It seems like everyone has a different origin story around how they came to minimalism. Courtney Carver was diagnosed with MS and had to change her lifestyle. Joshua Becker realized he was spending more time cleaning out his garage than he was spending with his family. Why am I attracted to minimalism? If I’m being honest, it’s because I’m an introverted, highly-sensitive person who suffers from depression and anxiety.
Believe me, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. My heart rate just went way up. In my head, there are voices saying things like: “highly sensitive isn’t real, it’s just a made-up thing”, “what do you have to be anxious about, your life is great”, and “if you acknowledge any of these things, you’re weak”.
I’d always thought I was just a moody person. Starting in puberty, I’d get dark moods that would last for a few days or longer. I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone (tough when you’re part of a family) or do anything. I recently read a book by Daphne Merkin that had some of the best descriptions of depression and I’ll use her words to illustrate what I have a hard time articulating:
“...your mood, which has been sliding perceptibly downward for weeks, even months, has hit rock-bottom. You lie there in the sludge, no longer bothering to flail around, marooned in a misery that is no less easy to bear because there is nothing wildly terrible to point to in the circumstances of your own life—on the surface, at least—to account for it.”
In high school I was busy (part-time job, sports, editor of the newspaper, clubs, youth orchestra) and stressed out. I started college in a place that was cold and dark and hated it. When I neared the end of grad school (grad school is a given if you’re a classical musician), I started to have real existential crises about the state of the world and my part in it.
My thoughts would snowball towards dark places: “if there are people starving, why does what I do on a daily basis even matter if I can’t help them?” I was constantly searching for what I was meant to do and be. Throughout this time, I was having emotional meltdowns left and right.
I was constantly comparing myself to others and failing to measure up. “She practices for 6 hours a day - she's a better person than I am”. “Everyone else my age knows what they’re doing with their life”. “My mom taught public school while raising 3 kids, how pathetic that I can’t do it too”.
Again, from Merkin:
“Still, that lack of expectation of relief—of the coming end of sorrow—has stayed with me, so that I far too easily tend to fall into a mode of hopelessness when something minor goes wrong. Where another person might move to try and fix things, I sway in the wind, ready to be knocked over, prepared to give up. I admire other peoples’ resourcefulness when their plans go awry—the ones who’ve persuaded themselves that ‘every bump is a boost,’ who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start over again—but I can’t figure out a way to emulate them.”
It took me until I was in my late 20’s to come to the conclusion that I might need to talk to someone about all of this. I worked really hard on changing my thought patterns through cognitive behavioral therapy. It took about 5 more years until my therapist convinced me that I’d done the work and my brain still wasn’t cooperating and that I should see a psychiatrist as well. I very slowly started to accept that my brain has a chemical imbalance and that taking medication was not admitting my failing as a human, but treating a medical condition like diabetes or any other.
Once I began taking medication, I could get enough perspective on my situation to see that maybe I didn’t have to measure up to everyone else. I started to actually begin to understand and accept who I am as a person, what my natural personality is. Maybe I didn’t need to berate myself for not doing more to save the world but that the way that I do my part is by working to be my best self. Maybe it’s not only ok to not want to talk to people sometimes, it’s necessary for me to recharge as an introvert. Maybe it’s ok to need to thoroughly think through every decision. Maybe it’s ok to be overwhelmed by busyness and a fast pace.
Only in the last couple of months have I connected all of this with minimalism.
There are three areas of my life where minimalism helps me manage: my surroundings, my clothes, and my schedule.
As Gretchen Rubin says, “Outer order contributes to inner calm”. This is particularly true for me. People who come over to my house often comment on how little clutter there is on surfaces. Clutter on surfaces stresses me out, so I don’t have it. Messes stress me out, and I need to have things somewhat in order before I can move on to other tasks. It’s ok.
I’ve had anxiety around my clothes for a long time. I grew up in the South at a time when you had to have the right Tretorns, the right Guess jeans, and the right madras plaid to fit in. I didn’t have those things. I felt bad. Once, in college, I bought green suede shoes - why? Because they were on sale, of course. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking to class in those shoes. They felt so wrong and I could not wait to get home and take them off. Over time and through trial and error, I eliminated things that didn’t feel good when I wore them. What’s left happens to be pretty minimalist.
The feeling of being rushed triggers anxiety, so I work to reduce the number of things scheduled in a day. This is the area where I have had the hardest time accepting my needs, and I usually feel like I should be accomplishing more. I’m working on it.
Acknowledging and accepting all of these things about myself has made life a lot easier. So has minimalism.
So, that’s my minimalism origin story. What's yours?
(photos by Celeste Boyer)