Thriving In Downsizing

Here are some ways I’ve tackled fears about “letting go of things”  that I wrote about in my last post:  “Downsizing for Vanlife: Naked & Afraid.”

1. Our things represent “who we are.”   This may be true, but we are not our things; we’re so much more.  

During downsizing, it helped to think in terms of  values. When I let something “go” I imagined a value attached to it,  and reminded myself that “things”  may come and go, but my values stay with me. So, was I really “losing” anything?

For example, my scrapbooking materials represented my value of  “creativity.”  Although parting with the “thing”  I still valued creativity, and there were other  ways to express it. I could design the van, paint rocks, write and cook creatively.  Maybe other forms of creativity would emerge I didn’t even know I had!

It was hardest letting go of my books, which represented a lifetime of  learning, but it helped to remember books are available in libraries and I could download to my kindle or re-purchase them later if I wanted to. They would be gone from my possession, but they were not gone from the world, or from my experience. I could  talk about what I learned from them and share this with other people; I didn’t need the book for that.

2. Things represent relationships and emotionally significant events:  It’s  hard to part with things that represent people or milestones. To deal with this, I chose one item related to each person, event or era, and “asked”  it to represent all the items and memories for that person or time. Essentially, I condensed my memories!

It was tempting to bring a lot of  sentimental items that represented  my love of family with me. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt  regular contact, genuine interest in their lives, and emotional support was more valuable to them than  keepsakes. What adult child ever wished you carried more of their childhood artwork with them?!  But how many long for closeness and communication? I decided to lean toward the latter.

Of course, I didn’t let go of everything. I have one tote of keepsakes now, which my son stores for me. Containing things I wish to remember. The best of the best memories, in physical, condensed form.

I’m happy to report the rest of my memories did not tragically disappear because the “things”  were gone.

This process actually helped me  commit to being a story teller. I’ve decided to cultivate an oral tradition for my children, passing on family stories rather than “stuff.”

For things representing “the hard stuff”  I had a bonfire (twice in the last ten years) and ceremoniously burned them. Throwing those “things”  in the garbage implied  they were worthless, and I knew those hard memories were an important part of “me.” A fire allowed me to spend time  acknowledging the memories  but seemed to release me from some form of emotional bondage.

Getting rid of the “thing”  didn’t rid me of the memory but it did free me of having to “protect” and “house”  it any longer!  Yes, I had pain, but I certainly didn’t need to keep it in a box!  With the flames, I felt the pain could now run a more natural course.

3. Stigma: Although there may be stigma attached to “living in your van,” times are changing and we are just as likely to know people who envy our courage to downsize.  The pendulum is swinging, and society is beginning to question “bigger is better.”  Excess is no longer an assumed value. Try thinking of yourself on the cutting edge of a big social movement!

4. Self-Identity: Through the early years of our lives, we may feel our identities are “set” … but age brings some measure of wisdom and with that, flexibility.  Maybe we were “the responsible one” or “the traditional one.” Maybe we are tired of being constrained by those labels, and ready for new ones!

Thinking of my life as a book with “chapters” allowed me freedom to write about myself in an entirely new way. Who says we have to be the same for our entire lives? What is good for one chapter may not serve us well for the next!

5. “Letting go” can trigger earlier losses:  There is no question this can happen. I developed just one strategy to separate the two. Once I recognized that sadness or anxiety related to “letting go” was actually related to a previous loss (you usually know because you can say… “this reminds me of….”)  I would simply say to myself.  “That was then, this is now.”  

I am no longer a child, and I am no longer vulnerable. I now have resources I didn’t  have when I was 8, 12 or 14. As a child, I was not the one making decisions even though I believed I did. I was often in a state of confusion and life was very unsettled for reasons I didn’t author. Now I am calling most of the shots and making my own decisions so the two “losses” aren’t related at all!

In fact, these losses might even be gains!

You gain space and make room for new things.  You might gain more choices. You might have more money. You may have more time. With that time, you might have new experiences because you are not busy maintaining or managing  your stuff!

6. If  “letting go” and going on the road isn’t your first choice :  This is very challenging, but it’s not unlike other times in life we weren’t in control, like when someone died or a job was lost.  It’s a myth to imagine we can, or should, control everything. Often we don’t have a choice in what happens. There is a natural disaster. We have unexpected bills. A marriage ends.

What we do have is the choice how we deal with the new situation.  If you didn’t initially choose having less, there may be some hidden gifts in this lifestyle you weren’t expecting.  I initially took to the roads because being in the city was just too hard. It was somewhat reactive and maybe even a bit desperate. Now it feels  more like a choice; one I am benefitting from.

7. Things represent stability:  There is some truth in this, but things also weigh us down and demand our time and energy. Less things may mean more mobility, increased flexibility, less expenses and ultimately, more choices.  If you think of “choice” as a kind of stability, you may actually gain more!

Is it not more important that we  are stable in our emotional well being and availability to our friends and loved ones? Perhaps this lifestyle can help us achieve that by freeing us from other activities that drain us.

8. Things sometimes represent a shopping or “accumulation” addiction.  If you  have a compulsion to accumulate “things” you will be facing it intensely as you move into a small space. Some people may find this helpful in curtailing the impulses to buy, because the impact is felt very quickly in dwindling living space.

9. Depression can get in the way of letting go:  If this is youtry not to rush the process or  back yourself into a crazy deadline. Have plans B, C & D.  Know that just getting started might help – physical movement and change is a valid treatment for depression and helps raise adrenaline levels naturally. But don’t overdo it. One small step at a time. Anecdotically, it seems like many people find releasing “stuff” very helpful for their depression or state of mind generally!

10. Downsizing may require we seek help: This isn’t easy but it’s helpful to remember that in most communities and cultures around the globe, interdependence is normalized and valued. North American  culture is a seriously  messed up on this.  I find that helpful to realize!

Other Downsizing Strategies:

If the entire process is too overwhelming to do all at once, choose what you need for your nomadic life and put the rest “in storage” or leave it with family. Downsize in stages.

Consider giving  yourself 3-12 months to live without the things in storage. See what you miss and what you don’t. Allow yourself to  experience having less, without risk. It’s easier to “release”  once you trust you can live with less. Storage may be an expense,  but it is less than rent and it’s  easier to part with things you haven’t used for some time.

Besides, you may decide you enjoyed being nomadic, but wish to go back to a house or apartment. Maybe you decide to travel  part-time. Either way, you might want your things back. It’s a big lifestyle decision. “Trying it out for a while” is a great strategy.

If you are still in a house or apartment, try moving everything you’re not taking into one room and live with what is left. Notice what you miss and what you don’t. Begin ridding yourself of the least needed items first.

You may wish to “gift” family members. If you have many items, an auction or a garage sale can be a good place to start. Garage sales can be exhausting however, and it’s discouraging to bring things back inside if they don’t sell. To avoid this, arrange a donation truck to pick up remaining items the following day.

Although it can be helpful financially to sell items, it can be tiring to sell  smaller things. Consider donating these to an organization who will pick up. There are also online groups devoted to “free-cycling.” Homeless shelters and women’s shelters are often extremely happy for donations of kitchen items, clothing and linens as well.

In closing, the process of releasing yourself from excessive or meaningless things can be incredibly liberating. We often don’t realize just how deeply we’ve  bought into a mentality of accumulation until we attempt to escape it.

Even if you aren’t going on the road any time soon – or ever- it can be a deeply meaningful path, worth exploring.












7 thoughts on “Thriving In Downsizing

  1. Hi Kit, my children have just left this year and I feel as if 40 years of stuff is drowning me and I know the things need to go but!!! It is so hard… thank you for your wisdom xx safe travels x

  2. Thank you for making these points so easy to understand and so applicable to me.
    It is like you were writing this article JUST FOR ME.
    We are downsizing and planning an extended bike tour and reading what you
    have to say has helped me understand that I am who I am without my:
    – art supplies
    – books
    – crafting materials
    – general stuff in boxes that I haven’t looked at in several years – but may be useful at some time in the future.

    Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

    Looking forward to more!


    1. I hope you had fantastic bike tour – or are maybe even STILL enjoying it! (I’m terribly slow responding, my apologies!) I’m glad the post was helpful 🙂

  3. You have written a great deal of wisdom in these past months. I wonder if it will become a book someday?

I love to hear from you :)