A couple years ago, I had lunch with a group of friends. We were discussing what I like to call Wardrobe Woe: that particular sinking feeling of despair when you stand in front of your closet in the morning. You rifle through your hangers with mounting panic. You shoot down each item rapidfire as you go – “too tight, bad color, deodorant stains” – until you’ve reached the end of the closet, again. Without fail, this whole debacle culminates with a universal cry of distress: “I have nothing to wear!”
At lunch, my friends and I were commiserating over our Wardrobe Woe moments. After we all volunteered our most distressing meltdowns, we turned to my friend Kelly, who had been oddly quiet through this conversation. “What about you?” we asked.
Kelly shrugged her shoulders with a small smile. “Oh, I don’t know… you’re going to hate me, but I actually enjoy getting dressed in the morning.”
There was a stunned silence.
We looked at her like she’d just told us she enjoyed cleaning the gutters or going to the dentist. “You actually look forward to getting dressed?”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s like a game. Finding what matches, whatever suits your mood. It’s fun! I think about what I’m going to wear the next day every night when I’m lying in bed.”
To be clear, Kelly does not have a Carrie Bradshaw-size closet or unlimited expendable income. She’s just like you or me… except that she doesn’t want to curl up in a fetal position when she looks at her closet.
I was captivated by this idea. I hated looking at my closet in the morning, particularly during periods of depression and low self-worth. I’d always regarded getting dressed in the morning…well, like going to the dentist. It’s at best unpleasant, at worst painful, but you gotta do it. But here’s the key difference: I go to the dentist once a year, twice if I’m feeling like a responsible adult. I get dressed every day.
A wise therapist once told me some parts of life will just suck. Grief, conflict, the slow process of life transitions. We can’t change those parts. What we have to do – the very work of our lives – is change what is changeable. We have to deliberately seek out what brings us joy. And we have to change what brings us misery. Even if it’s silly, even if it’s tiny. In fact, especially when it’s silly or tiny, because those are things we can actually change.
That includes the daily ritual of moaning in front of my closet.
(Okay. I am holding up a giant First World Problems sign when I say this. I recognize that Wardrobe Woe is somewhere between a hangnail and rush-hour traffic on the grand scale of global problems. I recognize that having a choice over what to wear is a privilege. I am holding all of this together in my consciousness while I write. Now perhaps the Peanut Gallery, which has kicked it into overdrive in an effort to heap buckets of guilt on me, will allow me to continue.)
I thought about this advice from the therapist yesterday while I was cleaning out my closet. I’ve had this item on my to-do list for ages, but like most projects without a deadline, it might as well have been invisible. But I’ve been following some inspiring “31 Days” series about the therapeutic value of cleaning clutter, so I gave it a try.
As I cleaned, I realized that much of my Wardrobe Woe comes from an overwhelming amount of low-self-worth clothes. You know what I’m talking about, right? The frumpy sweater, the weirdly-fitting jeans, the cheap stretchy dress that pulls in strange places. The clothes that just make you feel icky when you put them on because you feel obligated to wear them. Those clothes are the changeable things in life.
So, I went through the closet item by item with one mission. If a piece of clothing filled me with a sense of despair, frustration, or self-hatred, I got rid of it. If I couldn’t imagine ever being excited to wear it, I got rid of it. I had to do this in a couple iterations. Some clothes snuck in the first-round keep pile because they were gifts or because I felt guilty that I hadn’t gotten my money’s worth. But I remembered what Anne Lamott called “the single most radical thing I know, which only took me forty-plus years to learn: I get to take care of me.” I get to choose – not long-past gift-givers or the guilt-heaping Peanut Gallery – what brings me joy and what does not. Those clothes got the boot too.
I was left with a smaller, much more interesting pile. These were the clothes that had even the smallest bit of joy in me. I went through and thought about why I had chosen these. I liked the impossibly deep royal blue of that sweater. I liked the bohemian feel of that skirt. I looked around with curiosity, like I was seeing my closet for the first time. I don’t have the perfect pieces that Lucky magazine tells me I need to build a wardrobe. Most of my clothes aren’t “slimming” or trendy. But without all the low-self-worth clothes, I could see in a new light that each piece of clothing carried with it a tiny bit of joy, even if it’s just that particular shade of purple or the way that skirt flounces.
I don’t know if I’ll share Kelly’s sentiment of looking forward to picking out the day’s clothes. (And let’s not even get started on the prospect of shopping for new ones!) But I can change what is changeable. I can kick out the pilly gray sweaters so I can see the blue skirts. I can sort through the piles of dull misery to make extra space to see the joy.