Last summer, I split up with my partner of 11 years. It was an almost unnervingly amicable breakup — sad, but not ugly — that nevertheless left me deeply unmoored.
Afterward, I returned to New York. Looking around my Queens apartment, I didn’t like what I saw: It had too much furniture, yet no good place to relax or work. Nothing on the walls. Clutter accumulated quickly and took forever to put away. Whenever I had someone new over, they asked if I’d just moved in.
I’d never been able to justify investing in a space that wasn’t my true home. But it had — suddenly, bittersweetly — become just that.
That same summer, I enlisted the help of an interior designer and set out to transform my living space. It wasn’t the traditional purge-and-burn of every reminder. Instead, we talked about how I wanted to use the space. This meant more than just my aesthetics: I was surprised by our deeper conversations about my values, what I needed to keep and what I was ready to let go of.
For the first time in years, I thought about the answers to those questions just for me. We kept costs down by sourcing used furniture from Facebook Marketplace. We put up wild and fun maximalist peel-and-stick wallpaper.
At first, the project just kept me busy — a welcome, healthy distraction. But it became much more. It became a physical manifestation of an enormous life change. In making the space my own, I re-committed to myself and my independence. In designing a space built for my needs, filled with things that make me happy, I made a place I could cry, laugh, be with friends or alone and reimagine what I wanted for my life. The process was a way I could safely exercise control when everything else felt out of control.
It took six months, but the result was a sense of peace and stability: a home where I feel relaxed when I return and energized when I wake up. A space that reflects who I am, that I’m eager to build on and proud to share with others.
I’m not the first person to make a dramatic change to their living situation after a heartbreak. Think “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Or 2006’s “The Holiday” starring Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Jack Black. Whether after a death, a big move, a divorce, a job change or retirement, seeking a change in scenery (in your own home or beyond) while grieving is common enough to be cliché. The practice is intuitive and underpinned by research in the field of neuroaesthetics, which investigates how visual cues in our surroundings affect everything from our heart rate and sleep patterns to our relationships and mental health.
To learn more about why space matters, I spoke with D.C.’s own Jenny Albertini, certified KonMari consultant, public health expert and mindfulness guide. Albertini spent two decades as an advisor with the U.S. government, focusing on the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the equitable distribution of health services to women. Looking for change, Albertini trained with Marie Kondo before founding her company Decluttered in 2016. Now she works with clients to transform their spaces, combining her penchants for organization expertise in systems and behavioral change. She’s also working on a book about the connections between our health and the environments where we spend our time (homes, workplaces and communities).
Albertini explains that the things that surround us can have a huge impact on our emotional wellbeing. In addition to impacting how we spend our time and energy, everything in our space can be seen as a symbol that tells a story about our lives.
“That pile of papers is not just a pile of papers,” she says. “It’s a stack of decisions I haven’t made yet. All those clothes in a heap on the floor are not just clothes waiting to go in the laundry. They’re a symbol that my husband didn’t do the one household task he said he would do.”
The physical objects in our homes are often a reflection of our inner state, too.
“I’ve seen interpersonal dynamics really leak out into the closets and kitchens of our homes,” she notes.
This amounts to the makings of a self-perpetuating cycle that can be difficult to break.
I asked Albertini what she recommends for someone considering transforming their space in the wake of a life change. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Start with compassion.
Above all, Albertini hopes those attempting to transform their space after a major life upheaval can show themselves compassion and patience with their process as it unfolds. “Sometimes, when people are going through [a life change], they need stuff that represents the previous period of their lives out of their house immediately. They want the ex-partner’s stuff out. They need to sell their parents’ house as soon as possible. And other people really can’t do that. People need to feel their way into what the right timeline is for them.”
Take it seriously.
Treat the transformation of your space with the importance it deserves. Set goals. Find people to keep you accountable. Make a schedule and stick to it. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but it does have to be regular time,” Albertini says. “Think of it like a training program, like you’re going to the gym or seeing a nutritionist: Things don’t all get fixed in one day. But if you’re doing [this work] in a regular and repetitive way, you’re going to be able to feel and appreciate the changes more long-term.” Taking the process seriously, Albertini points out, sends a message that your space (and yourself) are important enough to prioritize.
Make decisions informed by what you want.
How do you want your space to feel? How do you want to feel when you’re in it? What does the person you want to become need to wear, use and have? Albertini recommends using the answers to these questions as guardrails for decisions about what to keep or allow into your home and what to let go of. Pro tip: If you’re decluttering, separate things into categories to go through: clothing, books, paper and miscellaneous items. Save sentimental items for last so you have a chance to practice your decision-making skills on lower-stakes stuff, like T-shirts and receipts.
Rather than simply tossing out everything having to do with your life change, try to preserve a few pieces of joy. Put photos and letters in a scrapbook. Make a collage or piece of art commemorating the change you’re going through. Take this as an opportunity to honor the person or time in your life that was important to you and reflect on what you want to carry with you to the other side of a transition. “You have to transform that love,” Albertini says. “We don’t just lop off these parts of ourselves. They’re always a part of us. But we want to feel like we’ve grown and moved forward.” Albertini notes there’s a practical benefit to this approach, too: Carefully selecting a few things to keep makes it easier to let go of other things.
Take a shopping pause.
In all periods of great change, consider putting a pause on discretionary spending. Your credit card statement can offer a window on what types of things you buy to try to feel good. “If you’re constantly bringing new things into your space without actively letting go of the things that aren’t serving you anymore, you’re really just making your problem worse,” Albertini says. “You’re not giving yourself a chance to let go of what has happened.” Instead, Albertini suggests, initiate a pause so you have time to think through the bigger picture of how you want to live your life and what you want your space to feel like, so in the future you can allocate your resources in the ways you really want.
Jenny Albertini’s first book, “Decluttered: Living a Less Overwhelmed Life,” is forthcoming in late 2023 or early 2024. To learn more about Albertini and Decluttered and stay in the loop about her work, visit her website and sign up for her mailing list at jennyalbertini.com. Follow her on Instagram
Albertini’s Local Resources to Support Your Transformation Journey
Appointed’s 2023 Year Task Planner
“I’ve tried a lot of different planners, but the only one I have bought three years in a row is the task planner from D.C. store Appointed. The layouts are intuitive, and they strike the right balance between space for goal setting and practically managing your tasks. Bonus points because they come in great colors.” 1500 Okie St. NE, DC; appointed.co // @appointedco
“Supporting my clients can be emotionally weighty, as well as physically demanding when we are dealing with moving large volumes of items. If I don’t take care of my own well-being, I am less able to help others. Starting weekly classes at District Pilates last year has been one of the best ways to strengthen my physical body and lift my mood at the same time.” 1302 9th St. NW, DC; 4011 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; districtpilatesdc.com // @districtpilates
“Headquartered in D.C., Framebridge has become my go-to for making personal stories come to life. They create pieces based on photos or objects, giving you options to take your special memories out of the boxes collecting dust in your basement and onto your walls to brighten your day.” 1262 4th St. NE, DC; 1919 14th St. NW, DC; framebridge.com // @framebridge
The Oasis Alliance
“We all deserve to live and work in beautiful spaces, and local organization The Oasis Alliance carries this mission into the homes of trauma survivors, co-creating personalized spaces for their clients that encourage and support recovery, growth and mental well-being. Donating toward their efforts is a way to help others transform their lives while you are in the midst of your own transformation.” theoasisalliance.org // @theoasisalliance_
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