Why is it so hard to let go of our clothes? If you have ever cleaned out your closet, you certainly felt pangs of anxiety at the thought of letting certain items go. You know, that terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that arises when you try to put that item in the “donate” bin. Why does this feeling arise and why is the process of cleaning out your closet so emotionally charged?
I’ve written previously about why we have so many clothes and the aspects of that related to our past self, our actual self, and our future self. In a related concept, so many of our clothing items represent our extended self. The extended self (see Belk, 1988) is when we attach aspects of our self to an object or item because we feel that the object or item represents part of our self. Detaching from the item feels like something within us is detaching. This is why there are so many psychological and emotional issues for people who lose all of their belongings in a fire or flood. The experience is often quite traumatic because so many of the lost belongings were meaningful in some way and, in effect, part of the extended self. The real attachment lies in the meaning that is ascribed to the item, such as a family heirloom that has been passed down for generations is likely to be very meaningful as it represents a connection to the past family heritage.
We are actually quite attached to a wide variety of physical items as part of the extended self. Think of great American landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge, your favorite sports teams, or even your favorite neighborhood restaurant - these all represent a form of the extended self. But the closer you get to your physical body, the more closely the item is imparted with symbolic meanings related to the self. Your household items, car, and clothing all “hit close to home” so to speak in relation to the extended self.
So when you are weeding out your closet, the items that you are most attached to represent part of your self, making it difficult to part with them. I was recently cleaning out my (tiny) closet in NYC - which by the way requires constant editing because of the limited space - and found I had several t-shirts I had not worn in ages. I was having such a hard time editing these because all of the t-shirts seemed to have some meaning, like the one I got at my favorite concert and the one I had since college. I seriously have at least a dozen (or more) t-shirts, all of which I rarely, if ever, wear. So why couldn’t I let go of these stupid t-shirts?!? Because they had some meaning, some past event or memory that was part of my sense of self in some way. Someone genius was onto this idea about our attachment to t-shirts and came up with the t-shirt quilt. Do you know what I’m talking about? You take your favorite t-shirts and someone makes a quilt with them, forever immortalizing your favorite memories as they are embedded in those t-shirts. If anyone knows of a good t-shirt quilt maker, let me know because I may need this done sooner rather than later!
I often liken what I do as an image consultant to the show What Not to Wear. In the show, Stacy and Clinton take the old wardrobe of a participant, edit it, and provide them guidance on how to build a better wardrobe. In the “edit” part of the show, the participant is often quite attached, and seemingly devastated, when Stacy and Clinton trash their clothing items. It is difficult to detach from clothing as it represents “the person you are” or “the person you were.” Letting go requires you to move toward “the person you want to be” and, while on the show that always seems to turn out for the better, it is still difficult.
So how do we move on? One strategy I use with clients is to get them to focus on “the person I want to be” and to try and objectively consider how the old items help them in that endeavor. The old items they are holding onto are usually just holding them back and when considered with more mental or emotional distance, they realize this. If someone is unwilling to let an item go but they have not worn it in a while, I suggest they store the item somewhere else for a period of time before making the definitive cut. Focusing on what you want rather than where you have been is the key to moving forward.
While it may be quite difficult to let go of items, it always feels so refreshing when your closet has gone through a purge. You feel lighter, like a weight is lifted. Letting go of the past can be cathartic. When we let go of things that no longer serve the “person we want to be”, there is room for other positive things to enter our lives!