08 Sep

(Image is a close-up of an imaginary pizza manufacturing operation, as depicted on a t-shirt. I loved the complexity of the task.)

As a longtime student of human development and a former career counselor, I’ve always enjoyed variations on personality and trait tests, like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  They’ve helped me to communicate with others as well as to understand myself better. 

I know that I am someone who values organization, likes to make decisions, and then follow through. I also don’t tend to regret the choices I make or go back and change my mind (excessively). These characteristics should make downsizing easier for me, if it weren’t for the fact that I am sentimental, have so much stuff, and value closure, which seems far off. I know other people with the same MBTI profile as me who don’t keep anything they don’t immediately need. So clearly, the MBTI is a poor predictor of downsizing personality.

Forgive me, but I’ve come up with my own schemata for figuring out just what kind of downsizer a person might be. It is a simple two axis graph.

On the x-axis is tendency to save things. At the left end of the scale are people who keep only what they need for regular use or what they truly value. They have a minimalist’s wardrobe, where pieces of clothing serve multiple purposes. They borrow books from the library (like Karl Marx, who reputedly said, “I keep my books in the British Museum”) or give away books they do buy after reading them, throw receipts out as soon as they are reckoned with credit card or bank statements (or perhaps before that).

At the other end is the undiscriminating saver—the person who keeps everything, perhaps initially because an item seems like it might be useful, either to the person himself or to someone that the saver can sell or give the item. The key is its potential. The extreme saver is also an acquirer—thus, the number of possessions never goes down even where effort is made to send things out the door. True savers save a variety of items, not just one kind, like the specialty enthusiast, who may own 1000 chess sets.  Saving can get so out of hand that it becomes hoarding.

On the y-axis is sentimentality. One might think that sentimentalists by nature have more stuff, but the sentimental person who is not a saver judiciously keeps very select things to remind herself of other people or other times. Each carefully chosen item has a story. 

Extreme sentimentalists hang onto everything that connects them with their past. They have well-documented evidence of their own history and the history of their family members. This evidence may include letters (for those of us who came from a letter writing generation), old school papers and notebooks, favorite toys, remnants of long-discarded hobbies, etc., not to mention a record collection on vinyl and cassette tape. But the sentimentalist may be more pragmatic about the day-to-day objects and items in her life. She may be happy to donate clothes and furniture, and only keep financial records for a requisite amount of time.  But don’t try to make her give away that old teddy bear!

Most of us don’t fall to the extreme ends but may have some area of weakness, whether it’s a wardrobe with more clothes than we could possibly wear or every drawing our child ever made.

So what use is this way of thinking for a slow downsizing project? I believe it’s important to understand  our areas of resistance. I know that I am a high sentimentalist. It’s much easier for me to part with furniture or old kitchenware (that wasn’t my mother’s) than the doll’s clothes my sister lovingly sewed for me, even though I have no real use for them , nor a place to display them.  I will have to make a different level and kind of effort to part with or re-purpose these kinds of things. I think it’s also imperative for the people around us to understand what is important to us and not to dismiss our tendencies, to try to force the issue, or to proffer advice that doesn’t resonate.  Nothing is more frustrating than being around people who can’t see beyond their own way of dealing with this challenge. On the other hand, I may not need empathy (sometimes the empathetic people encourage us to keep things we should be giving away because they feel our pain), but I’d love a sympathetic ear at times.

Below is my schemata. The B is my spot. Choose your own place on the scale and then ask a couple of people you know well to tell you where they would put you (as well as themselves).  Big differences of opinion are as likely to reflect their own take on the world as a lack of self-knowledge on your part. But all information is grist for your downsizing mill.

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