Clearing Out Space

Organization by  Shira Gill . Photo by  Vivian Johnson .

Organization by Shira Gill. Photo by Vivian Johnson.

It began several years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of a capsule wardrobe or the uniform. There are several renditions of this concept but the basic idea is to clean out your closet of all the items you neither wear nor love and to pair it down to items that feel nothing less than fantastic on you. That way, whenever you open your closet to choose an outfit, it’s no longer overwhelming and discouraging but easy and delightful. 

Cutting down my closet and creating seasonal uniforms also began to save me loads of time. I used to rummage through what seemed like an endless pile of clothes I didn’t even feel good in and now, it’s easy to find something to wear because 1) my closet is so slimmed down and 2) I love everything in it.

I then read the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo and became a convert. I had always been somewhat of a minimalist but the book addressed my two great impediments towards simpler living: nostalgic connections to items and consequently, guilt for getting rid of those items and second, a scarcity mentality of “what if I will eventually need it?”

Kondo’s litmus test of keeping only the items that brought me joy and figuring out creative solutions for the rest (e.g. taking photos of old photographs and storing them in a small hard drive) helped me to clear out more space in my home and consequently, my life. Friends and family members who visit always compliment the tasteful style and cleanliness of our home, especially with a toddler as a member of our family.

My final and most indefatigable challenge to date has been letting go of commitments and relationships that clutter my life. 

You see, I saw the last two categories—commitments and relationships—as categorically different than every other material item I had no major difficulties letting go of. In fact, I had the opposite belief that the more I said “yes” to every commitment that was offered to me and every person that came into my life, the more happy and blessed I would be. 

Turns out, these two areas of my life would be what would eventually lead me to extreme burnout, where I wouldn’t even have the energy to speak an extra word to my husband at the end of each day.

The root of this compulsion was: I thought I’d be more lovable if I said yes to everybody else. 

And then…I had a child.

I was no longer able to sustain my level of commitment to other activities and relationships that were clearly not aligned with my authentic code, meaning, activities and relationships that drained instead of energized me.

I started to acknowledge this predicament but couldn’t shake my deeply entrenched belief that I had to keep saying yes to every invitation and every relationship—it was, I believed, a moral imperative. 

I’ve been unraveling myself from this false and destructive belief the past few years and especially this past year, trying to figure out where it comes from and why I’m so beholden to it. I realized through self-reflection that it’s not just a people-pleasing tendency and a desired to be loved. It also derives from the cultural values and religious doctrines I was raised with. In Korean culture, it’s almost a sin to say “no” to requests from elders, especially parents, and there’s nothing worse than being deemed “selfish.” And in Christianity, our moral duty is to be a servant to others. I took this all in and became the model Korean daughter and model Christian—to my demise. 

When I hit rock bottom, I heard a single word whispered to me over and over again, that’s transformed every aspect of my life. That word was “gift.” I shared about it in my Christmas reflection here, in my talk at the LEAD conference for church leaders here, and in my marriage essay here. This is the word God has been using to overturn and reroute my entrenched beliefs and invite me to a completely alternative way of living: to receive my life as a gift to experience joy instead of as a test to see if I’ll pass. This radical re-orientation has been the nourishment for my frail body and exhausted soul, depleted after years of saying “yes, yes, yes.” 

This past month has been momentous for me, a true testament to how far I’ve come. I’ve had three significant conversations that I would have been scared sh*tless to have at any other point in my life. In those three significant conversations, I stepped down from various leadership commitments. Where once I would have just kept going to preserve my reputation and favorability with God and others (but with a seething resentment underneath my service and smile), I let these commitments go with freedom and confidence. And not surprisingly, every person with whom I have had these conversations have given me their blessing and understanding, as so often happens when we stand firm in our worth, unapologetically. 

When we clear space, any kind of space, in our homes or in our internal lives, we then create space for our authentic selves to shine; for us to finally pursue that which is truly aligned with our desires.

A friend of mine finally cleared out her house of old junk and she shared with me that afterwards, she, a longterm insomniac, had the best sleep in her life. 

Another friend realized that her instagram addiction made her feel like she was wasting her life instead of enriching it. She took a break from instagram, which created more time for her to read great literature again, launching her into a new and creative hobby of writing. Our little no’s create ripple effects of change.

Going back to one of my impediments of letting items, commitments and people go: guilt. 

This guilt would even keep me in romantic relationships way past their prime. 

Here’s a nugget of wisdom: When we are brave enough to let go of those items, people and commitments that are not aligned with our true desires, gifts, and personhood, we not only clear more space for that which we truly do want to come through, our “trash” usually end up becoming somebody else’s gold. 

The guys I strung along are now with women who do genuinely love and appreciate them.

And I’m sure that the old clothes I donated to thrift stores are now enjoyed and appreciated by others.

In the same way, I know that the leadership positions I left have created vacuums for other, more fitting people to fill these slots, further strengthening instead of hurting the organizations. We may feel as though we need to maintain our commitments to please others but the truth is, it’s a disservice. Others can sense when our hearts aren’t invested. 

For many of us, empty space is frightening. It’s scary to let things go, especially when there’s no promise of what we truly do want filling those empty spaces.

Those empty gaps are invitations for us to take steps of faith and communicate to the universe: I’m ready to begin living according to my authentic self, instead of settling for so much less than I’m worth. 

If you’re not quite ready to let go of a commitment you know doesn’t serve you or clean out your closet, just begin small.

Organization queen Shira Gill recommends starting with the teeniest, nonthreatening task of cleaning out your sock drawer. Well, you can do that.