This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
True confession: Next to my bed I have a little bit of guilt.
It comes in the form of a notebook I purchased to capture my baby’s first months. I had grand plans of logging notes about every “first” as a way to capture those moments which slip by so quickly. But amidst getting my bearings as a pandemic parent, it was hard to keep up with it and it’s sat unopened for months. What started out joyful has turned into a source of guilt for me, one I confront every time I get in and out of bed.
Along with clutter, our emotional baggage can get stored in our homes — often in plain sight — and clearing it out of our homes can help us feel more positivity and ease.
Stuck-ness, guilt, shame, overwhelm, anxiety, regret: These feelings can take up residence in our homes without us realizing. And while all feelings have a purpose, dwelling on (or with) them when we’re not actively processing them can weigh us down. Even if we just glance at something once a day, that means we’re confronted with that feeling 30 times a month! And we’re not acting on it or learning from it — it’s just sapping our energy and our joy.
With this in mind, I thought I’d zoom in on some of the most common negative feelings that hide out in our homes and share ways to spot them so you can clear them out. It’s not quite as easy as lighting a candle, but here’s hoping this helps you feel a sense of freedom.
There’s a feeling that doesn’t exactly have a name, but it’s one that I know a lot of people have been feeling due to the pandemic. For lack of a better term, let’s call it stuck-ness.
It’s essentially a feeling that life is on hold, that you’re not making the progress you’d like to in some part of your life. It often happens when we’re waiting for something in our lives to change, whether we’re ready to find a partner but are struggling to meet the right person, or we’ve hit a plateau in our career, or there’s a global pandemic and we’re waiting for case numbers to finally drop so we can get back to traveling, socializing, working and enjoying life.
Feeling stuck can sometimes make us reluctant to invest energy in our space, which results in spaces that are unfinished or undecorated. We hesitate to decorate the rental apartment, thinking we’ll wait until we buy a home. When I was struggling with infertility, I put off decorating my bedroom, telling myself that I didn’t want to go to all the trouble if we were just going to have to move when I got pregnant.
The problem is that living in temporary conditions serves as a chronic reminder of our stuck-ness, and we never know how long the waiting will last. Three years of waking up in a bedroom with blank walls just amplified my sense of stasis, that it wasn’t just my dream of having a child but my whole life that was on hold.
When we commit to our present homes, we also commit to our present lives. We can hold our future hopes more gently knowing that our entire happiness doesn’t depend on them. We can trust that joy will come in the future, while also creating space for it in the here and now.
Where to look for stuck-ness in your home:
Spaces that are unfinished or undecorated
Art propped up against the walls that hasn’t been framed or hung
Things you have been saving for a future life that you might enjoy right now (e.g. fancy dishes, family heirlooms)
Styles or objects that you feel you’ve outgrown
Guilt arises out of things that we feel we should do, but haven’t done for one reason or another.
I have a tendency to leave things out to remind myself to do them — I’ll leave a card for a thank you note on my desk, for example — and then be confronted by it every time I sit down at my desk. This distracts me from what I’ve come to my desk to do, and it turns the task into an obligation.
Guilt can also come from self-betrayal — namely, when you violate your commitments to yourself. If you invested in workout gear because you made a resolution to get in shape but struggled to keep up with it (or just didn’t feel like it!), looking at it every day might be killing your joy. Maybe you need to find a different way to move your body that is more enjoyable to you, or give yourself a break and tuck your workout gear out of sight until you feel ready to recommit to it.
Where to look for guilt in your home:
Items related to hobbies or habits you haven’t made time for
Things you bought but never used
The pile of books to read that you’ve lost interest in
Gifts you feel like you should keep, but don’t actually like
Shame lurks in the vulnerable places in our homes, the places where we hold the tender heart of our identity.
Anywhere where our true selves rub up against the judgments of others, be they family or society, can be a place where shame might creep in. The closet, the bathroom or the kitchen — places related to the body — are especially prone to being sources of shame.
Shame is one of the most insidious emotions that hides in our homes because it can often masquerade as joy. The tray of skincare products in your bathroom: Are these a joyful form of self-care or an attempt to erase wrinkles that we’ve been led to believe make us less beautiful or worthy? The diet cookbook on your kitchen counter: Is it a tool for living a healthier life or a tool for trying to fit into a body deemed more socially acceptable?
The reality is that often a thing is both. But if your encounters with it consistently make you feel “less than,” ask yourself if it might feel freeing to get it out of your space — and your life.
Ditto the opera albums, the heady documentaries, the pile of New Yorker magazines and the chunky non-fiction reads: If you love these things, wonderful! But if you’d rather read a romance novel than a biography or listen to the latest top 40 hits on repeat rather than an aria, then clearing out the things you’re supposed to like can help you ditch the shame and create more space for joy.
Where to look for shame in your home:
“Skinny clothes” — the ones you haven’t fit into a long time but haven’t been able to let go of
Clothes you don’t like but feel you need to wear to look “presentable” to others
Books, music or other media that you feel you should like but don’t actually enjoy
Skincare products or cosmetics you bought to resolve a supposed defect
Dieting or exercise paraphernalia you don’t actually enjoy using
Magnifying mirrors and scales
If you look around your home and feel overwhelmed, it may be because you have a lot of things in your home that are demanding your attention.
My friend, the life coach Anese Cavanaugh, calls these things “tolerations” — things you tolerate but sap your energy in the process. A broken chair, a blown out lightbulb, a picture that needs to get framed, a sweater with a missing button: Each of these is a reminder of an action you need to take. When you have lots of these kinds of things, your home effectively becomes a giant To Do list that you’re living inside, making it impossible to relax.
Overwhelm can also come from broken systems. When your pantry is overflowing, your entryway is a mess or your bookshelves are bursting at the seams, these are signs that your organizational systems aren’t keeping pace with your life.
Maybe you’re cooking more and need a better way to keep spices accessible. Maybe now that your kids are bigger, you need a way to help them keep track of their coats and shoes. Tweaking these systems can help you feel like you have a smooth foundation that helps daily life flow.
Where to look for overwhelm in your home:
Piles that need to be sorted
Things in need of maintenance (wood that needs to be oiled, batteries that need to be replaced)
Places where you repeatedly notice a sense of frustration or friction
Organizational systems that aren’t working well
Anything that makes you feel on your guard can aggravate anxiety, whether that’s having a home that’s so formal you feel like you can’t relax or having a space full of sharp-edged furniture that you’re always bumping your shin on. For example, I recently replaced my thin water glasses with thicker ones and was surprised to discover how much peace this created, because I’m no longer worried about breaking them every time I take them out of the dishwasher.
Where to look for anxiety in your home:
Things that are uneven or wobbly
Awkward things that don’t quite fit or feel uncomfortable to use (e.g., a chair that’s too tall for a table, so it keeps bumping into it)
Things that jangle your senses with unpleasant noises or textures
Sharp edges that you have to be careful around
Fragile things you’re always worried about breaking
Formal decor that you worry about messing up (e.g., a sofa you don’t let anyone drink red wine near)
Noticing regret in our homes reminds us to live in the present.
If we look around and see remnants of relationships that didn’t work out, or other disappointments, it can yank us backward and make it hard to move on.
A major source of regret is spending. If you’ve spent money on something you don’t use, or you’ve overspent, the item can feel like a reminder of lack of self-control or foolishness. Selling it to recoup some value might be one option. It’s also worth acknowledging sunk costs: –living with something you hate won’t put the money back in your bank account. If you can afford to, let it go and keep the lesson for next time.
Where to look for regret in your home:
Objects that remind you of relationships that didn’t work out
Things you overspent on, but no longer love
Things that remind you of choices or hurts that you’re struggling to leave behind
This post was first published on Ingrid Fetell Lee’s site, The Aesthetics of Joy.
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