Patty Chang Anker is one of our resident experts in the Babble Reinvention series. This month, she shares how she finally learned to let go — and what it’s done for her life.
If anyone told me three years ago I’d one day be singing the praises of letting go, I would have said they were crazy and had clearly never been to my house. I was always the queen of holding on to everything — objects, memories, relationships, routines, and my sanity (if only by a thread).
Maybe it was growing up the child of Chinese immigrants — that could be useful one day! Or my sentimentality — everything I owned reminded me of someone I cared about. Or my insecurity — without knowing my future career prospects I enshrined every example of a job well done. By the time I was 40 and the mother of two I was drowning — in papers, kid art, books, clothes, toys, craft projects I intended to finish, and broken appliances I intended to fix “one day.” I couldn’t go anywhere because I couldn’t find the house phone I needed to call the cell phone I’d lost. I couldn’t move forward.
But then two things happened that changed my life:
Fear, why are you here?
1) A friend, psychotherapist Wendy Tomkiel, asked why I was afraid to let go. “Fear serves a function,” Wendy said. “You need to ask, Fear, why are you here? What are you trying to protect me from? Is it something I need protection for? Or is it a response to a situation that resolved years ago or that maybe even happened to somebody else?'”
I had never thought of my clutter problem as a fear — disorganization, laziness, busy parenting kids who don’t sleep, yes. But now, the image of my parents fleeing China with so little, flashed before me. Could my saving everything for posterity, for a rainy day, be a response to their losses and unnecessary for my own life right now? Could I simply thank fear for trying to protect me and say, “I’m okay, you can go now”? It turned out I could. I let go of an old desk and then little by little I was able to assess our belongings for what we needed here and now. If fear is holding you back, ask it why it’s there. Does it need to be in your life in 2014?
You can’t make room for your future if your life is about the past.
2) Organizer Mary Carlomagno of Orderperiod.com came to help me purge my office and started with the crown jewel: My files from my job as a publicist at The New York Times. It’s from ten years ago, you don’t need them, she said. But every call I made is in these logs, I protested. So much work.
“Oh, I see — this is about how good you were at your job,” Mary responded. She took my hand and looked me right in the eye. “Okay, let me say this for you: You were SO GOOD at your job. You worked SO HARD. And we all appreciate it.” Is this what I needed? To hear that I was good at something? To have proof that people respected me once, even if today’s reality was me screaming, “Pants! On! Now!” to little backsides skipping away in glee?
Mary opened a trash bag. “Now say bye-bye. You cannot make room for your future if this office is about the past.” She was right. As long as I kept identifying myself with that job I would never make the leap to anything else. Dumping those files was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But after letting go of something of such value, letting go of everything else was easier. In the vast, terrifying space that remained, new ideas, new projects, and a new career as a writer came in. What museums of past accomplishments are clogging up your creative space? What could you say “bye bye” to now to make room for what’s to come?
Inhale what you need, exhale what you don’t
We do this with every breath we take — we take in life-giving air and let go of toxic waste. When I began applying this in daily decisions, keeping what nourishes and releasing the rest, my physical, mental, and emotional space became healthier, my relationships and my sanity too. The body wants to recreate a positive experience — if you let go in one area, it will start applying it to others — suddenly, old thought patterns make way for new thinking, unnecessary fears of all sorts begin to loosen their hold. Before you know it, like, maybe even by February, you’ll have become a brighter, lighter, happier you.
Of course, you don’t have to let go of everything. Mary Carlomagno says, “Love things that love you back.” I fully agree. Love that which helps you grow. Keep spaces open (in your house and in your heart) for all that is to come. Let everything else go.
Adapted from Chapter 2: Letting Go Clutter, in SOME NERVE: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave (Riverhead 2013) by Patty Chang Anker, copyright Patty Chang Anker