Cognitive dissonance is one of my all-time favorite terms. The technical definition, according to Wikipedia, is the following:
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals, and values, people will try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.
I am not sure what it says about me that I am so drawn to a term that implies innate struggle. I would like to think that it speaks to my desire for authenticity in my own innate humanness.
I live in a pretty much perpetual state of cognitive dissonance with regard to my relationship to things. For as long as I can remember, I have attributed human emotions to everything (or everyone, as I would interpret it). I have also tended to cling very tightly to everything (and everyone). Be it boyfriend or teddy bear, I have a lot of trouble letting go, even when it’s time.
Where does the dissonance come in? I think it has to do with the emotional (and often financial) burden of the object on my highly sensitive psyche. For example, I feel better psychologically and physically lighter when I am surrounded by less stuff. I can still vividly recall walking into the home of a beloved professor during my final semester as an undergraduate student. I had been told in no uncertain terms by several of my peers that I had to take a course with Professor Sweet before graduating, so on a whim I registered for his Goethe, Nietzsche, Kafka class. The theme was on the role of the individual in society. We read books through the lens of the individual and watched movies guided by this idea. I remember my mind being thoroughly blown when watching Fight Club through the filter of Sweet’s class.
Sweet recommended we simplify our lives. He emphasized the idea that change begins with the individual, and it was possible to inspire by example.
He held open hours on Thursday afternoons as his house. I was so intimidated by him that I only managed to go one (maybe two) times. I still recall walking into his house. I remember a feeling of reverence, like I was walking into a sacred space. I was given a tour and then stood awkwardly in the kitchen while the professor made jasmine tea. What I remember is the clear sense that the space had been created with intention and care. There was an openness to the energy, a quiet calm. I felt free in this realm despite my own social awkwardness. I felt this with even more vigor upon returning to my own dorm room, which was stuffed with stuff. I remember taking all of the posters off of the wall and piling them up. I had this feeling of urgency, a deep need to be free from it all.
So the dissonance began. I have experienced this push and pull ever since.
I can attribute the pull to nature and nurture. The nurture stems from the learned desire to accumulate things. I attribute this in part from growing up in the very consumerist society of eastern Massachusetts. In the small Jewish suburb of Boston where I grew up, children were berated for wearing last season’s Gap styles or wearing the same dress to two Bar or Bat Mitzvahs (the horror!). In hindsight, I totally understand my mother’s distinct refusal to buy me a new dress for every single event. At the time, however, I so desperately wanted to fit in that I would have done anything to be accepted by my peers.
The nurture seems to be an enduring sense that every thing has feelings. As a child, I firmly believed my stuff animals would have a party at night while I was asleep and then carefully return to their prior locations before I woke up in the morning. I became strongly attached to a snow leopard stuffed animal at a toy store, so much so that I believed this animal needed me to care for it. When my parents looked at the price tag, it was decided that no, this animal would do just fine without me, but I was beside myself as a result. The next morning, I awoke to find the leopard lying peacefully beside me in my bed.
I mentioned earlier that I experience both an emotional and financial toll in my attachment to material things. The emotional toll is the stress I feel being surrounded by so much stuff. The financial burden comes each time I move (which is often). I have moved dozens of times since I left home and spent thousands of dollars moving everything from stuffed animals to heavy furniture thousands of miles: from Washington to Alaska; Alaska to Massachusetts; Massachusetts to Arizona. Long gone are the days when I could pack my car and drive to my next destination.
I got to the point where I decided something had to change. These were the days before Marie Kondo, so I came up with my own set of rules for what could stay and what could go. Over time, I added to this list.
It could go if it met one of the following qualifications:
- It could be replaced
- It was heavy
- It was not fulfilling its life purpose (for example, a teddy bear sitting on a shelf that could instead be bringing joy to a child; a set of candlesticks that were beautiful but that I never used; a sweatshirt folded in the back of a closet that I never wore)
Seemed simple enough, and I did fairly well with it. I gave away or sold tons of stuff. I got better at it, too. This was due in great part to how good it felt to be surrounded by less. Unlike Marie Kondo, I was never able to go through everything in one fell swoop and send it on its continued “life” journey, however. I would get to a certain point where I just could not bear to part with anything else. Plus, given my sense that everything had feelings and my desire to avoid burdening the earth with more “trash,” I could not just send my once cherished stuff animals to the landfill. I literally could not bear the thought (no pun intended) of my teddy bear being buried with trash. It wasn’t right.
So, I had to get creative. When I was living in Lowell, Massachusetts, I had a friend who was a therapist and worked with children. I gave her several trash bags full of stuffed animals, which she then placed on a bookshelf in her office. Children could pick out a stuffed animal and then come up with a goal to reach in order to obtain said animal.
I would get updates from my friend on the status of these creatures.
Snoopy went home today, she would text, and I would picture Snoopy in his pink tutu off to bring joy to a child.
One child wanted a Vermont Teddy Bear so badly that he lied about his final grades at school in order to be able to bring it home. I know I should not condone this behavior, but I also loved that this child wanted the bear so much. It meant the bear was going to the right person; that it would be loved and cared for.
I experienced two issues with my method. One was that I would without fail continue to acquire more stuff. The other was that I would experience remorse over having parted with something. It is with some shame that I report that I have asked for things back that I gave away. One time I bought my sibling a replacement sweatshirt for the one I asked them to give back. I have also gone to extremes to try to purchase again items I have given away.
I am not a psychologist, but I think the fixation and obsession speaks to something broken within me that I have so much difficulty letting go.
I have amended my list now to only give away certain things to people I know will give them back. Sometimes the item will even go with the caveat that I might want it back some day. Granted, this rule applies mostly to living beings but not always.
How did it start? Well, I already shared the sibling story. I also gave away one of my cats when I was going through a divorce and was overrun with animals I did not have time to care for. In my heart, I knew that giving the cat to another family was better for the cat because I was working full-time and was not able to give enough attention to the two dogs and three other cats in my care. However, I had not thought through how the absence of this cat would affect one of my other cats, who was very bonded to him. And I have always felt remorse and sadness over separating them from one another.
Even if I know I am not going to get the animal back (case in point, letting my parents “borrow” our husky when we moved to Belgium), there is somehow comfort in knowing she is with family and not lost forever to me.
I also find comfort in seeing who the object being parted with goes to. Somehow, I feel better parting with it this way. Rather than sending it out into the unknown, I can witness the joy this person experiences in finding a new treasure.
Another addition to my rulebook for letting go is to take photographs of the things I have trouble parting with. This way I have a memory of them. I have scanned documents as well, letters from my ex and cards from friends. Somehow, it helps to have the photographic evidence that they once were in my possession, proof of their existence, even if I never look at it. Just knowing the photos are there is enough.
There is another layer to the nurture element of acquiring more stuff. In the United States, there is a culture of avoidance that is directly connected with the acquisition of material possessions. Feeling blue? Buy something. It will make you feel better. I can say from experience that there is a temporary euphoria that comes with buying something, and I employed this method while going through a divorce. I was in need of some serious euphoria in that dark time, and as a result at least 50 pairs of earrings made their way into my collection.
The flip side? Now I have an insane amount of jewelry, more than I can possibly wear (especially when I was a park ranger with the National Park Service and forbidden to wear dangly earrings). In addition, most of those earrings, having been obtained during such a dark time, do not bring me joy.
Yet I still have trouble parting with them. Since moving to Belgium, they live in boxes in my mother-in-law’s basement. I did manage to send a hat and a couple pairs of pants to Goodwill during the two months I spent living with my mother-in-law before moving to Belgium in the fall of 2016. The pants were not flattering and did not fit well, and I had worn the hat maybe a handful of times. I still felt such guilt in getting rid of perfectly good articles of clothing.
Marie Kondo suggests thanking objects for their service before giving them away, and I do this on a regular basis. This is in part because I pick up other people’s lost and forgotten belongings on a regular basis. It might be a child’s stuffed toy or a tiny piece of plastic that looks like a little person. They are added to my collection, and then I wind up with more stuff and an inner turmoil over how to get rid of it without sending it to the landfill or experiencing remorse at having sent it away forever without any way to get it back should I change my mind.
One stuffed toy literally lived in my dog’s intestines for a month. I found this tiny toy, which looked like a japanimé variation of a germ, sitting atop a fence post. I brought it home, put it through the wash, and placed it on the radiator to dry. I instructed my husky not to eat it before going upstairs to use the bathroom, but it was gone when I came back down. Thirty days later, it was returned to me in vomit form (thankfully not the other way around, which I have also experienced with dogs). I felt so awful that I ran it through the washing machine many times in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. It now sits upstairs with other found stuffed animals that are too small to be risked around the dog.
I could put these toys on our windowsill for a child to find. In our neighborhood in Belgium, people simply place things they no longer want or need on their windowsill or on the sidewalk in front of their house. Sometimes, they put an “A donner” (to give away) sign on the window, but it is kind of understood that these things are for the taking. Periodically, people place notes with sad faces that the items on their windowsill were not actually give away, and there are sometimes signs above flower boxes that the flowers are not to be taken. I have had items I collected and placed on my windowsill taken. I remember seeing the pieces of wood I had found in the forest on another person’s windowsill in the neighborhood. My husband suggested that I leave them there despite my protests.
Maybe they wanted to travel? He suggested. He had a point. This was another amendment I had made to help me part with all kinds of items from my collection, particularly boxes of rocks (moving companies charge in part by weight).
But I worry about what will happen to the toys and other objects I put out for someone to find. What if they don’t give them a good home? What if they eventually throw them away? Have I done them a disservice should this fate come to pass? My poor cat never recovered from having his friend given away. Why should the stuffed bunny I found, soaked and muddy and forsaken, be any different?
I was walking with my dog this morning and listening to an episode of This American Life called Get Your Money’s Worth when I heard a story that spoke to my concern for the forsaken objects. Zoe Chase (I am on a first name basis with all of the contributors to the show, which I have spent hours listening to on my trips on public transit in order to maintain my equanimity) asked the question of what the objects that do not spark joy experience. Her question was followed a story by Simon Rich called “Unprotected”.
I am still a work in progress. I have a bag of things to give away that has been sitting by my front door for a long time. I take things out, try them on, wondering if I will regret parting with them.
I imagine these items would be happier headed out on an adventure to find someone for whom they spark joy. Perhaps, I should start thinking about their needs instead of worrying about my own.
I am still a work in progress. I have a bag of things to give away that has been sitting by my front door for a long time. I take things out, try them on, wondering if I will regret parting with them. I also know that this is all a struggle that could be avoided and that is a luxury in a world where so many people have so little. Every week, I volunteer at a refugee asylum center and meet people who left all of their belongings and many friends and family behind. My little material drama seems ridiculous in comparison.
But it is not ridiculous because it is a part of my own journey through life. On the surface, it is about stuff. But the hidden portion of the iceberg reveals so much more. So, I will be gentle with my Self and try to practice gratitude for being the sensitive soul that I am with all of my dissonance and harmonies.