The Courage to Downsize

I guess it was inevitable that I’d buy the biggest, new construction 4000 square foot house on the block.  I had an agreement to fulfill after all.  A pact I made with myself at a very young age having grown up with very little money in one of the wealthiest towns in the country and being the only person I knew who lived in a two-family, four-room, shabby rental where our living room doubled as my mom’s bedroom and I was self-conscious to have my friends over.  The embarrassment and shame of our dog and cat hair- covered dingy decor was compounded by always having one of the ugliest, oldest, hard-to-miss jalopies in a town of 60,000 people that I prayed no one would see me in.

I had a burning desire to take dance classes in elementary school and distinctly remember begging my mom to enroll me at Allegra Dance Studio, which she knew we couldn’t afford on her single parent income as a book editor living in Greenwich, CT.  She took me anyway, only to affirm that we couldn’t manage financially to sign me up.

I recall going into Benetton on Greenwich Avenue in 8th grade, and wanting the two-toned “B” sweater as only a middle school girl trying to “look the part” in a wealthy community could want and feeling guilty for asking for this article of clothing when I knew damn well we didn’t have the means to pay for it.  I vividly remember my mom taking a $50 bill out of the envelope labeled “clothing” and feeling guilty asking for something I knew wasn’t in our limited budget.

I remember thinking throughout my childhood, “When I grow up, I will never struggle with money. Ever”. I will never have to tell my kids, “We can’t afford it.  Ever”.

And so, I went on to fulfill my “no matter what”, “whatever it takes” commitment to myself to being successful – getting good grades, going to a good school, being the # 1 sales rep and breaking the all-time national sales record out of thousands of employees in my first job out of college, becoming an entrepreneur by age 30, and being a “40 under 40” winner before that milestone birthday.  For my 30th birthday I rewarded myself with a metallic blue convertible Beemer.  For my 40th, a Porsche Cayenne.

As I grew my business, my income grew along with it, and my husband and I started a family.  When our son turned 1, we “outgrew” our adorable Cape in town, in walking distance of the beach and town.  You know how much space a baby takes up and all. But, of course, I was already planning for #2 and the anticipation of another child and all of their “stuff” helped me justify why it was time to upgrade.

After 2 miscarriages while my son was a toddler, I was intent on filling the gaping hole from those losses that I was too “busy” to grieve with a little one, a growing business and employees to manage, and ever increasing connectivity via technology, with, naturally, a new, more expensive home.  That’s one way to process painful feelings.  I vaguely remember two days after my second D&C thinking, “If I can’t have a baby, then I will have my dream house instead”.  I continued down the path of trying to feel “happy” and “good enough” by way of acquiring bigger things, more stuff.  Continuing to look outside of myself to feel whole and fulfilled.  I couldn’t stop the speed train of achieving the “look and feel” of the lifestyle that I had always imagined for myself.   I wanted everything I didn’t have growing up that I promised myself I would have when I had my own family.  No matter what.

We “needed” the bigger house and bigger yard, and the finished basement to throw all the kid(s) toys out of sight from the main living area, and a bluestone slate patio and cool outdoor living space for entertaining and big parties.  In reality, I needed to manifest the more subtle, but intricate details I had always hoped for and envied in my friends’ homes growing up.  The big kitchen with an island and bar stools that opened up into the family room with a grand fireplace, a spacious master bedroom with a bump out for a daybed to cozy up with a great book, and a beautiful bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub and ledge around it to light lots of candles. Add my grown up additions of the 20+ feet center hall colonial entranceway, crown molding galore, and transom windows, and my picture was complete.

Hypnotized by the conditioning of a materialistic culture, my own personal baggage, and my strong need for significance that may have some rooting in being abandoned by my father before birth and being raised by a mom with a history of deep depression and a later dissociative mental illness diagnosis, I was a walking poster-child for the super-responsible, perfectionistic, high achiever on a mission to win the approval of others via outward accomplishments.

We walk (or in this culture, run) through life in somewhat of a trance, largely unconscious of the deep influences and messages we adopt from our families, peers, teachers, media, and government without questioning where our values and beliefs have come from. I needed my home to look and feel a certain way even more for myself than for the outside world, although I certainly wanted the outside approval of others to affirm that I was “good enough”.

Of course, I have seen this pattern of “bigger is better” thinking repeat itself in several areas of my life.  It’s funny to observe really.  I went to a high school with a student population of 200 and 43 kids in my graduating class and then chose to attend University of Michigan with 30,000 of my closest friends. While I had a great experience as a Wolverine, there’s no doubt I would have been better-suited to a smaller school.

I was content running a small, successful recruiting business from my home, yet in the middle of having very young children, decided to move the business out of our house, commit to $4000 per month office space and expand the business at the same time we decided to more than double the size of our home and mortgage.

At the same time, my husband and I decided that he would leave his growing IT career with an investment bank so we could grow the business together, leaving the revenue generating, breadwinning responsibilities to me while he managed the company’s back office and operations, all while having no separation between work and home.  More on that in another post! Read: Not recommended.

Suffice to say, after working together for 10 years and growing our firm to 8 employees, it turns out I’d rather be a solopreneur, outsource my research and admin duties, and partner with other highly motivated, dedicated, heart-centered recruiting business owners and split our fees.

Old habits die hard I guess.  I’m a slow take.

So, you can naturally guess where this leaves us on the subject of downsizing. I’m writing this on Day 4 in our new (older) home that’s a little more than half the size and tons cozier.  Turns out I actually prefer the lower ceilings, smaller rooms, and less overall space. Less truly does feel like more. Sure, it will be fantastic to reduce our mortgage by 40%, but I literally feel an emotional and physical weight lifted that is priceless.

After spending the last 9 years decorating and filling up a 4000 square foot house, I’ve spent the last 3 months purging and paring down in search of a simpler, more spacious life.

I already feel the expanded spaciousness now that all of my energy isn’t tied up in square footage.

Examining a lifetime of deep-held beliefs around success and money takes courage.   But if we’re willing to go to the places that scare us, as Pema Chodron talks about in her book “The Places That Scare You” and live in that “groundless” place of non-attachment, there are hidden gifts at every turn.   Questioning old needs and beliefs that no longer serve us is the key to feeling free.  We get to change our minds about things.  We can always make a different choice.

As a friend posted on my Facebook page this weekend, “One of the best things in life is realizing you are perfectly happy without the things you think you thought you needed most”.   Isn’t that the truth?

If you go straight to the heart of your fears, you realize they can’t hurt you.  They are actually quite useful pieces of information.  We can learn to stay present with the things that scare us instead of trying to escape them.  That is where ultimate freedom and peace of mind and heart lie.

Giving up my old ideas about success and happiness that left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled and wondering, “Is this all there is?” has freed me up to discover and pursue my bigger dreams of spending more time with the people I love, pursuing activities that bring me joy and pleasure, doing meaningful work and advocacy on several fronts, and doing my best to live a fully expressed, self-actualized life.

As I stumble through and figure out how to do this, it’s my sincere hope that I can teach my kids to do the same.

“Downsizing” has negative connotations because it paints a mental picture of going backwards, but I feel the exact opposite. Making this choice has been a step forward and has me feeling optimistic, clear, energetic, spacious, free, and abundant.