was another area where we massively simplified, especially as we switched our cleaning products to natural ones consisting of just soap flakes, castille soap, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Not only did this make all of our cleaning products a hundred times cheaper and healthier for us, we could use it all on ourselves as well. We had one pot of soap and one spray bottle mixture made up and that was used for pretty much everything. 
  • General clutter - OK, I confess that in the motorhome we did have a small shelf of teddies and we taped some nice pictures to the wall, but simply out of necessity we had maybe 1% of the decoration and trinkets lying around we'd had at home.

The upshot of all of this was that we grew to love living with less and decided that when we got back to Britain it all had to go for our own mental wellbeing. Frankly even knowing it was stored away but somehow our responsibility came to bother us in the end. 

A second reason arose from a more philosophical or you could say moral decision. Ultimately we grew to feel that our old, hoarding mentality didn't fit with our lightweight, travelling mindset and that we felt guilty that otherwise useful and working things were locked away in storage. Since we'd essentially put our entire life on pause when we'd run away in 2014 we had so many things that were still in great condition, but were potentially decaying away and becoming obsolete.  We felt it would be much better to see those things have a second, useful life and if we did ever need them again we would find a replacement when we did. 

In many ways this was confirmed by several very upsetting examples in the past few months, not least Esther's single scull that had been stored (unused for maybe 5 or 6 years) and when we went to clean it and prepare to sell it we found it had a hole in it and we had no idea when it had happened. Or the old rug that had been kept 'just in case' and when we moved it found it was now rotten and falling apart.

I also want to add at this point that both of these reasons were ones we mutually agreed on and didn't really have to talk about very much prior to coming back to the UK. We both knew it was what we wanted to do. 

How we did it
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” - William Morris

We had read an heard this wonderful quote a few times in the months prior to our return to the UK and it influenced us to begin with had 2 'keeping rules' in mind. If we were actively using something then we would keep it. This pretty much covered 'useful' things like cutlery, pots, pans, clothes etc. However, we also knew there were some pictures and gifts we would want to keep because they inspired us and made us happy in the moment. Therefore we decided that if an object inspired us we would also keep it. It wasn't our plan to build an ascetic lifestyle with completely plain walls and no colour either.

In principle it sounded easy. We'd just go home get it all out of storage and give it away. We also knew how we would do it, selecting certain things to give to friends and family and then using a combination of eBay for anything above a threshold value and Freecycle/charity shops for everything else and practically that is how it happened. 

Hot Cross Bunny Fundraiser
For Bunny Burrows, Richmond
I will add that personally our threshold value for trying to sell was pretty high due to the mindset we were in. We decided we would much rather see something being used immediately instead of sat on eBay for weeks trying to get a few pounds back for ourselves. This is not because we didn't care about the money at all but for a number of different reasons. On a completely personal, practical level we knew that eBay and selling online can be very time consuming and frustrating. On a more philosophical level we feel that by circulating items now so that others can benefit then what we need in the future will available when we need it. This had very much been our experience on our adventures as the right people, places and circumstances always arose at the right time and so we trust that anything we do need will be available when we need it in the future. Finally, there was also the fact that our intention was to donate a proportion of any money we raised to charity and the particular charities we would choose already run their own eBay store. We knew they could store items and hold out for much better prices than we could in our limited timescales. What we might sell for £30, they might get twice as much for so it felt better to donate it directly.

I'd also like to add that another decision we had made was to try and find things good homes and avoid the recycling centre as much as possible. We saw this as an obligation not to just take everything and send it landfill. This did mean the actual process of uploading things to the web, communicating with people and arranging collections took a lot of time, but it felt much better. 

However, practically the act of passing things on wasn't that complicated, it just took time. What was hard was the emotional side of clearing out, or should I say the emotional conflicts. 

Emotional Conflicts
I've always been quite an emotionally detached person, probably arising out of growing up with incontinence (compounded by the fact I'm a man, not that I want to gender stereotype here of course). I'm not saying that this is a healthy way to be because I don't think it is. But for clearing out I thought it was easy because I was so practically minded and task focused. I very much fell into the camp of 'I've not used it for 2 years so I don't even need to see it'. Intellectually I completely understood and agreed with the moral obligation to find good homes/sort out/check things are working etc. and not just dump junk on a charity shop doorstep etc, but I didn't see any reason why this should take more than a few minutes per box and few days to do it all.

Esther, on the other hand, was much more in tune with the energy and story behind different things and felt a great degree of attachment to a lot of our old possession. She found it difficult to let go. It had seemed easy to her in Spain but then when we she saw something again the memories came back and she struggled to let go. Not of everything I should say. For things we had bought ourselves that were practical it was easy for both of us, but gifts, teddies, cards, even old clothes and dresses she'd owned for longer than we'd been together - it was hard.

Now I'd like to say I was understanding, patient and supportive right away, but I wasn't. I couldn't understand why an old party dress that was 2 sizes too big, with a stain on the front was difficult to let go of, for example, or a box of cassette tapes that we had no way of playing anymore, or a scarf that someone knitted 15 years ago but hadn't been worn in 13.....I just didn't understand at first and I grew frustrated at how much energy and time the process of clearing out was taking. I felt like I was just moving things around rather than getting rid. First from our friends attic to our flat, then into piles of different things, then rearranging the piles, then not touching the piles for a week, then moving them into a cupboard for a bit so we didn't have to look at the them, then putting them back on the bed and then finally deciding on the best home for them......I mean I did do all of these things but I let my frustration be known. Esther, for her part, then felt the need to apologise to me which just made it all so much harder and caused conflict. She, rightly, couldn't understand why I was so detached and I couldn't understand why she was being so attached.

Needless to say we argued about this quite a few times, usually calming down enough to agree to postpone any more clearing out for a few more days, which is why when we'd tell our friends we were still 'getting rid of stuff' they must have wondered how much stuff we had. The truth was it was a very stop-start process as we tried to respect each others needs and approaches to what we'd decided to do.

In hindsight then I've come to see it as a blessing that we got the chance to spend as long in Durham as we did and not rush the process. Initially when we had come back to our flat we had planned for it to take a few weeks, but then as the legal side of our flat sale had shown no sign of finishing, we got the chance to stop, reflect, start again, stop again, reflect some more etc. In fact we really only finished the job when we set a leaving date and hired the small van that would take our 12 boxes and assorted loose things away and I think that whether we had stayed 3 weeks, 3 months or a year this would have been the case. Yet the fact remains that we both had lessons to learn about clearing out and getting to stay in Durham as long as we did allowed those lessons to happen.

So what did I learn?
I think the biggest thing I learned was that the most supportive approach for me was to listen, empathise but still be honest about my own opinion and desire to let something go. At first, when I invalidated Esther's struggle with a particular item I wasn't helping at all. By saying something like "don't be silly" I actually pushed her the other way and strengthened the attachment as she felt she was being forced to give something up. However, at other times when I thought I should show my patience by saying "I don't care, keep it then" I wasn't helping either. What Esther really needed was for me to understand and not try and fix the problem by forcing her to let go of something or telling her to keep it.

Take her 'red suitcase' for example. This was a suitcase that had been given to her by her dearly loved granddad a few years before he died and it was the suitcase Esther used for her final visits to see her grandparents in Holland. Now to me it was just a suitcase we didn't use and with practically no re-sale value.  But to Esther it was intricately tied up with her memories and emotions of the final times she saw her grandad. At first I ignored the case and got on with other things, but it was annoying me that it was taking up a lot of space with no signs of going anywhere. However, I knew that dismissing her emotions and trying to get rid of it would be hurtful. Then suddenly I had an epiphany! I asked "why do you want to keep it?" It was just the right thing ask, allowing Esther to explore her memories, feel understood and let go of the case herself. As she said herself, her grandad wouldn't have wanted something useful to be gathering dust in an attic for years on end. He loved to give things away.

What else did I learn about clearing out and letting go? Well, in no particular order:

  • There is no right and wrong way to do it and that everybody has their own speeds. Yet another lesson for me that my way is not the only way to do things.
  • It helped, as a couple, for us to set boundaries on who 'owned' what (like the red suitcase). There was no point either of us trying to give away something that the other intrinsically saw as 'their' item from before the relationship. Similarly, for shared possessions that were bought together both of us had to agree.
  • It get's easier at times and it also get's harder. Generally speaking our 'letting go' muscle did get stronger over time but while some days we could get through loads of things in a morning, on other days it was a real struggle. We had to learn, sometimes, to just stop and take some downtime.
  • Related to this point is that I came to see clearing out like taking layers off of an onion and it helped to start with the easy outer layers and work inwards. If we came across something was much harder than the stuff around it, it got moved to a 'deal with it later' pile so we could carry on. It takes emotional energy to make decisions, so if you have a lot to make do the easy ones first.
  • It is hard work and we needed to take downtime away from it and also give ourselves permission for that downtime. I don't just mean stopping for cups of tea, but actually making time to still focus on our self-care routines like good nutrition, exercise, time outside and reading. More than once we 'pushed on' and found ourselves sitting, surrounded by piles of stuff with our brains frazzled beyond decisions late at night.
  • We also had to remember to give more credit for we had already done. Going back to my onion analogy,  by focusing on being completely finished we often forgot to appreciate how much we had already cleared out.
  • Having a deadlines helped to strengthen our resolve but having something to look forward to was much better for our mental health. Deadlines can also be stressful for us, as motivating as they are. By remembering to focus on why we were doing it and the future plans we had it felt like we were working towards something rather than losing the past.
  • Taking photos of things that we were letting go of helped, along with talking about the memory they bought up. This was even fun, especially when we found something we hadn't seen in years. 
What happens when you suggest "why not keep just one teddy?"

Final thoughts
I've come to see that clearing out has been part of our adventure, rather than a break from the adventure. When we left Durham more than 2 years ago now we were running away and blaming much of our unhappiness on our life circumstances. That is why we left as quickly as we could and put our old lives in storage and tried to forget about it, which we did at first. But then the more we changed as people and saw having a life in storage as being out of sync with our new lifestyle and mindset, the more we knew we had to let it go.

It may seem extreme to some people that we've let go of as much as we have, even things like photo albums and gifts we bought each other over the years. Many of our friends would say things like "but doesn't it make you happy to see them" and "but one day you might like to have it around you" and in part the answers were 'yes' and 'perhaps'. But at the same time the growing discomfort it was causing us in the moment to feel responsible for all of those things had reached the point that it outweighed the need to keep things. The fact that the act of clearing out has proved to be such an emotional and healing process for each of us in different ways has been an unexpected and welcome gift.

Remembering to take some down time and try new things on the journey!

1 comment

  1. How wonderful to meet you again! I have just caught up with your posts. We were motorhoming for a month in Devon and Cornwall and did not take the time to try and follow the motorhome bloggers as we did not always have internet.
    But being back home it is nice to sit and read all "my" travellers adventures.
    I am so happy for you that you managed to do what you did, that you took your time for it, that you could do it the way you thought best etc. and I envy you a little bit too! Ah, clearing out! We know the feeling- well, a bit. 12 years ago we left on a sabbatical and let the house and emptied it, gave things away, sold things ... It took ages. And lots of things stayed, came back and multiplied... Although we have one rule: one new thing in, one old one out. This has worked for "things" , but not for clothes, so far... Your post might help!!! Thanks for the tips!
    All the best on your next adventures and keep blogging. You are an inspiration!!


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