By Leo Babauta
While we might want to get out from under the mountain of possessions we have, and have all the best intentions of simplifying our lives, the truth is that we continue to have too much stuff.
Part of that is laziness, an attitude of “I’ll get to it later, ”but the real driving force behind our too-much-stuffitis is fear. Fear is what causes us to buy things we don’t really need. Fear keeps us holding onto stuff we don’t need.
You pack too much when you travel, and have a garage full of stuff, just in case you might need it. This is a fear that you might need something and not have it. It’s fear of lack of safety and certainty.
You buy a lot of things for an upcoming event or trip because you don’t know what you might need. Your fear is that you’ll be unprepared. Again, it’s fear of lack of safety and certainty.
You hold on to things you don’t use anymore because you might need it someday. You probably won’t, but you’re really not sure. Again, it’s fear of lack of safety and certainty.
You keep books and other aspirational items (guitar you never learned, elliptical machine you don’t use) because you hope you’ll get to them someday, and letting go seems like a loss of hope. You fear not being the person you want to be. This is a fear of not being good enough as you are.
You hold on to sentimental items, because you don’t want to lose the memories, or because it means a lot. Really, you’re afraid you will lose the love or relationship that these items represent (grandpa’s jacket represents your loving relationship with him). You fear the loss of love. This is a fear that the love you have now is not good enough.
You don’t want to get rid of things because you paid a lot for them, and you fear that letting go would be a waste. Actually, if you’re not using them, it’s a waste to keep them. It’s hard to say what the fear is here…but you likely fear that if the original purchase was a mistake, things might not turn out well in the future. This is a fear that the present moment won’t turn out okay, or again, a fear of uncertainty.
You keep a lot of clothes (or other similar items) because they’re a means of self-expression for you, and getting rid of many of those clothes would feel like you’re limiting your means of self-expression. You fear not having those options, not having the ability to be who you want to be. This is a fear that you’re not good enough as you are, without those items.
I could go on, but nearly all our possessions that aren’t absolute necessities (shelter, a bed, very minimal clothing, food, personal hygiene stuff, etc.) are bought and kept because of fears. We want these items to comfort us, to help us cope with fears and anxieties, to help us feel prepared and more secure, to help us feel that we’ll be okay, and to help us feel more certain about the future.
And of course, these items don’t actually do any of these things. We hope they will, but they never do. We never have more certainty about the future, and we continue to want more things to cope with fears that we’re not good enough, that things won’t turn out okay, and so on. The cycle doesn’t end.
So what’s the solution?
A Better Way to Cope With Fears
If we could find a different way of coping with these fears and anxieties, we wouldn’t need the stuff. We could pause before buying something out of fear, and decide not to buy it. We could finally get rid of much of the stuff we have lying around taking up space and mental energy. We could downsize, and live a more minimalist life.
So what’s another way to cope with these fears? Try this:
First notice that you have fear. Notice that you’re being motivated out of fear. Notice that there’s some anxiety, some worry about uncertainty or insecurity, some desire for comfort.
Stay with the fear. Our tendency is to run away from the fear, to try to seek comfort by buying something or eating comfort food or doing something relaxing. Running from the fear is what causes many of our problems. Stay, sit still, face the fear, breathe. Find the courage to go to the places we’re afraid of.
Smile at the fear. Face this fear and smile at it. It is just a scared child inside you, nothing to run from, nothing to be upset about. It’s perfectly okay—perfectly natural—for fears to arise in us. Accept this fear in front of you, and smile at it. This smiling dissipates much of its power.
Develop a friendliness with it. Be open and curious about your fear, see how it feels in your body, what is its quality? Investigate it with friendliness, get to know it like a new friend. Once you really learn what this fear feels like, really become unconditionally friendly with it, you begin to trust that you’ll be okay, that it will float away eventually like a cloud in the wide open expanse of the sky of your mind.
Friends with this fear, you can now decide how to act, unencumbered by the need to alleviate the fear with possessions. You can close the tab with your favorite online shopping site, you can put it on a 30-day list to look at later, when the urge has faded and the fear is no longer with you.
You can let go of the possessions you do have, finally freeing yourself of this burden.
And in the end, you’ll find that you’re perfectly okay as you are, without needing to change, without needing anything to “express” who you are or improve you. And that’s worth more than all the possessions in the world.
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Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
This article was originally published on Zen Habits and re-published with author’s permission.
Editor: Dana Gornall