You are an antelope: Why ancient history causes us to be stressed by clutter

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You’re an antelope. You’re scanning the horizon. You’re on the look out for lions. You can’t quite see what’s beyond the trees. Did that bush just rustle? Your breath quickens. You’re ready to run at any moment. Your system is flooded with adrenaline. It’s fight or flight time.

That’s what it’s like to live in a cluttered home.

Okay, okay, maybe comparing people with messy homes to anetlopes in mortal danger of being hunted by lions is too abstract. But it’s essentially the same kind of effect; if you’re stressed out by clutter, it’s because you are programmed by nature to be stressed out by clutter.

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012)

Our ancestors actually DID have the same kind of experience as an antelope. They WERE in danger from predators and they WOULD have to scan the horizon to keep themselves safe.

And it’s this tendancy to scan for danger that causes us stress in the modern era. Not being able to see the horizon beyond the clutter feels dangerous to our cave-person minds. Instinctively, this causes us to feel stressed when we’re confronted with too much stuff at once.

Some people aren’t affected by clutter in this way. Maybe they’re better adapted to modern living. Yes, maybe they’re more evolved than I am. But there’s no doubt in my mind about the stress levels I personally feel rising when I’m surrounded by clutter.

The unpleasantness of clutter is as much, if not more, a psychological issue as it is a topic of home design. Clutter can be a matter of the mind. It can immobilize us. It can get in the way of clear thinking, even clear functioning. It can derail us when it becomes excessive.

Davis. H. (2012)

In Notes on a Nervous Planet Matt Haig discusses just how quickly the human race has developed; from wearing animal skins 50,000 years ago to developing civilisation in Mesopotamia. It’s just a 4,0000-year hop, skip and jump from the first money and alphabet to email and space travel.

Did social evolution really give ourselves enough time to adapt to the modern way of life? Or are we all really just experiencing our natural pre-civilisation urges to feel anxious when we scan the horizon?

Historically we had a natural need to belong to a social group or tribe, as this was crucial for our survival. Our brains therefore have a strong ability to spot things that don’t belong which, in this instance, could be all the things your eyes have spotted ‘on the horizon’.

Our limbic brain is powerful, powerful enough to drive behaviour that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation.

Sinek, S. (2009) p.57

If you’ve ever had a ‘gut feeling’ that something was wrong but you couldn’t tell what, that’s your limbic brain sparking into action. It’s irrational, but instinctual. That’s why you can sometimes feel ‘off’ when nothing seems to be wrong on the surface of it. And we tend to trust our gut instincts in a lot of situations don’t we? Especially in over-stimulating environments.

Introverts in particular can easily feel overstimulated. Psychologist Hans Eysenck (Chung, M. 2016) proposed that extroverts can cope with higher levels of stimulation and that intoroverts are more sensitive, therefore requiring low-key environments.

When we feel overloaded in a situation or environment, we can become anxious or even panic. Haig discusses the how overstimulating the modern world can be and the effect this can have on our mental health.

Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world we need to have a filter. We need to simplfy things. We need to disconnect sometimes… A kind of mental feng shui.

Haig, M. (2019) p.37

So, if you don’t want to feel stressed in your own home, panicked by an overload of belongings and under attack from your posessions, maybe now’s the time to streamline your stuff?

Chung, M. (2016) The Irresistable Introvert. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012) Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201203/why-mess-causes-stress-8-reasons-8-remedies

Davis, H. (2012) The Perils of Clutter. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/caveman-logic/201206/the-perils-clutter

Haig, M. (2019) Notes On A Nervous Planet. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books.

Sinek, S. (2009) Start With Why. London: Penguin.

The decluttering journey – Deciding what to keep

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Despite my desire to follow a minimalist lifestyle and the many years of downsizing and decluttering I’ve already put into my life, I still have a lot of stuff.

I just don’t know how it accumulates.

One month, I can feel perfectly satisfied that I have decluttered successfully and only own the things I need and love. I have the bare minimum.

The next month, I can feel overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I still have in my home.

It’s not that I’m going shopping or bringing new items into our home. I’m simply looking at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps more critical eyes.

I could do more.

Maybe I exhausted myself before I had truly finished decluttering last month? Perhaps I was ‘soft’ and allowed myself to keep things that I didn’t really need?

Whatever the reason, the process of decluttering sometimes seems never-ending. (When will it end? Will I be in an empty room, thinking about taking down the blinds?)

So, exasperated with myself, I started looking for motivation to do more. To declutter further. To minimise more.

I uncovered a quote that I hadn’t heard of before and it made a massive difference to how I look at my belongings:

“Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to throw away.”

Francine Jay

MIND. BLOWN.

Unbelievable though it seems, I hadn’t heard of Francine Jay until now. I know, right? Where I have I been for the last decade?

Don’t worry, I’ve put that right – and I now have her ‘Miss Minimalist’ book on my Kindle.

This quite came into my life at exactly the right time. Just when I was getting despondent about my minimising efforts. It has given me a new perspective on decluttering and I am diving back into the task with renewed vigour.

I’m going into every room and thinking in reverse: ‘If this room were empty, what would I put into it? What would I keep?’ Then it’s simply a case of removing the rest.

So I thought I would share this quote with you today, in the hope that it might make all the difference to you too.

Have you discovered an inspiring quote that helped you on your minimalism journey? Has someone said something to you that made you stop and think? Let me know, I’d love to hear about it.

The non-monochrome minimalist

joyful book minimalist maximalist monochrome theory-1-2

I am not a monochrome minimalist.

And you don’t have to be either.

It’s been said hundreds of times that minimalism looks different for everyone.

Just because many Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube accounts are dedicated to the monochrome aesthetic of minimalist interiors, fashion and art, it doesn’t mean you have to adopt the same style in order to be a minimalist yourself.

The aim of minimalism needn’t be living in a perfect, empty, white-walled apartment, wearing a go-with-everything wardrobe of black, white and grey clothing.

(Although I think I could be quite happy living like that too.)

In her book Joyful Ingrid Fetell Lee discusses how design and architecture can bring joy and happiness into our lives. She discusses how “uptight” minimalist decor can be repressive and drain a space of joy.

In contrast, she claims that maximalist interiors can create pleasure, and that abundance makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; citing peacocks feathers as evidence of maximalism being a signifier of vitality.

Both of these theories seem extreme to me. But I suppose it depends on just how minimalist or how maximalist a space is.

Clutter would cause stress for me but, on the other hand, I don’t plan to live in an entirely empty, soulless space either.

Fetell Lee provides an example of famous interior designer Dorothy Draper’s design of the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The lobby is painted in green, aqua and pink and when the author visited this space she was filled with pure delight.

This just goes to show how colour can be important in bringing happiness into our lives, in the same way that a simple, clutter-free home can also be.

HOW TO BE A NON-MONOCHROME MINIMALIST

What’s your favourite colour? Would you feel happier with more of this colour in your life?

If you like a rainbow of colours, go for it! Wear them, decorate with them and bring vibrant pieces into your home.

As long as it doesn’t affect you negatively to be in a space with rich or bright tones, feel free to decorate your home in any way you wish.

Do you enjoy pattern? Then bring it into your home and wardrobe.

If you like white spaces but want to stay away from the clinical, add just a splash of colour with a vibrant feature piece, such as an armchair or headboard.

If a colourful interior feels ‘too much’ try adding natural textures such as wooden furniture and plants instead to add personality to a white room.

MY EXPERIENCE

You may have noticed that there are a few splashes of colour in the photos on my website. That’s my way of putting a little personality into my website. While I DO want it to look clean, simple and (mostly) monochrome, I also want to inject some excitement too.

Likewise, my home is both minimalist and colourful in difference spaces.

My all-white bedroom is exactly what I need when I want to feel calm and relaxed. I can read, write and do yoga in peace.

While the walls of my living room are white, I chose the brightest blue sofas, and hung artwork in orange and yellow tones. It’s a happy entertaining space that I enjoy spending time in during the evenings.

My kitchen is a full-on homage to the 1950s with colourful cabinets, patterned melamine table and retro prints on the walls. It’s an uplifting room that provides an energetic start to the day.

Each room in my home feels different and suits the activities I do in the space.

Similarly my wardrobe has a neutral base of black, grey and navy, with colourful additions.

I like things simple and fuss-free, yet I need colour in my life. It makes me happy.

…Yes, I’m definitely a non-monochrome minimalist.

Fetell Lee, I. (2018) Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, United Kingdom: Ebury Publishing.

How Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development relate to hoarding

minimalism introducing psychology book hoarding theory science-1

One of my own personal theories is that some people are just ‘born minimalists’. Looking back over my childhood I believe I’m one of those people. During my research I’ve uncovered plenty of examples and psychological theories to support this. And, on the other hand, people can also be born hoarders – well, kind of. According to Freud, the tendency to hoard can be traced back to childhood.

Sigmund Freud came up with the 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development we all go through while growing up. Our experiences during that time will affect our future selves.

STAGES OF PSYCHOSEXUAL DEVELOPMENT BY FREUD

  • Age 0-2 Oral stage
  • Age 2-3 Anal stage
  • Age 3-6 Phallic stage
  • Age 6-11 Latent stage
  • Age 11+ Genital stage

While I’m sure there are lessons to be learnt from the other stages, the phase that relates to minimalism – or, in this case, hoarding – is at the age of 2-3 years: what Freud calls the Anal stage.

This is when a child takes its first steps to independence. It’s while potty training that a child can gain confidence and begin making decisions for itself. At this age children they learn to ‘let things go’. If parents are strict about potty training, the child may be reluctant to give up anything in the future.

You may have heard of the phrase ‘anally retentive’? Well, this second phase of childhood development is when someone begin to exhibit such traits. As such, they may develop hoarding tendencies later in life. A person is simply keeping hold of things because, as adults, they are able to make the decision for themselves. They are no longer being ‘forced’ to give it up.

It’s possible that your experience of potty training from the ages of 2-3 may impact your life as a minimalist. You may find it easy to let things go while decluttering. Or minimising your ‘hoard’ may be a more difficult process for you. Nonetheless, it can be done!

Have a read of our blog posts on the Practice of Minimalism for practical tips.

Benson, N. C., (2007) Introducing Psychology, London, Icon Books Ltd.

The Hotel Experience

minimalist home decor hotel decluttering boxes-4

If you’ve ever spent a or two night in a hotel and thought to yourself ‘well, this is all I really need’, you’ll understand what I mean when I say I want to achieve The Hotel Experience in my own home.

Hotel rooms contain all the essentials – but none of the faff.

There’s everything you need to live comfortably – bed, television, desk, wardrobe, tea-making facilities.

That’s everything I need anyway!

Which is why I believe that hotel rooms should be the inspiration for our minimalist homes.

When I’m staying in a hotel room, I usually feel relaxed. It’s not just because I’m on holiday – because sometimes I’m travelling for work or just having a night away because the journey home is too far. It’s more than that.

It’s a sense of peace.

And of having enough.

I’ve got all the things with me that I deemed important for the trip. And, when I unpack these items, they never fill the storage spaces available.

I like that feeling of abundant space.

When I sit in a hotel room, the conversation with my husband always goes like this:

“We don’t really need anything more than this, do we?”

“We could quite happily live in this space.”

“It’s got everything we need, so why have more?”

We get settled into a smaller space than we’re used to and it feels like home. I feel like we could live in a tiny studio apartment forever.

And then we go home. And nothing changes.

Of course, I love my home. I’m grateful for every room. It’s our dream location. And I wouldn’t ever want to leave it.

In fact, I don’t really like going away – so I’m certainly not enjoying the hotel experience because I’m a fan of holidays or travel. I’d always rather be at home than away.

But just knowing that I could live in a smaller space, with a lot less stuff, is reassuring.

THAT’S why I love The Hotel Experience so much.

HOW TO ACHIEVE THE HOTEL EXPERIENCE AT HOME

  1. Have a thorough declutter so that you have as little belongings as possible in your bedroom. Remove items from surfaces and store them away – or get rid of them for good.
  2. Clear out those bedside tables – mine is packed to the brim with books, pens, hand creams and notebooks. It’s better to keep only the essentials to hand rather than use the bedside drawers as storage.
  3. Minimise your clothing collection so that there’s actually some space inside your wardrobe. It’s lovely when there’s air around the things you’re hanging up – it prevents items getting creased and provides that feeling of having more than enough storage.
  4. If you don’t have a wardrobe or drawers or bedside tables, perhaps adding some more useful storage to the space will make the room feel more hotel-esque. There’s always ample storage in hotel rooms.

We’ve all got boxes we haven’t unpacked

minimalist home decor hotel decluttering boxes-1

Which is the perfect excuse for decluttering when you’re becoming minimalist but don’t want people to think you’ve gone to the extreme.

I found myself saying this when my husband mentioned a recent minimising session to some friends of ours. I immediately jumped in with “Yes, well, we’ve got boxes in the garage that we haven’t unpacked since we moved three years ago, so we probably don’t need them.”

Our friends nodded knowingly and agreed that they too probably had the same in their loft. We moved swiftly on with the conversation without any mention of minimalism. Phew.

Now, I don’t know why I didn’t want want to make a big ‘thing’ about our journey into minimalism. In fact, I’m usually rather happy to share my opinions on how less in more and that we don’t need to buy so much stuff.

I mean, I’m writing a book about it now, for goodness sake.

But at that moment, I felt a bit weird about it. Probably because I wasn’t where I wanted to be with minimising our belongings at that moment and I didn’t want people to come into our home and be surprised by the amount of stuff we still have.

On the other hand, I already felt a bit extreme with the amount of minimising we had already done and didn’t want to admit to the vast volume of donating, shredding and clearing we’d already done.

I felt like my innate minimalist urges might not be understood and I didn’t really want to get into a discussion about the mental wellbeing I was uncovering as a result.

My conversation swerve worked. I got away with it. I’d downplayed it enough and made it relatable enough that it appeared wholly sensible to clear out those boxes.

Because we ALL have those boxes in the garage, the loft, under the stairs, under the bed. The boxes we haven’t looked at in years.

Those boxes make it easy to understand why someone would be getting rid of their stuff, and the mere mention of those boxes usually elicits agreement in anyone you discuss them with.

So if you find yourself being questioned about your minimalism journey and want to help someone understand why, just casually slip those boxes into the conversation.

Because we’ve all got them.

And none of us need them.

Why the pandemic turned me into a hoarder

theoretical minimalist minimalism theory-shopping clutter

I’m not talking about stockpiling toilet rolls or tins of beans.

I’ve hoarded my own stuff.

Before the pandemic hit, I was in full minimalist flow. I was minimising my belongings at every opportunity, I rarely bought anything new, and I had boxes of stuff ready to be donated to the charity shop. But then, as soon as lockdown was announced, I stopped decluttering.

Worse than that, I started re-cluttering.

I brought things back into my home that I’d previously packed away on my ‘to sell’ shelves. I was relieved when I re-found things that I thought had already been donated. I brought them back into my home and promised to never let them go again.

I bought new items. Backups of the things I already have but didn’t want to run out of (I’m talking underwear here, not hand sanitizer). Considering I can’t actually remember the last time I bought anything new, my urge to shop was the most surprising of all.

Now, as lockdown begins to ease, I’m looking around myself and I don’t even recognise the space. Where has my tidy, calm, pre-lockdown home gone? Why are there little piles stacked up in every room? My desk is messy, the living room shelves are full, my kitchen cabinets are packed with cookware and the hallway is littered with empty parcels and packing materials.

This was not the plan.

I suppose everyone’s plans changed during the pandemic, but I didn’t expect to be that affected by it. I went into lockdown thinking ‘this will be easy’. I don’t care to browse the shops anyway, I’d rather cook at home than go out to eat, I had no holidays planned, and my favourite place is my calm home and peaceful garden.

I had more time to myself than ever. I was saving money every day. I was having a lovely time. All the while I was completely unaware that my calm, minimalist life was unraveling at the seams.

At the same time, I was hearing stories of people using their time in lockdown to organise their homes, to get rid of unnecessary stuff, clean, tidy and decorate. I don’t know why I went the other way…

I’ve looked into it and there are so many reasons why people hoard but in this instance I’m pretty sure it’s because of scarcity. There were news stories of supermarket shortages, of delayed deliveries and simply not being able to go to a shop to get what you need, whenever you need it.

For me, that feeling of scarcity manifested in the need to keep hold of things that ‘might come in useful’. Things where ‘I might not be able to get another one’. And in some cases this paid off. I was rewarded when I needed something for our home and I could easily it in my boxes of junk. I felt smug that my hoarding had been successful. But, blimey, it’s messy.

So now’s the time to get back on track. My home needs decluttering again. My post-pandemic life is day 1 of my minimalist journey. Sort of.

Do come back to see how I get on with the new wave of minimising, and please let me know if you too have had the urge to hoard during the pandemic.

Welcome to the Theoretical Minimalist blog

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Minimalism is a mystery.

I’ve been researching it for years.

And I’ve heard it said so many times that there’s no ‘right way’ to be a minimalist.

Minimalism looks different for everyone.

  • It’s not about the aesthetic. But, also, it is.
  • It’s not about having a specific number of belongings. But, also, it is.
  • It’s not about getting rid of everything until you’re living in an empty, echoey box. But, also, it is.

So I’m not here to tell you WHAT you should do.

But I AM here to tell you the WHY behind it.

I’m interested in the psychology behind minimalism. What theories you can apply to it and how we can all understand ourselves better.

How minimalism can change our lives through the power of our minds.

Wow, that’s a big promise, isn’t it?