Mari: The emotional challenge of downsizing


As I stand by my window watching a nesting bird, which as spring has made its’ entrance has built herself a home on the big birch tree just in front of my balcony, I realize that it’s soon time for me to leave my home. Right there and then it hits me. This apartment is not mine for much longer. In only a few weeks I will be looking at my beautiful birch tree for the last time.


As part of my long term plan I intend to downsize and will only keep the most necessary things. Everything else needs to go. While I watch the bird care for her eggs I realize how fast the last weeks since she first came here have disappeared, and how the upcoming weeks will disappear even faster. Before I know it I have frantically begun to open closets and drawers and take on the challenge of fitting my whole life into a few boxes.

little me
Does detaching from our possessions mean that we are detaching from parts of ourselves? Foto: Privat

The biggest challenge turns out to be of the emotional kind. It’s one thing to sort among all our material possessions and decide what we need for survival and what we can survive without. It’s a completely different thing to sort among the material possessions that symbolize all the memories that have shaped us into becoming who we are. How do we detach from those?  And does detaching from them mean we’re detaching from parts of ourselves?

As I sit on the floor surrounded by photo albums, souvenirs from beautiful trips, beloved gifts and old diaries I am taken on an emotional roller coaster through the best and the worst moments of my life, and through all those moments that fall in between. You know how they say that people who experience a near death experience see their whole life passing by and are confronted with the feelings that arise from that? Well downsizing can be quite similar to that if you allow it. And I do.

What memories do your old possessions bring to life?

I decide to make my material downsizing process simultaneously a process of self growth. A confrontation of everything that I have gathered in my life up until now; materialistically as well as emotionally. I decide to shed the weight that I have been carrying along and to close my previous chapters before I begin my next ones. I decide to allow that process to take time and to accept whatever comes along – the beautiful, the horrible, the magical, the painful, the joyful, the shameful and the ugly – without judging it whatsoever. I sit for hours at a time, day after day, and go through all the things I own and the memories that are attached to each thing.

By connecting memories to specific material things we experience those things as true parts of our identity. Thus many times we resist separating from them in an emotional belief that we would be separating from ourselves.

I alternate between laughing joyfully and weeping in sorrow. I go through overwhelming happiness, bottomless grief, heart breaking despair, intense anger, tremendous joy, a big amount of disappointment, an even bigger amount of gratitude and most of all genuine acceptance for everything that was: It was what it was. It wasn’t always fair. And many times life hurt. But even in the worst of times we all did the best we could given our individual circumstances. Even when it didn’t feel like it, both those who hurt me throughout the years and I myself when I committed mistakes that hurt others or myself, were doing the best we could given the needs and the knowledge we had at the time. Realizing that brings me feelings of peace, compassion and love.

Most of the time we fight so hard to keep all negative emotions as far away from us as possible. We fight them so hard that we begin to fear them and deny them, which results in us denying ourselves. That’s unfortunate because those uncomfortable emotions have so much to teach us if we were to let them; about what we need, what we want, what we don’t want, about who we are and who we are not. And they can guide us towards the right direction if we hear them out.

All our emotions, positive as well as negative, can help guide us in the right direction if we – rather than denying or avoiding them – allow ourselves to accept them and listen to what they are trying to tell us.

Every once in a while I get up to make some tea, take a walk in nature, reflect and get a few moments of distance before I go back to embracing the ups and downs of the emotional roller coaster.

birdieI continue doing the same thing bit by bit, day after day. As my downsizing process continues over the next weeks I watch the bird chicks hatch in the nest outside my window. I see the parents take turns in bringing food to the little ones and I follow them as they open their eyes for the first time, as they grow and as they change feathers. My own process of growth continues parallel to theirs, because through my downsizing I also grow and metaphorically, just like the chicks, I also change feathers.

By the time I have organized my material belongings into neat piles for keeping, giving away and throwing away I have begun to feel that it’s OK to walk away from most of them now. It doesn’t mean that they are insignificant or that they have become less valuable. It doesn’t mean that the bad memories they symbolize have come undone, that wrongdoings have become right, or that the good memories will vanish without their material counterpart being there to remind me of them. No, they will always be a part of me – even if the memories fade over time – because they have changed me and shaped me into who I am right now.

Rather than leading to a detachment from who I used to be my downsizing process has allowed me to connect more profoundly to all aspects of myself.

Accepting, embracing and then walking away from both the physical and emotional things that I have gathered throughout the years only means that they have served their purpose: they have taught me what I need to know in order to move forwards with a clearer orientation. Contrary to my initial fear – that downsizing would force me to detach from the parts of myself that are connected to the things that I own – I come to realize that my downsizing process has instead helped me to organize and integrate some of the disconnected parts of myself into a new sense of wholeness. Rather than leading to a detachment from who I used to be it has allowed me to connect much more profoundly to all aspects of myself and get a clearer sense of who I have become.

And when the day has come to throw a last look through the window at my big, beautiful birch tree I notice that the birds nest is empty. The chicks have grown strong enough to fly. A few of them have remained and can be heard tweeting from the branches nearby while others have flown further away from home. I smile as I lock up my empty apartment for the last time. Now it’s my turn to leave the nest. To spread my wings and fly.