Minimalism. Nature or Nurture?

This past week I found myself watching a ridiculous number of episodes of the TLC program, HOARDING: Buried Alive. I am obviously not the only one who sits wide-eyed, mouth ajar, watching such shows. The TLC show is a second round at tackling the mental disorder, as A&E premiered a show last year called, Hoarders. And while most will agree that hoarding to some extent is normal (especially in children) it can become compulsive thereby moving into an area of unhealthy disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary. One mother and son lived not amidst piles of treasured belongings and old knick-knacks but rather stacks of old magazine, newspapers, and school assignments as well as animal feces, trash containers, dirty dishes, and moldy furniture. The situation had become so bad that they simply didn’t know where to start in regards to cleaning or addressing their issue(s).

As I was watching I became part of a conversation about whether or not the inclination to hoard is something people are born with, or something they learn. The room was split it seemed. While it is now a diagnosed, mental disorder, it is still a lifestyle choice to some degree.

That night while I was laying in bed waiting to fall asleep I began to think about Tiny House and minimalism and whether or not it is – or can be considered – an issue of nature vs nurture. For as long as I can remember I have toggled back and forth between “nesting” or having lots of junk and living sparse free of almost anything material.

My mother often talks about how I was a neat child and had a place for everything. Each morning I made my bed before school. I made sure my CDs were put back in their spot on the shelf. I cleaned the sink of any toothpaste debris. I made sure all the lights were off, the stereo powered down, and shoes on the shoe rack. I was almost obsessive; ritualistic, in my need to have a place for everything and everything in its place. I did not like to have things scattered about and my mother never had to tell me to clean my room. My folks probably felt blessed to have such a responsible young son who cared about his environment in such a way. In retrospect though, I am not so sure I was motivated by a desire to be neat or rather some sort of objection or aversion to having too much stuff around me. You see, my “cleaning” didn’t involve dusting or vacuuming or mopping. It was about stuff, clutter, piles, and the riddance of them altogether.

I remember when I was 6 years old I got an Optimus Prime transformer for Christmas. I got a lot that year for whatever reason. I was just as excited as my siblings to rip open gifts and strike things off my mental “gimme gimme” list. But no sooner had I opened them than I wanted to either arrange them neatly out of the way or put them away altogether. I couldn’t handle the mess of the boxes, the paper, the toys, etc. It caused what I now know to be anxiety. And although I have never voiced it, I can remember being almost distraught about where to put everything. Would I get rid of old stuff to make room for new? Would I ask my daddy to build more shelving? Or would I simply shove the whole lot into the rear of the closet – out of sight – only to dig out things one by one as I had the desire to play with them. I wasn’t a neat freak, I now realize. I just couldn’t handle the sight of clutter.

As I grew older though I began to adapt to the environment I was raised in. My mother was neither a hoarder nor a minimalist. She had stuff; some out on display and some put away. My father was neither either. He had collections, mind you, but didn’t obsess one way or the other. Things were left where he last used them and he seemed to lose no sleep over it. By my teen years I had amassed a couple of collections (most notably, one of Mickey Mouse stuff) and some days proudly displayed it all while other were spent tucking it all away; again, out of sight. This continued into my late college years until it was time for me to have my own place with my own furnishings.

While I love good furniture and well-appointed rooms, I found myself buying what society considered items for a well decorated room and then slowly paring it down; piece by piece. I would sell, regift, donate, etc. But if anyone commented I would quickly repurchase and fill it back up just to avoid questions about my anxiety.

The real game changer came in the last three years though. I moved to Brooklyn and was immediately surrounded by people, things, sounds, smells, etc. I couldn’t breathe. So to cope I began to minimize my space. I got rid of knick knacks. Shelves became not object holders but the object itself. I reduced seating only to what I needed. If I had guests I would have to wrangle up a few spots typically repurposing the four, modest, dining room chairs. My bed was already a platform bed but I quickly gave away all but one set of clean, solid print sheets and two matching pillows. I still made my bed each day. I sold off CDs and DVDs as well as books and magazines. By the time I moved everything I owned fit into a large, rented, SUV.

I don’t know why I’ve always felt strangled by stuff. As I said earlier, my parents are neither hoarders nor minimalists, and the household I was raised in was neat, well-maintained, and had what I’d call a “normal” number of possessions. My behavior wasn’t influenced by any extreme experience or environment.

But while my possessions have always followed a sort of consumptive ebb and flow in comment to the present circumstances of my life, I’ve always felt happiest when things are on their way out rather than in and when I am surrounded by the least amount of things.

Am I alone in this? Are you a natural minimalist or did you learn how to live lightly from someone or something else?


  1. Rob T says

    I am by no means a natural minimalist in the sense that you are but as I look back I realize that whenever I am stressed by the world I have an urge to divest myself of things – as if they were an anchor weighing me down. After 25 years of marriage my wife laughs about it as she sees me wandering about the house making Goodwill piles and Throw Out piles. I also reflected on what I typically would daydream about and this often involved living small… few possessions, small “cozy” living.

    • says

      Sounds like you are on the brink of new discoveries for yourself Rob. Perhaps your wife would be a different story though. I like that you have Goodwill and Throw Out piles. So many times people donate pure junk thinking someone else will want their absolute garbage. Not so. Not so.

  2. Kate says

    I’m a bit on the hoarding side myself, which may be part of the reason why I’m finding it difficult to downsize drastically. I do throw out or donate some stuff occasionally, but stuff just tends to accumulate if I let it. Having designated places to put things helps a lot though.

    Speaking of hoarding, it’s really rather interesting that genuine hoarders seem to actually use less space than those of us who just muddle through in the middle. I knew an old lady who lived in an average-sized apartment. Most of it was full of stuff she didn’t need – and I mean full: her bedroom was filled up with clothes she didn’t use, until she couldn’t even use her bed anymore, she slept on a mattress in the living room (most of which was cluttered up with unused furniture), her kitchen was full of books and her bathroom full of shoes. The free space she still had in her apartment that she actually lived in would have made an actual tiny house look quite spacious.

    • says

      I don’t think I am a hoarder. I have always gotten rid of stuff. But it always takes me a while to get to that point when someone gives me something or when something lands in my possession. I either tuck it away (which could be hoarding by definition) or I put it into already organized piles (which is more of a squirrel preparing for winter scenario). I am not truly happy until I have allowed that “think” to move on; donation, recycle, trash.

      You are right on your observation about hoarders using minimal space. They are minimal in that regard but they just aren’t efficient with that use of space.

      Thank you for posting Kate. Welcome to the r(E)volution!

  3. Jennie Meyer says

    Wow!  Thank you for sharing so much about yourself in that post.  I suppose I would have to say I’m a bit in the middle.  I have a limit to clutter but don’t generally stress over it.  Having sayed that, I have had some personal challenges in the last year or so that have put a fine edge to those feelings.  Suddenly I’m more anxious about mess then I have been in the past but I think that is mostly due to the personal stresses I’m dealing with.  Not really the clutter but what the clutter represents. 
    While I’m into disclosing I should also say that reading your thoughts and feelings on the matter sort of helps me with guilt when I feel like maybe I have too much.  I struggle with confidence and I so admire your Tiny r(E)volution that I can sometimes feel like I should try and match you.  But ultimately that isn’t who I am.  I enjoy the rush of the city and the feelings of accomplishment in a more business environment.  I don’t have the internal desire to be outside and grow food.  Yet I gain so much for your journey and it reminds me everyday how important it is to know and love our diversity and innate joys.  With that kind of variety and respect for differences we all grow in understanding and love. 

  4. David w says

    You sound like you had a lot of things pushing you in that direction and you simply chose to embrace it and run with it. It seems to be a mix of environment and genetics.

    I don’t think I was born with minimalism in my blood. I just developed the personality that wants to travel and tumbleweed through life, and less stuff helps that along.

    • says

      AGREED! I have lived on both sides of the fence, so to speak, and the side I am on now seems to offer more. The side effect? It means having less. Go figure! 

      And thank you David for speaking up on the r(E)volution!

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