Podcast 077: Stories we tell ourselves

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This is Podcast 77 and it’s about stories we tell ourselves to excuse our behavior. We think they’re helpful because they explain ourselves to us. And that’s true. But these stories can be dangerous too because they prevent us from moving forward and changing things we want to change.

The story I come across most often is The Great Depression story. It goes like this: I have all this stuff because I (or my parents) grew up during the depression. Or, my family kept all these things because they lived through the depression. I’m not making fun of these people or taking this lightly. The great depression was a sad time in our history, but it also is a limiting story for many people.

Another common one is the messy creative person. The story is that if you’re creative, you’re also going to be messy. And maybe crazy and an alcoholic too, but that’s another story. There’s a strong association between artistic talent and having your art supplies scattered everywhere.

Granted, in some cases, creative people are also dyslexic and that makes it hard for them to be organized in conventional ways. But often this story is just an excuse to avoid the boring and dull work of putting stuff away. I get that, but it also makes the person’s life more difficult when they don’t have room to make art or can’t find the supplies they want to use. In that scenario, the romance of a cluttered studio falls away.

But the reason this is a problem isn’t that people are deluded or lazy, it’s that they are so captivated by their stories that they can’t be objective about what’s happening. Stories are compelling. As humans, we naturally search for narratives to explain the world. We want a logical structure, we want things to make sense. We want to make assumptions based on past experience. We want to make educated guesses about the future.

Stories are strong. If enough people believe in something, it becomes harder to dispute. Actually, people don’t even think about disputing it. “But it’s always been this way!” they say. I’m not sure when the Great Depression became associated with hoarding but I can assure you that hoarding existed before that and it exists in people today who don’t have a Great Depression trauma in their family history.

A story like this can be used as an excuse to continue a behavior, or, better, it can illuminate the reason for a behavior and thus make it easier to change. The question is, are you doomed by your history or liberated by it?

Stories give us a place in the world. They make sense of things that otherwise might feel threatening or frightening. But clinging to a story for that reason, despite all the negative reasons, doesn’t serve people. The story that helps explain something can also be a prison.

What does this have to do with decluttering and organizing? Well, when I work with clients, I urge them to be honest about why they want to get organized. It shouldn’t be something they believe is the right thing to do. That’s just another story! It’s not better in an absolute sense to be organized. Being organized needs to be at the service of something else, like making life easier. It has no meaning in itself.

There’s a book called A Perfect Mess in which the authors assert that neatness for its own sake is a waste of time and energy. Well, duh! Of course it is! People who practice neatness for its own sake tend to be obsessive compulsive and that’s nothing to aspire to.

Do you have a story that’s preventing you from making positive changes in your life? It doesn’t matter if the story is true or false, you still have the power to turn it around. Instead of letting the story be an explanation of why you can’t do something, turn it into a limitation that you are going to overcome.

Maybe your parents or grandparents did grow up during the depression and suffered. Now, today, that’s not happening. They have everything they need now. There’s no rational reason to continue scrimping and doing without. That’s good news!

Say you’re a creative person with a clutter issue. It feels validating to you to explain your mess by saying that you think outside the box and can’t be held to conformist standards. But you also notice that your work table isn’t really usable because of all the stuff on it and that’s probably why you haven’t been in the studio lately. Or maybe you can’t get to a piece of equipment you need because it got stuck behind a bunch of other stuff. Hmm, time to reconsider whether you can’t use your creativity to invent new and fun ways to keep your tools and supplies set up in a way that enables your work rather than hindering it.

What you can do right now: think about an organizing or clutter problem you have and be honest with yourself about whether you’re holding yourself back by being too invested in your story.

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This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

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