Wading through fear, indecision and identity by clearing my clutter

Last week, I began reading the New York Times Bestseller, the life-changing magic of tidying up, by Japanese tidying expert (who knew that was a thing?), Marie Kondo.  Some people have criticized her book as another quick-fix, positive psychology, light-weight, self-help book.  I’ve only been working on it for a week, but I have to disagree with those assessments.  It’s not a perfect book, but the underlying concepts are so simple and brilliant, it has changed the way I think about what I own.  Through her technique, called the Konmari method, I have identified and started grappling with my chronic indecisiveness, not knowing what my gut thinks or being able to listen to it, and a pervasive fear of making mistakes or missing out (or FOMO as the kids call it these days).

One of the main concepts of her approach is that you hold every single item you own (in an order she outlines) and let yourself feel if it “sparks joy.”  Additionally, you allow yourself to let go of things, trusting that if you really care about it, and it was a mistake to let it go, that you can find it or a different “it” that fills the same purpose in the future.  This is a threatening and scary concept, but so far, I have gone through my clothes and books using her approach, and I am so pleased with the results.  But there are some major emotional challenges implied in these ideas. We'll set aside the argument that this is a materialistic approach to life, that things should not bring us joy (although experiences can and do).  My interpretation is that it's about the fact that all of us need certain physical things, and in Western civilization, most of us have a choice of and access to many different things.  So shouldn't the things we surround ourselves with be things that spark excitement and inspire us? It seemed like a worthwhile idea to at least try.

I realized very quickly, I had lost touch with what sparks my joy.  I blame this on self-imposed rules that I developed on what a “doctor” is supposed to look like, dress like, read, and behave like.  As a young woman, some patients saw me as a child, a sex object, a nurse, many things, but not “doctor”.  And my clothing choice affected this.  The uniform I eventually developed for myself was dress pants and a sweater.  Not very creative, but easy, and generally not comment-worthy, which at the time was my goal.  On the rare days when I would wear a skirt or something cute, people would say things, usually meant as compliments, but with some of my male patients, it felt uncomfortable.  So I struggled with how to feel like myself as a whole person who enjoys expression of my mood and energy through my attire, while still being seen and respected as a doctor.

As a result, when I held most of the clothes that I wore as part of this uniform, dutifully following the first step of the Konmari method, I felt a wave of anxiety, annoyance, and even slight anger.  So I got rid of them.  I hesitated at first, because if I practice medicine (yes, it is an “if” at this point), I will need professional attire.  Fortunately, after I finished going through my whole wardrobe, I realized I have plenty of clothes I can wear for work, just not all fitting to my previously developed uniform.  And that is really ok.  If it means I feel more like myself as a doctor and less like a sanitized version of what “doctor” looks like, then I think it’s worth it.  I had been restricting myself because of concern about what others think.  And there is a point where that is necessary as a professional.  But there is another line where it is ok to be human, to be yourself, to show your personality.  And if I am going to be happy practicing medicine, I need to allow myself to embrace that.

After cleaning out and reorganizing my closet, I was pretty happy with the version of Francesca that I saw reflected in the clothes, but felt there was a key element of my personality missing: the creative side.  Somehow, this seemed appropriate considering that element of my life has felt largely dormant for about eight years.  I am of the belief that clothes tell you a lot about a person, and their identity, so for me, this was bothersome.  The next day was a day for me to use for myself, so I decided to go shopping.  I spent eight hours looking at clothes.  Yes, if this elicits a wave of nausea from you, I share that.  In my defense, I only bought five items and spent less than $75 total, so it was only time that I really lost.  And these five items definitely spark joy.

That said, I actually HATE spending so much time shopping.  It takes forever because I am indecisive in buying clothes, actually just indecisive around most aspects of my life: what books to read, what dish to order at a restaurant, which career path to take. The indecision stems from my general fear that I might miss out on something better.  I pick up every single shirt that looks like it might look good, and go to the dressing room with arms full (I am certain the people who have to put clothes away despise me on sight).  Then I spend an hour trying everything on, agonizing over it.  And what usually happens is I buy more than I plan to keep because I’m still not sure, and take things home with the plan to return whatever still doesn’t look right at home.  Of course, that doesn’t always happen, and so my closet had a lot of clothes that I never wore because they were never quite right.

Studies show that people who spend less time making decisions are generally happier than people who spend more time.

Usually, I try to emphasize the positive of this, which is that I am analytical and weigh my decisions carefully before choosing, but the reality is that somewhere along the line, I lost my ability to hear my gut and what it wants, and the ability to trust it.  I think this partly stems from social pressures to conform while growing up (I was pretty far outside the lines at times), and also from a behavior pattern we were warned against in medical school, called “premature closure”.   This is when a doctor clings to a diagnosis before all the important data is in and misses important clues directing them to alternative options.  It can lead to wrong diagnosis, error and death in the worst case.  As doctors, we are taught to always be aware there may be other possibilities, before we come to a conclusion.  Somehow, I think for me, this translated into my personal life as well as a fear of making a wrong decision and missing out.

Unfortunately for me, studies show that people who spend a lot of time making decisions are often less happy than people who don’t.  In psychology, this is the study of “maximizers” vs “satisficers”, and studies show that maximizers like me are actually less happy than our satisficer counterparts.  It is not clear if a maximizer can become a satisficer or vice versa.  And there are ways in which maximizers come out ahead (for example, we may be more likely to get better, higher paying jobs).  But learning to trust your gut is valuable in life, in business, in leadership.  There are times, like when buying a car or a house, when trusting your instincts may be better than overanalyzing, because ultimately these are emotional purchases that you have to live with for a long time.  So within the limits of what you can afford, etc, go with your gut.

My indecisiveness and my clinging to clutter, are connected with fear.  My tendency has been to think if one item looks good, but it’s not quite right, to buy it anyway because I don’t want to miss the chance for that cute look.  But then because it doesn’t fit right, I don’t wear it.

The reality of course is that there are billions of shirts (or cars, or jobs, or possible partners) in the world, and if one seems close but not quite right, I should leave it alone.  The chance to express myself will usually come around again through something else, probably something that looks good and fits right, and if I’m patient and listen to my heart, rather than buying five or ten shirts that aren’t quite right, I’ll just buy the one shirt that is.  The caveat to this is not to overanalyze the decision, because there may be something better out there, and that is ok.  The trick, it seems to finding happiness, is to know when something we have is good, and to be content that it is good enough.  I'll end with a shot of two of the shirts I bought on my shopping spree, and a motto I think more of us should try to embrace.