What your space says about your mindset

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
The state of our homes can tell us a lot about the state of our lives — and our joy. In this post, we look at 5 ways that your home can reveal deeper emotional truths, and how addressing these can help free you to live your best life.

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With the start of the new year, it’s a good time to check in. How’s your space feeling these days? Does it feel settled and comfy? Fresh and vibrant? Or are you noticing some clutter buildup or tired spots?

The state of our homes can tell us a lot about the state of our lives — and our joy. While our emotional lives are often opaque to us, sitting below the surface of our full awareness, our homes can provide a visual, tangible mirror of what’s happening inside.

This notion came to me by way of feng shui. When I was working on Joyful, I had a feng shui practitioner come to my apartment for a consultation. I was pretty skeptical about the more mystical claims of feng shui (such as that it could help you get a new job or make more money) but I wanted to explore the practical underpinnings to see what these claims were based on. I learned that feng shui practitioners use a map called a bagua to overlap areas of life such as money, partnership, creativity, and children onto spaces in your home, ensuring that each area of life receives attention.

The mapping of specific areas to the bagua felt a little bit arbitrary (why would my bathroom be the zone of “helpful people,” for example?) but what stuck with me was the notion that when a part of the home is out of balance, it might also suggest that part of life is out of balance. When one part of the home is piled up with junk while another is pristine and polished, it’s worth examining that gap and seeing what might be going on.

I’ve also found that working on your home can be a great way to kickstart changes in your life. If you’ve ever done a Konmari cleanout and found that life just seems to flow better, or repainted an ugly wall and breathed a sigh of relief, you know what I mean. The physicality of the home makes deeper changes feel more substantial, and can create momentum that helps us sustain our progress.

In this post, you’ll find five things to look out for in your home, and what they suggest might be going on for you, life-wise.

If there’s a part of your space that you’re neglecting…

You might be avoiding something in your life as well.

Is there a part of your space that you find yourself avoiding on a regular basis? Take a look at the part of life that this area of your home relates to. If your house is generally well-maintained but there’s one area that’s consistently disorganized or that you haven’t bothered to decorate, there’s a chance that you might be avoiding something in that aspect of life as well.

For example, when my desk is mounded up with papers and bills, it’s a safe bet that I’m not on top of my finances. Sometimes, that’s just because I’ve been busy, but if I’m honest with myself, more often it’s because I just don’t want to look at the full picture. Money is emotional! So I avoid my desk and I let the piles build up. I tell myself, “I’m not in the mood to work at home right now,” and pack up my laptop and go to the Wing or a cafe to work. By avoiding the space, I can temporarily avoid dealing with the situation.

Sometimes avoiding a space means the space doesn’t have an underlying system that reflects your needs. If your entryway is always overflowing with packages, coats, and shoes, no wonder you want to get in and out of it as fast as possible. But instead of treating the problem as inevitable, look to the root cause. Can you redesign your entryway so that there’s a surface for mail and cubbies for shoes? Or can you create another space where packages can live until you have time to open them? When avoidance comes from overwhelm, designing a system that you can make tangible in the space is a great strategy for bringing it back into regular use and ensuring it supports your life.

On the other hand, sometimes avoidance points toward a deeper emotional struggle. Someone who is grieving the loss of a family member might avoid certain spaces that they used to frequent. Someone who is avoiding their dining room might be feeling social anxiety and avoiding making plans with others. Or in my case, avoiding a desk might be a kind of physical procrastination that lets me claim I’m busy, but when really I’m trying to avoid facing my complicated feelings about money.

But ultimately, (and I say this as a well-practiced avoider!) avoidance is a short-term strategy. Allowing our homes to reveal what we’re avoiding can help us take the first step toward acknowledging those difficult feelings, working through them, and feeling more in control — both in our space, and our lives.

Of course, it’s worth noting that there isn’t always a deeper emotional issue at work. Sometimes we develop an aversion to a space based on aesthetics. In my conversation with Sarah Copeland for the Joy Makeover, she mentioned that her family started avoiding their dining room in winter, because the early sunset makes the space feel cold and dreary. So they started eating in the kitchen in winter. This happens to be a cozy solution that works for her family, but if you’re missing a space that doesn’t feel right, taking time to remedy the situation with additional lighting or a change of color can also help bring the space back into use.

If you’re not taking great care of your space…

You might not taking great care of yourself either.

This idea first hit home to me when I was working with a coach, Anese Cavanaugh. She talked about a past client of hers who was always late to work and cranky when she got there. What did Anese recommend she do? Clean out her pantry.

It turns out that the woman was late and cranky because she never could find the ingredients for a proper breakfast in her cluttered kitchen. By cleaning out her pantry and setting herself up with breakfast options she could easily grab, she started showing up on time to the office, and in a much better mood.

How we care for our homes often indicates how we’re caring for ourselves. For me, this one never fails. If the kitchen is a mess, my diet is usually a mess too. A clogged fridge and pantry kill my motivation for cooking. We start ordering more takeout, we end up feeling bloated and low-energy, and it becomes hard to break the downward spiral.

Similarly, if the bed is getting shabby, with worn-out pillowcases and a duvet cover that doesn’t stay put because the buttons have fallen off, it’s a fair bet we’re not sleeping so well. And if the plants are wilting from lack of water, that nearly always suggests that I’m spread too thin, and forgetting to pay attention not only to the plants, but to my own body’s basic needs as well.

In feng shui, it’s considered important to fix broken items, such as stopped clocks or broken lamps, because practitioners believe that chi (the energy that’s in us and around us) stagnates in and around these things. But you don’t have to believe in chi to realize that shabby, broken, or worn out objects signal a lack of care, and when we aren’t caring for our space, it can make it hard to take good care of ourselves.

On the other hand, taking good care of our space makes self-care easier, and well, more joyful. Imagine opening your pantry and seeing neat shelves of healthy snacks and staples that make cooking a pleasant prospect. Imagine a bathroom where you wouldn’t mind spending a little time putting on a face mask. Imagine a bed where it would be lovely to curl up with book for a few minutes before sleep, instead of just falling into the covers, exhausted.

When you notice a part of your home isn’t feeling well-tended, start to observe how you’re taking care of yourself in that aspect of life. Experiment with simple changes to see if a little care for your home influences how you care for yourself.

If you have piles of clutter…

You might be holding on to the past.

I grew up in homes with a lot of stuff. There were attics filled with boxes labeled “miscellaneous,” hundreds of books lining built-in shelves, knickknacks on mantels and credenzas, and stacks of medical journals in the basement. I just assumed that you held on to stuff and figured out a way to make space for it all.

But as I got older, I realized that I was raised by packrats (I say this with love), and that I didn’t need to keep all that stuff. One of the most telling experiences was putting all my stuff in storage and moving to Australia for two years. When I got back, I was so excited to see the stuff I had tenderly packed away years before. But when the moving truck arrived with all my boxes, I realized that I didn’t really want any of it anymore. Living without it for two years had given me freedom to grow in ways I hadn’t expected. I hadn’t missed most of those things, and in the end, most of it ended up being sold or given away.

I’ve since realized that when we find ourselves surrounded by clutter, often it’s not that we’re indecisive or bad at decluttering, but that we’re overly attached to the past. We may have trouble letting go because we romanticize an older period in our lives. Or we may be afraid of the future, and holding on to the past lets us avoid committing to that uncertainty.

It’s not surprising to me that research shows clutter and procrastination often go hand in hand, and that this combination leads to decreased life satisfaction. When we allow things to pile up around us, it’s a bit like we are clinging to old joys, instead of allowing them to pass so new ones can find us. (More on this topic of clinging vs. savoring here.)

I find this happens with clothes a lot. I’ll have something in my closet that I don’t really love, but every time I try to throw it out, I find myself thinking, but what if I have to go to a party and I need to wear a dress like this? The problem is that when we keep all the old possibilities present and alive in our space, there’s no room for new possibilities to enter. If want to grow and embrace the new, then we need to create space first.

This is a scary notion. It’s why Marie Kondo’s 5-step decluttering process insists that you don’t look at photos or memorabilia until the end. You have to build up your decluttering muscles on things that don’t have deep personal resonance, like paperwork and kitchen goods, before you get to things that are more emotional.

If you look around your space and you find a lot of clutter, ask yourself: do I feel stuck in any area of my life? Is there a part of my life that I wish were growing or moving faster than it is? That may be an area to take a deeper look at and see if there are past experiences you’re holding onto that are making it hard for you to be open to your future.

If there are parts of your home you haven’t decorated…

You may be waiting for life to start.

If you have a home that is partially decorated, ask yourself why. Is it that you’ve just been too busy? Or are you waiting for something to happen before you commit to really living in your home? For some people, it’s finding the right partner. For others, it’s moving out of a rental into a home they own, or moving out of a shared home into one of their own.

The problem is that we never actually know what life will bring us — or when. After I moved back from Australia, I thought I’d live in my rental apartment for a couple of years, and hopefully meet someone shortly thereafter. In reality, it was six years before I ended up getting together with Albert and being in a place where we could move in together. During those six years, I often looked at friends getting married and thought, “When will my real life start?” But at a certain point I realized that even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, this was my real life. I could either avoid that fact or embrace it.

Decorating my home meant that when I came back after a bad date or a tough meeting, I had a cheery, cozy place to come back to. I had a place to invite friends and do yoga in the mornings. I had a place that truly felt like me, even if it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be.

Having a home that feels good, even if it’s transitional, creates a foundation that helps you live your best life. On the other hand, a home that is left unfinished creates a suspended energy in life. It reminds you that you’re waiting for something, and makes it hard to truly commit to what’s happening in the present.

Of course, I’m not suggesting making a huge outlay of cash on a temporary home. But there are ways to make a place feel settled and complete without big expenditures. For example, hang your art — don’t leave it propped up against the walls. Buy a few secondhand chairs in a style you like to go around your table if you know you’re going to want something else when you move into your permanent home. Invest in things you’ll want to take with you, like a quilt for the bed or kitchen items that let you cook great meals for yourself and your friends. I’ve even turned cardboard boxes into a nightstand by covering it with a beautiful tablecloth. The structure was temporary, but it felt polished, which is what really matters.

Your life is happening right now, so don’t postpone joy!

If you’re waiting until you find the right sofa or wall color…

You might be a perfectionist.

As someone in the midst of a home renovation project, I get it: decisions about fixtures, colors, and furnishings are tough, and when you’re making a big investment, you want to choose things you’re going to be happy with over the long haul. But if you find that parts of your home are staying in an unfinished state for a long time, you might want to check in with that inner perfectionist.

At a certain point, you have to take the leap and try things in your home. By all means, do what you can to take the risk out of it. Get paint samples and paint large test squares before you go all in on a color. Measure well before hitting the Buy button on custom furniture. (I made this mistake once and ended up crying when a new upholstered bed made our bedroom suddenly feel tiny. Fortunately, it was returnable.) But if you spend all your time planning, and never seem to be able to move into action, ask yourself what is holding you back.

When my perfectionistic side flares up, I try to remind myself of the mantra “joy, not perfection.” The goal of a home is to have a place to create joyful experiences and memories. Yes, I want it look good, but what matters more: that I create a dining room that feels inviting to my guests and enjoyable for my family? Or that I chose the exact right shade of blue?

I think one of things that tends to fire up those perfectionistic tendencies is internalized judgment. When we look at our spaces, we think about how others might perceive them, and our own instincts get drowned out by the shouty voices of our inner critic. One thing that might help is to pull apart your inner critic and your inner enthusiast. Put them in different rooms in your mind. When you have to make a difficult decision around your home, ask the enthusiast first. Get clear on what you’re excited about before you invite the inner critic to weigh in. You might find that once the inner critic is tied up elsewhere, the enthusiast’s joy and excitement gives you enough momentum to get over the hump.

What did your new year’s home check-in reveal? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Reminder: Sign ups for the 5 Secrets to Designing a Feelgood Home are now open! Check the schedule for this year’s free live workshop here.

Image: Yasmine Boheas via Unsplash

January 11th, 2020


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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. Rebecca Darlington on January 11, 2020

    Hi Ingrid, I’m a visual artist with a 3rd bedroom in my small apt in Manhattan that functions as my Artist studio. I also have grown children that visit infrequently so I have always kept a double bed in the studio. This is hard to work around. I’ve made the hard decision to get rid of the bed and box springs, buy a quality blow up and finish moving into my studio. I feel like this will give me the space to make my best artwork. This article has officially given me permission. It was pretty and a nice place to hang out on but I have felt like I’ve been in limbo. Thanks for your thoughtful words. Rebecca

    1. Maeve on January 12, 2020

      Rebecca, your art is fantastic! I love that you’re fully reclaiming the space to make it.

  2. Barbara Bentley on January 11, 2020

    Just like the mind-body connection, the internal-external connection is real. Although embarrassing to admit, I’m looking at a plastic tarp stapled over large living room windows, put there to block glare on the TV. The debate has gone on too long – shutters, shades, or drapes? The truth is I want shutters, the most expensive option. Time to listen to myself , not feel guilty, and have the discipline to make it happen!

    By the way, just want to mention how I came to read Joyful – through the Next Big Idea Club! I’ve enjoyed following you ever since.

  3. zorica milosavljevic on January 11, 2020

    Dear Ingrid , thank you so much . You are giving me an answer to my fear of one room . Why I avoid to face that clutter and start cleaning , caring my past , traumatic memories … Thank you. Your book is my Soul -saving . With Love Zorica

  4. Maeve on January 12, 2020

    Hi Ingrid,
    I have an open-plan apartment, and my dining area, though attractive, doesn’t feel either truly functional or truly comfortable. And no question about it, this is connected to my current love-hate relationship with food and cooking! I’m resolving to figure this one out. I want the dining area to call to me to use it and really enjoy food. I think that means a more spacious dining table, even though I have limited space, and less decorative stuff on the table, so that it is easier to set for a meal. And maybe some cushions for my super-chic-but-not-so-comfy bistro chairs. Any other ideas?

    PS I was completely mesmerized by Joyful. Thank you for this gift, which just keeps on enriching my space and my life.

  5. Jennifer Brauer on January 18, 2020

    This is a terrific article. I have collected so much stuff. I have been decluttering for months but have yet to dig into my closet. I have been here for six months and have not unpacked my jewelry. I have boxes cluttering the floor, shoes everywhere, it is embarrassing. I realized after reading this that I was hanging on to the past. I wasnt super happy with the move and have been living a less than full life because of it. Today, I got started. Thank you


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