I received this email from a blog reader and instead of answering her directly I decided to make her question a blog post because I am sure that she’s not the only one with this problem.  It can be tough to purge your closet when you don’t like everything but even harder when you do.  Here is her question:

“Dear Bridgette, I love your website, appreciate your advice.  I have an unfortunate ‘sale’ addiction. I have over 400 items in my closet.  I am definitely ‘splitting my wears’ as you would say. I don’t know how to purge more – I pretty much like everything. I’m in a cycle of shame/feeling stupid at the excess then consigning/donating the mistakes and repeating my spending. How do I purge more If I like everything?” -Shelley

When I read that Shelley has over 400 items in her closet an alarm went off in my brain.  That is a lot of stuff.  However, there were some other things that she wrote that alarmed me even more.  Below are my tips and thoughts for Shelley on how to purge your closet when you love everything in it that can help you too.

On sale isn’t always good

When something is on sale our rational thinking plummets about as quickly as the price tag.  Have you fallen into the trap that Shelley has by purchasing things simply because they are on sale?  Yes, sales can save a shopper a lot of money if you actually need the sale items.  But, what if you don’t?  Do you buy them anyway?

Let’s take a logical approach to sale shopping.  If you don’t use something you purchase on sale that’s money wasted.  I don’t care if the price tag was originally $500 marked down to $49.99, it doesn’t matter.  If you have no use for it that’s $49.99 down the drain.  When we see an insanely slashed price our thinking becomes warped and we act like we are getting something for nothing.  But you have to get that “original price” concept out of your head.  Who cares what the original price was and how much you are saving?  What are you really saving if you have no need for it?   Instead of seeing value based on the price look at the value in terms of use.   Shop in terms of “use value” as opposed to getting lured in by rock bottom prices and always ask yourself, “Am I attracted to this because I actually need it or because it is on sale?”

Here is a post that might help about shopping for clothes with a wardrobe mentality.

 When getting rid of clothing feels like having to choose your favorite child

If you are having a hard time getting rid of things from your closet, like Shelley does, then it might feel like someone asked you to choose your favorite child, it’s impossible.  But is it really?  I don’t think so.  Let’s be reasonable for a second.  Nobody loves everything in their wardrobe equally.  Specifically focusing on Shelley’s problem, if I was working with her in her closet I’d have a hard time believing that she loves everything because she stated that she is in this vicious cycle of buying, consigning/donating and then buying again.  If she really loves everything why is she donating it?  Perhaps she does love much of what is in her closet but what I really think is going on is she loves the thrill of shopping more.  By buying and then donating it frees her up to hit the stores often despite the fact that her reasons for getting rid of the excess is motivated by the shame of having so much.  As the saying goes, “If you have dug yourself into a hole, stop digging!”  If this was simply an issue of wanting to get rid of excess then Shelley would be perfectly happy to donate her wardrobe to get it to a manageable level and then stop.  However, all donating does is compel her to buy more.  Big red flag here.

If I was working with Shelley I would put her on a temporary shopping fast and tell her that she has to get ruthless with herself.  I’d work with her to help her figure out how to use what she owns and teach her how to shop in her closet.  I’d also be very interested in getting to the bottom of why she feels she needs to shop after she has purged.  I don’t know enough about Shelley but my hope is that by teaching her how to better utilize what she already owns she wouldn’t feel as compelled to hit the stores so often.  What I see with so many women is shopping obsessively is simply motivated by not knowing how to really put outfits together or maximize what they already own.  For some reason they assume that if they buy more they will figure it out.  If you don’t know how to work with what you already have buying more will not solve this.  Trust me.

If you want to read more on this read why closet editing tips will only work if you are willing to do the work.

What I’d also do with Shelley is group her wardrobe by classification.  For example, let’s say she has a dozen pairs of black pants.  I would take those twelve pairs and force her to cut it down by at least a 1/3.  My hope would be to have her really identify what she actually loves the most while also streamlining her wardrobe.  Unlike children, it’s hard to love everything equally.  This would force her to see this.

Here is another reason why you might have too much of the same thing in your closet.

If Shelley had a hard time really identifying her favorites amongst all her so-called loves, I would then pose this question to her: Under what circumstance are you going to choose this piece over something you love more?  This question always helps clients purge because, while they identify they have an affinity for much of what’s in their closet, they always have pieces that they will grab more often.   Here is more on this tip that will help you realize why you will have more to wear when you own less.

They say that most women wear 25% of their wardrobe 75% of the time.  Shelley is likely no different.  Loving something and actually wearing it are two different things and identifying this can be that helpful push that many of us need to part with something.  Loving something or finding it attractive is not nearly enough to keep it around.  Love it because it is useful and beautiful, not just because it is pretty to look out.  It’s a closet, not an art museum.

This has everything and nothing to do with fashion

While a shopping fast and paring down her wardrobe could prove helpful, I wouldn’t forbid Shelley from hitting the stores.  Here’s why.  Restricting someone doesn’t solve the problem.  You can take an alcoholic out of a bar but that doesn’t mean that they are sober, they’re just a dry drunk.  If Shelley has a sale shopping addiction telling her that she is not allowed to shop will likely make her just want to shop more.  After paring down I would then encourage her to follow the input/output rule of not letting something new in unless she’d be willing to part with something similar that she already owns.    Not only will this help keep her wardrobe at a manageable level but it would help identify what this whole problem is really about.  It is my guess is that this overstuffed closet is a symptom of something bigger which is clearly evidenced by the continuous loop that Shelley has been on.  If Shelley doesn’t drill down to the root of the problem of why she is doing this she may overcome her closet issue but will probably transfer the deeper problem to something else in her life.

Awareness is half the battle, but it’s not enough

I’m a New Yorker which means I have spent my fair amount of time in therapy.  One of the things I learned is that awareness is half of the battle.  You can’t change anything unless you have an awareness of it.  Yet, awareness is not nearly enough to overcome something, it’s just the start.  Once you become aware of something you have to change.  While I greatly appreciated Shelley’s total awareness of her problem of being a shopping addict and being on this constant shop/donate/shop cycle, nothing is going to change unless she does.  Of course, changing any pattern is easier said that done.  However, all the advice in the world is going to fall on deaf ears unless Shelley actually does something different.  You can process, talk about, be up front and ask for help with any problem but none of this will actually change anything.  It’s time for Shelley to become ruthless with herself now that she has identified the problem.  The truth is, and I’m sorry for being harsh, Shelley, but I really am not buying that you love everything as much as you say you do.  I think this is a obstacle you have thrown in your way to keep you from actually changing.

Growth and change is hard.  Remember when you were a kid and you would get growing pains?  It would actually hurt to grow.   When I was a kid I often had my mom massage my legs because of the growing pains I was experiencing.  Changing and personal growth as an adult is no different.  Unless you are experiencing discomfort or pain you’re likely not growing and are, instead, merely circling the problem.  Shelley, are you circling your problem or are you actually doing something about it?

I have worked with clients who have had their fair share of psychological issues around closet purging.  So often it is anticipatory anxiety, which you can read about here.  I can always tell when I have cut too close to the bone because the moods of these clients often change (and it’s not pretty) when I do.  I once worked with a hoarder who I was convinced was going to throw me out her window when I made the simple suggestion of temporarily storing some of her clothes in her parent’s basement before ridding herself of them entirely.  Another client fought me for years about getting rid of one piece of clothing and didn’t let go of it until her life changed for the better (story here) and there was another client who once told me that I got rid of her entire wardrobe until I reminded her that she never wore any of what we got rid of and that the only thing I removed was her false sense of security (read about that story, here) Trust me, I have seen it all which is why I’m also not convinced that Shelley’s problem, and possibly yours, has anything to do with actually loving everything.

 Stop shaming yourself

When I read Shelley’s comment about shaming herself about this cycle she has been stuck in I immediately felt bad for her for beating herself up so strongly for her mistakes, but then I didn’t.  Okay, let me rephrase that to sound less harsh and like less of a jerk.

Shame is a horrible and unnecessary feeling we put on ourselves.   We often shame ourselves for our mistakes, like going to the gym and then coming home and eating half the refrigerator or doing anything that is counterintuitive to any progress we are making.  There isn’t a woman out there who deserves the level of beatings that they mentally inflict upon themselves.  It’s defeating and nobody would ever treat another human as badly for their mistakes as they often treat themselves.  Shelley is struggling with a problem which is surely not as bad as the shame she is likely inflicting upon herself for it.

Yet, shame also keeps us stuck and can be a form of martyrdom and this is where shame can be like a crutch that is used to avoid growing.  Instead of learning to let ourselves off the hook and forgive ourselves we just wallow in self-pity and stay there.   What Shelley needs to do first and foremost is forgive herself now and for any potential times in the future where she falls into the trap of donating, buying and refilling her closet to unmanageable levels.  Failures are bound to happen, yet, what sets the person who eventually succeeds in change and the person who doesn’t is the successful person acknowledges their mistakes and gets up and tries again, and again and again.  They forgive themselves and move on.  Perhaps for Shelley this cycle that she is on won’t change entirely for some time.  Maybe she will make progress and backslide or maybe the growth will be so small that she won’t notice how far she has come for quite a while.  The bottom line is it doesn’t matter how long it takes or if Shelley will ever truly change.  What matters is that she is always working towards this goal despite what the journey looks like and, most importantly, that she never judges, demeans or berates herself for any of it.

I want to thank Shelley for generously sharing her issue with me and for allowing me to use her question as a blog post as I am sure it will help others overcome their own shopping addiction and closet purging issues.