Downsizing for Vanlife: Naked & Afraid

Moving into a vehicle typically requires serious “trimming” of our belongings. Although it seems rather straight-forward, it is anything but, and the emotional struggle of the task is pretty much universal.

But why  is downsizing so hard? And why does it make us feel so…. vulnerable and uncomfortable? 

Here are 10 reasons it might hurt to clean out our closets. I’ve discovered these during my journey of minimalism. It helps me (and it might help you) to know there are valid reasons this can be so hard!

1. Our “stuff” is an extension of our-selves. Like a wardrobe. 

Unless we’ve  rid ourselves of ego entirely, our things represent our  “uniqueness” and most of us will devote time and energy designing our “outer worlds” to reflect our “inner worlds.”  This includes the accumulation of things that speak to our interests, values and experiences. This can be for our own satisfaction or as a way to communicate to others “who we are.”

Our “things” also help us recognize others we share  values  and interests with,  and this contributes to a sense of belonging within a group; there is safety and joy in belonging.

Because our things can represent our “invisible selves”   it’s not easy to let go of them. They do an important job; providing a certain “short-hand” for ourselves and others that  provide a wealth of non-verbal cues which helps us to “assess” situations and one another.

How I initially felt without my “stuff”

Without them,  we can feel quite naked and a little disoriented. Picture a long haired dog who just got a very short haircut. See it’s tail between it’s legs? It’s downcast eyes? That’s because she  is wondering if she will be recognized by her pack, and she needs her pack to survive!

Or picture the naked mole rat. Like the one above. We can feel like that when our “wardrobe” is gone! Totally naked in the bright light of day.

I really struggled with letting go of a large  book collection. It was the last thing to go. How would others know what I’m all about without them? How would I remember all the different phases of my life? How could I ever summarize all I had learned to another person without this “map” to show them?

2. “Things”  represent Feelings and Relationships. 

My Grade 6 Public Speaking trophy reminds me I once felt confident speaking in front of people (that I now struggle with). A set of dishes reminds us that  Great Aunt Minnie expects we carry on family holiday traditions (I might hate hosting family dinners) A faded wedding photo  reminds us we once dreamed of a lasting love (well, that was a failure, wasn’t it? )

These things may “hold” resentment, grief, hope, pride or a wide range of other emotions, and they are often “tucked away” only to regain their power over us when we handle them, or threaten to release them into the world.

3. “Less”  can Be Looked Down On. There is stigma associated with having “less” and prestige associated with having “more.” Given how prevelent this attitude is, most of us are affected somewhat. We might worry what others think, or be at risk of stigmatizing ourselves!  Our choice to “go small” might also lead, at first, to feeling misunderstood or a “misfit” in our current circles; a rebel, oddball, or drop-out in society.

4. Having “less”  may challenge our self-identity. For years as a single parent, I feared I would could support my children adequately:  Having a “permanent” (purchased) home represented my ability to care for them; renting represented my failure. That took a lot of work to “undo” so I felt good about eventually choosing to rent rather than own; my self-concept was tightly connected to my view of myself as a home-owner. The same may be true, moving from a rented home to a trailer, RV or van. Our self- identities are malleable, but somewhat resistant to change!

5. Getting rid of things can trigger memories of earlier, unrelated losses.  For instance, seeing a moving van take away your furniture may bring back memories of your parents’  divorce and how things were  “harder” after. It might remind you of the losses  incurred during your own divorce or after a death, or trigger memories of the humiliation of a bankruptcy. These are unrelated losses in different circumstances, but they can initially feel like the same thing until we untangle them.

Additionally, there are certain “things”  that  represent losses of  people, places, roles etc…. (wedding rings, locks of hair, etc.)  so handling these items may require we mourn those losses. Sometimes we have avoided this emotional process by tucking these “loss reminders” away in boxes or closets.   Downsizing insists we revisit the feelings.

6. If, for any reason, we feel going on the road wasn’t entirely our choice, the whole process of letting go can be tangled up with grief and loss. Human beings can tolerate a great deal of change, but we do best with changes we choose.

If this is your experience (as it was, in part, my own) I found it helps to be very compassionate to myself  and allow for some pretty complicated feelings about “letting go” to surface. Sometimes we aren’t really letting go at first; sometimes it feels more like you are having your “things”  pried from your clenched hands. It might feel like a theft. Like you had no choice. Which may be the case. We do, however, get to decide how we are going to think about the change later.

7. Our “things” may represent stability. This is particularly true for people who have had multiple traumas or changes in their lives, particularly involving geographic change or sudden loss. Sometimes, the only thing that stayed the same was our “stuff” … and letting go of that can be very unnerving. If we  experienced poverty in our lives, we may intensely attach to “things” to keep ourselves safe from feelings of vulnerability and “difference” or just to survive. In these instances, choosing to have “less” may seem counter-intuitive to survival.

In the most extreme manifestation, we may collect (“hoard”)  things to try to feel secure. We may also discover that letting go of “things” means we need to exercise more trust in the “universe” to provide us with what we need when we need it, and we may discover that we don’t trust this at all!

We may also find our children, partners or extended families are attached to our stuff because they are concerned about our stability-  maybe at times more than we are! They may require  coaching and encouragement to accept what we are doing. People can also be attached to gifts they gave us, and may not think well of us parting with them. So, downsizing might mean we have a bit of conflict with others.

8. Sometimes our “things” are the outcome of a compulsion or addiction to collecting or shopping. In this case, there is a whole set of behaviour that will follow us into our vans and vehicles, that will need to be addressed. Usually, these behaviours make it tough to downsize. This is complicated further if we feel guilt about having spent money on the items we are releasing, or are still paying off debt related to their purchase.

9. If we are struggling with depression or anxiety, downsizing can be overwhelming  because it’s a large project with tough emotional components. Anyone with depression knows how challenging it is to muster up motivation to take on big projects, particularly on days when even self-care is a challenge. Even breaking it down into smaller pieces can prove very challenging. Heck, even if you aren’t suffering depression, the sheer size of the project can be daunting.

10. Because downsizing often requires we consult with others, we may feel blocked.  We are trained to be self-reliant, and asking for help may make us feel weak. Alternatively, we may not like interacting with others, so organizing garage sales, selling on E-Bay or hiring an auctioneer may be daunting. Sometimes downsizing may also involve we talk to children, relatives or friends with whom we have difficult relationships.


That’s 10, but there are more. If you are struggling with “letting go”  there may be more than one reason why it’s challenging. Can you see yourself in any of these? If so, do be gentle with yourself. This is not a simple experience. Simplicity is not simple! ( I know…. How wrong is that?)

I’m now going to work on a little piece about strategies that helped me and might help you navigate these complicated emotions. I’ll include some great reading, and some new ways of thinking about “things.”

The good news? As “important” as our things “appear” to be, they are simply things, and WE are much bigger, deeper and more complex than our things. They may represent us, but they are not us. In the same way the word “bird” may seem like a bird, but is unable to fly.

There is a heaviness to collecting and keeping stuff whose time has come… and gone.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

“Thriving in Downsizing” …..





5 thoughts on “Downsizing for Vanlife: Naked & Afraid

  1. I love this post!! I am preparing for starting my van life journey and am nervous about the downsizing part. I have a lot of stuff! However, I am confident that I can do it (mostly because I know I can store things at my moms’ house!)

    1. How is the downsizing going!? Sometimes MOVING the stuff is the first step in detaching from it. Once it’s out of sight, we can really assess our “needs” vs “wants”! Sorry it took so long for me to write back. This year I am going to do better with blog connection 🙂

  2. Wow, so much truth here! It is so clear to me that you REALLY thought this through, really mindfully had the experience of letting go of stuff. Thank you. This is one of those articles I will keep forever! Oh wait, I need to learn to let go and trust I’ll find it again when I need it! 🙂

  3. Great article, Kit–

    I went through the downsizing process 10 years ago at age 63. And to be honest, I’m still in the ongoing process. I no longer have a fixed residence and have a full-size, high-top conversion van I built into a tiny house on wheels called “My McVansion.”

    Everything you describe in the downsizing process is SO accurate, especially the emotions and certain feelings of depression, lack and failure. But, the realizations and feelings of freedom and happiness on the other side are awesome.

    Good luck and happy travels on your adventure. Maybe we’ll cross paths one day and can compare notes.

    Live free and be happy.

  4. You so GET IT. A great talent for words. Can’t wait to hear your strategy for letting go. That’s my issue noiw.

I love to hear from you :)