By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing.
Today I’m talking about our possessions and I’m looking at how our relationship with our stuff can affect our mental health — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…
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This podcast episode was originally released on 28 November, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 107, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about stuff and I’ll be covering what stuff is (and how it impacts on our mental health), why managing your relationship with stuff matters, and how to deal with your stuff in a healthy way. So, let’s talk!
This episode is going out at the end of November 2021 and even though this is a topic that is definitely relevant all year long, it’s even more so at this time of year, because we are knee-deep in the middle of the Stuff-fest that is Black Friday and Christmas, when practically every retailer in the entire world tries to tempt us in with their so-called enticing offers (which often just turn out to be a bit ‘meh’ when you actually look at them in a more rational way)… and to be fair, there’s plenty of this “one-time-only exclusive offer” business that happens all throughout the year (side note: there was a particular retailer in Melbourne who ran ads for their “going out of business” sale for nearly the entire 13-odd years I lived there…pretty sure they’re still operating today!).
Now, a couple of warnings here before we go any further. First of all, my mother has a severe hoarding disorder which has only gotten worse as her dementia has progressed (you can imagine how much fun the nurses at the facility she’s in have when it comes to trying to get her to let go of things, because that woman will keep a souvenir for every event), so based on that I have a bit of an aversion to having too much stuff because I’ve seen how quickly it can spiral out of control and I’ll be damned if I let that happen to me (see, sometimes fear can be a good thing!)… but please understand that I am no minimalist and so I’m not going to tell you to throw everything away except for a single spoon; like I say often, I’m a firm believer in seeking to find balance in all things (and I talked about that topic in Episode 49) so the overarching message today is very much about ‘all things in moderation’.
The second warning I want to give is that I’m not going to be able to have an honest conversation about the mental health impacts of stuff and excess without also talking about money and capitalism; it should come as no surprise that my political and social beliefs (which I rarely discuss here) fall somewhere in the middle, because I believe in balance in all things. But for some reason, when you start questioning why the hell we think it’s perfectly reasonable to work ridiculous hours and put ourselves into levels of debt that would make a rational person hyperventilate… well, when you question that stuff you tend to piss some people off. And I’m OK with that. But if you come for me in the comments, let it be known that I won’t be engaging!
I bring all of that up because talking about stuff can often lead to many of us throwing all sense of moderation out the window; I mean, no judgment to anyone here, but you probably don’t actually need half the stuff that you have… and that’s where we need to be clear on the difference between wants and needs. Now, I’m jumping way ahead of myself (but best I get all of that out on the table upfront!), so let’s cover some definitions and talk about…
What stuff is
‘Stuff’ is a catch-all term to describe your possessions; in other words, the things you own. We all need some basic stuff to survive: food, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene products, the entire back catalogue of the Spice Girls (to be fair, that’s not a massive number of albums, bless their brief-but-memorable reign at the top of the charts for those two years)… in short, I’m talking about your belongings and when we start thinking about the idea of ‘stuff’ in those terms and we compare what many of us own versus that list of ‘needs’ I just mentioned, you (hopefully) quickly begin to realise just how much stuff we have that falls into the want category rather than being an actual need.
Stuff is just stuff. You can’t take it with you, so why do we treat it like it’s the meaning of life? How the hell did we get to a point where our stuff became the central focus of our life?
I am never going to ask anyone to give up all of their stuff (so you can breathe a sigh of relief now), and the lovely couple that delivers my mail can attest that I am an avid online shopper… but I also have a fairly-strict set of rules about what comes in versus what goes out, because I know all-too-well how easy it can be for stuff to build up (hi, Mum).
But here’s the thing: for decades, throughout much of the world, we have been sold a message over and over again that stuff equals happiness, and it’s just not true. We’re encouraged (and even pressured by our peers) to upgrade our phones every year, and to upgrade our cars and houses every few years, but why? I mean, look, I know a BMW is a nice car but it still performs the exact same function as a car that costs less than half the price (admittedly with less flash, but I’m just not certain that the price justifies the difference if I’m being entirely honest). Sorry to anyone who loves their BMW or similar, but I’m going to keep going with this example here… do you know why there’s such a premium on luxury vehicles? Yes, part of it is probably better interiors, but you’re paying for the label because it’s a means of showing the world — and yourself — that you are successful. But equating money with success is bullshit (and I talked about success back in Episode 74 if you’d like to explore some more thoughtful ways to approach success for the sake of your mental health).
So with that in mind, let’s talk about…
Why managing your relationship with stuff matters
And it matters because, to put it simply, too much stuff can have a negative effect on our mental health.
According to an article by the Mayo Clinic (which is linked in the transcript: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/how-decluttering-your-space-could-make-you-healthier-and-happier/art-20390064), stuff can have a lot of damaging effects on our mental health, such as:
- clutter can make our brains less effective at processing information
- having too much stuff can affect our concentration (I’ll come back to this in a moment), and
- a disorganised space can also contribute towards insomnia
And then we need to talk about the 16 pink stuffed elephants in the room: between two and six percent of the population may have a hoarding disorder, which can create serious safety issues in the home. Even if you’re not trying out to be the latest person featured on TV’s Hoarders, having a lot of stuff can add greater complexity to your life and make things more challenging (and less relaxing) than they could be in an environment that was more organised and balanced.
I mentioned that thing about concentration a moment ago and there was a study mentioned in that Mayo Clinic article where toddlers who were given fewer toys to play with actually played for twice as long as when they had many toys to play with; so, parents, if you needed proof that less is more when it comes to kids’ toys then feel free to quote the Mayo Clinic!
Sometimes we have stuff that we don’t even think about; when we moved from Melbourne to the countryside back in 2015, we had a lot of stuff that ended up in boxes and stayed there for more than three years before we eventually just donated it or threw it out. In hindsight, I think part of that was that it was already really difficult moving away from city living and leaving our friends, and neither of us were in a place mentally to work through it all and it was easier to just pack it and bring it with us ‘just in case’, but all that gets you is a garage (and spare room) full of useless crap.
I read something recently (no idea where, sorry) where they pointed out that we hold on to a lot of stuff because it has either sentimental value or monetary value (or both); but when it’s sitting in a box for the better part of three years, it actually has no value. Let me repeat that in a slightly different way: if you’re not using it, it’s actually worthless. Makes perfect sense when you put it that way, doesn’t it?
So, what is it about stuff that makes us lose our common sense? Why do we think that it’s perfectly natural to want to fill our homes with stuff, and that working our butts off to pay for all of that stuff is an absolutely reasonable way to live? I discovered something completely random when I had my breakdown a decade ago and, after that, couldn’t work and was in a financial mess; since I could barely afford to pay my bills for a few years, I had less money for buying stuff… and do you know what? I survived. Amazing, I know! The world kept turning and nobody actually cared. And now I’m a lot more mindful about what I buy (although I’m not perfect and I can very easily be sucked in by an impulse purchase that then turns up weeks later when I’ve forgotten about it!).
Here’s the point (yes, there is one): we need to consider the difference between our wants and our genuine needs. Because the majority of our stuff falls into the want category and you do not need it to survive (and I would argue that it’s doing far more harm than good).
For example, I need shoes; I do not need to spend $1800 USD on a pair of Balenciaga sneakers that look like an ugly $12 pair from Walmart (just a quick side-note here: I’m well aware by this stage that Balenciaga has become my go-to in this podcast when I’m pointing a finger at materialism and excess, and I mean no disrespect, but if you’ve seen the shoes I’m talking about then you’ll know what I mean — they are ugly shoes! There was a meme that went around a few weeks ago showing those shoes and saying something like “I’m convinced that Balenciaga is just a social experiment to see how much we’ll pay for ugly crap with a designer label on it” and I have to say that I felt that)… anyway, back to the point at hand (but without any guarantees that I won’t go off on another tangent — because I probably will! If anybody has a bingo game going for how many times I get distracted, let me know because I’d happily play along!).
It’s not just the issue with price or whatever, it’s about being mindful of what your stuff costs you in terms of your life; work out what your hourly rate is then look at each thing you own (or are thinking about buying) and consider just how many hours of your life you’ll need to spend paying for it. Kind-of confronting, isn’t it? But it’s definitely worth considering because there’s a whole conversation to be had here about debt; I live in Australia which has one of the highest rates of household debt in the world at more than 200% of household income according to the OECD (which is linked in the transcript https://data.oecd.org/hha/household-debt.htm), and that level of debt is just plain ridiculous (and I should know, because I got myself into a lot of trouble by racking up massive debts when I was younger and then not being able to pay for them because I had a breakdown and couldn’t work anymore, so I have quite a few strong opinions on the subject of debt).
So with all of that in mind, now I’m going to get into the how-to part of this week’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to deal with your stuff in a healthy way
Alright, so let’s begin with a big one which is consider how you feel about stuff — and this is about being really honest with yourself. If you’re surrounded by so much stuff that you cannot imagine how you could fit any more in, or if you’ve had to pay for additional storage space to hold onto it all, you might have some work to do. If you feel like your stuff is a measure of your worth as a human being, then perhaps that’s something you might benefit from thinking about. Do you feel good about the space you live in? Do you feel peaceful and organised, or is it chaotic and disorganised? Each person’s definition of that is going to be different; some people might be horrified to have more than four plates, others might feel differently. Regardless, this is about being clear with yourself on what your feelings are so that you can then work from there. For example, I know I have a few areas of clutter in my home (please don’t ever open my cupboard doors if you come to my house!) and when I think about clearing it all out I can find myself becoming overwhelmed and anxious… so I need to be aware of that and work through those feelings (which, for me, stem from having grown up quite poor and then ending up in a financial shitstorm after my breakdown, so there’s a whole bunch of security issues connected with stuff that I’ve had to work through and let go of, and which I’m still working on!). And that leads to my next point…
Start small — you don’t need to go all Marie Kondo and clear out your entire space in one day (but if that’s what works for you, then you do you!); the piece here is about slowly working through your things and (more importantly) your habits around purchases and what you hold onto so that you can make some progress without overwhelming yourself. I talked in the last point about my own challenges with doing that and I find that, when I do finally start doing a clear-out in one area, it takes about 10 minutes for those feelings of being overwhelmed to start taking over and that means I’m in danger of becoming less decisive about throwing stuff out; so, for me, I need to do the work in small bite-size chunks. But guess what? Even small steps add up to big results over time… so, start small and pick a single cupboard or drawer to review and clear out if you feel that you need to let go of some stuff (or if you want to). OK, next…
Ask yourself why — and yes, this is a standard bit of advice that I give a lot, because I’m a big fan of not just addressing the stuff on the surface since we often find that doesn’t do a lot of good in the long run. Whatever your situation — be it struggling to let go of stuff, having a lot of stuff, finding that your relationship with stuff is causing you financial issues, whatever — you need to have an honest conversation with yourself about why. Now, please pick an appropriate time and place for that (in the middle of the supermarket might get you some odd looks if you just begin chatting away to yourself) but it’s worth doing this and doing it properly, because that allows you to better understand yourself so that you can identify anything you might need to work on. I talked about self-awareness back in Episode 62 and you might find that helpful if this kind of ‘getting to know yourself’ talk feels a bit uncomfortable. Speaking of, my next point is…
Let go — if you’re attached to particular things (and especially if it’s a lot of particular things), it might be time to start thinking through how you can let go of some of it (especially if it’s stuff that you’re holding onto even though you know you really don’t need it). Bearing in mind what I said before about starting small, I encourage you to do this one piece (or a couple of pieces) at a time. For example, let’s talk about greeting cards for events like birthdays and Christmas; do you really need to keep all of them? For special cards from loved ones you can take a photo and keep that rather than holding on to the physical object. Think about how you might be able to find different ways to look at things so you can let go of the stuff you really don’t need and that isn’t adding value to your life. I talked about letting go back in Episode 32 if you’d like to explore that topic in more detail.
Alright, so now I have a few quick-fire ideas for you to consider, starting with…
- Buy less, use more — this one is fairly self-explanatory; buy less stuff, and use the stuff that you have more (if you can). We all need to replace broken and damaged goods from time to time, but do you genuinely need to buy the latest smartphone that is barely any different to last year’s model? Do you?! Next…
- Wait before you buy — I will admit that I can be a terrible online shopper and my weakness is IKEA (they were always my favourite homewares store and the nearest one from me is a 3-hour round trip, so shopping online with them is my secret addiction); instead of just immediately buying, put things into your cart and save it then give yourself at least 24 hours before you come back to it. I guarantee that some (or maybe even all) of the things you felt like you had to have aren’t as exciting anymore, so you can then make buying decisions that are less emotional and more rational. Next…
- Have a designated place for things — there’s an old saying, “a place for everything and everything in its place” which basically just means allocate a home for things so you know where it goes (based on function and purpose) and that will make it easier for you to return something to where it lives. And if an item doesn’t logically fit in anywhere? Well, you might want to consider why not and whether you actually need it! Next…
- Do a daily 5-minute clean-up — grab a box or basket, walk around the house each evening and pick up any stuff that needs to be put away and, before you do, take a few minutes to consider if it is genuinely needed or if it can be let go of. I keep a running bag of things to donate and as soon as it’s full it goes out into my car so I can drop it off the next time I’m near a charity shop. Next…
- Use the ‘one in, one out’ rule — which is simply to say that for each one item you bring in to your home, one needs to leave; that way, you’re making thoughtful decisions about what you keep versus what you bring in (and it can stop you from bringing unnecessary stuff in if it means having to let something go). Next…
- Use the 12-month rule — this one is mainly about clothing but it can apply to almost anything; if you haven’t worn or used something in 12 months, get rid of it. Don’t hold onto things because maybe you’ll wear it or fit into it, or perhaps one day you’ll find a use for that old microphone that you haven’t used in two years (yep, I’m talking about myself here); if it’s not being used, it’s just junk. Next…
- Limit (or stop) your use of credit — it’s not up to me to tell you how to live your life (but that’s never stopped me!), however I do want to say a quick word about how commonplace it is for us to use credit to buy more stuff: and that quick word is ‘don’t’! If you cannot afford to pay cash for something, then you need to think about how the life decisions you make today are going to affect your future self, so take a few minutes to really consider and be clear on the difference between a want and a need.
And finally, if you’re having trouble letting go of stuff or processing your relationship with it then talk with a professional so you can work through why and identify approaches that might work for you.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to stuff and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Your relationship with stuff has a direct effect on your mental health, especially when the stuff you hold onto is not adding value to your life. You don’t have to live like a monk, but you also don’t have to have so much stuff that you have no idea what you own or why you purchased it. Stuff is just stuff; it cannot make you happy. When you seek to find balance in your relationship with stuff, you begin to recognise that you are the one in control and you can choose to let go of whatever is no longer serving you.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by author Barbara Hemphill, and it is:
“Clutter is nothing more than postponed decisions.”Barbara Hemphill
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about jealousy. Whether it’s the way we feel about our relationships, past and present, or just how we view specific people (or even other people in general), jealousy can do a lot of damage to our mental health if it gets in the way of our self-worth and self-esteem (not to mention the way it can ruin our relationships if we let it eat away at us). But what is jealousy and how do you deal with it? Well, that’s what I’m exploring next week. I’ll be talking about what jealousy is, why understanding it matters, and how to deal with jealousy in a healthy way.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 5th of December, 2021. And on Wednesday you’ll also find another brand-new episode of Better Mental Health landing on YouTube (so take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description) or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for my weekly newsletter (and my website is also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).
And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content daily.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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