Many years ago, when Oprah Winfrey had a daily afternoon talk show, I happened to catch an episode about giving ourselves permission to use our best, most precious items, without feeling any guilt. Oprah pointed out how people are unable to use things like fine china, their nicest tablecloths, their most expensive perfumes, etc.—other than for the holidays if at all. (Thankfully, we Jews are not hesitant to put out our good china and silver because we regularly use them for Shabbat and Yom Tov.)
Oprah also pointed out that some people insist on putting heavy, clear plastic slip covers on their living room couches and chairs. After about 30 years of marriage, one of my clients removed her plastic slip covers. She explained her mother had kept her furniture covered in plastic and, as a dutiful daughter, she felt it was expected of her to do the same. One day she removed all the plastic and never looked back. It was liberating!
Oprah was making her case for all her viewers to treat themselves well and use their best, any day of the week, whenever they wished. She had viewers film themselves eating at their elegantly set tables and wearing their best clothes. The lesson this show tried to teach still resonates with me. I see many of my beloved clients experiencing what Oprah brought to light.
I invite you to be a fly on the wall and listen to a conversation I had with a beloved client while organizing her home office.
Me: “Beloved client, I noticed you have a gift box with a bottle of cologne in your desk drawer that has clearly never been used.”
Client: You’re right about that. It’s a very expensive French cologne, a gift from my office.”
Me: “When something sits in an office drawer, it’s less likely to be used. May I move it to your bedroom or your bathroom where it would be convenient when you’re getting dressed in the morning or preparing for bed?”
Client: “I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t use it. Everything this company makes is so expensive!”
Me: “I’m hearing you say that you aren’t so interested in using it. Perhaps we could think of someone you would like to give it to. Your daughter, maybe?”
Client: “No. My daughter is always buying herself fine gifts. She won’t need it. But anyway, I can’t give it away. It was a gift.”
Me: “True, it was a gift. It was given to you by people who care about you and want to spoil you a little bit. Does that make you want to use it?”
Client: “I don’t know. But if I give it away, I’ll feel so guilty. I don’t think you are supposed to give away a gift, right?”
Regarding the guilt my client was feeling, lifestyle coach Debra Levy of a Life That Fits, LLC, suggests, “The client might have some anxiety about using up something that is expensive and may feel she doesn’t deserve to use something so dear.” I have observed this to be true even when the gift is given generously. The client may be afraid of consuming something, and suffering the loss. She prefers knowing the item is there, teasing her to be used someday, rather than knowing she used it and it is gone. To top it off, the recipient may be convinced the giver will find out she chose to donate, toss or regift the item. So the item will sit in a drawer, hang in a closet or clutter up a corner of a room, confined to an existence in limbo: neither used nor displayed.
Me: “Beloved Client, it occurred to me that perhaps we can open the bottle of perfume and you can decide if you even like the scent.”
Client (sniffing): “I really don’t like it, but I have decided I WILL keep it and display it on my dresser. Then I can think of my office friends each time I look at it. “
Me: “I see we’re making progress.”
One of many definitions of clutter is “what you no longer love or find a purpose for.” I propose adding to this definition “anything you have had many opportunities to use, but refuse to.” A professional organizer shared an experience about a client who was having trouble giving up a sweater she disliked because her cousin had bought it for her. The organizer suggested that if her cousin knew she wasn’t wearing the sweater, she would want the client to make more space and find the sweater a new home. Her client replied, “You don’t know my cousin.”
Others have different reactions to an expensive gift. A friend of mine said she never had a desire for designer items nor “to keep up with the Joneses.” One day a business associate was downsizing and gave her a Kate Spade handbag, still sporting a price tag of over $200. My friend’s first thought was to sell the bag to make some money. She tried various ways to sell it, but no method was successful. She left it in her office, never considering taking it home. Months passed and one day she opened a closet in her office and there was the Kate Spade handbag. She remembers thinking how pretty it is and that she hadn’t really noticed its beauty when she thought it was a potential income earner. That night the bag accompanied her home and the next day my friend was carrying it. She now gets great pleasure from using this handbag, not because it was expensive, but because she truly likes it.
We have explored the difficulty some people have giving themselves permission to use their best possessions, as well as the difficulty some people have in giving themselves permission to open and use expensive gifts. How can we take the leap to enjoy these things? Oprah asked her viewers to send videos portraying their delight while using them. Would it help to video ourselves using our best things, even if there is no Oprah show to send it to? Maybe we could send videos to our friends and ask them to make their own videos and circulate them on YouTube. A social media challenge of sorts!
Everyone is different and there is no one sure method to remove guilt. It is beyond my expertise to remove the feelings of unworthiness a client may harbor. I can, however, urge—and I am talking to myself now—that we all use and appreciate everything we have now, and to further spread our joy, use and share these things with those we feel close to.
Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s kosher organizer and tzniut wardrobe stylist. For over 14 years, she has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. Ellen believes “Clutter Clogs, but Harmony Heals.” Contact Ellen for a complimentary phone consultation at [email protected]