When Angela's husband, Mike, passed away, he left her with wonderful memories, a considerable fortune and a gorgeously decorated mansion. Angela had personally designed the interiors with objects she'd found while traveling around the world. But with Mike gone, the massive, empty house felt like a relic of a bygone era. So Angela moved into a smaller home and started decorating again, but this time she couldn't seem to get it right—in her eyes, anyway.
No sooner had she realized one vision than she'd launch into another and begin anew, rearranging the furniture, replacing art and swapping out the drapes. Angela's friends, who kept being invited over to see the ever-changing decor, insisted each time that the place was perfect, hoping that their praise would help her take a sorely needed break. Not a chance. Angela had become a compulsive decorator, and her anxious energy prevented her from stepping back and actually enjoying the fruits of her labor.
This unquenchable need to tinker can happen to any of us, whether we live in a mansion or a studio apartment. But the drive to make everything beautiful—taken too far—creates disharmony. If you can't rest easy with the look and feel of your home, if you fear that you've stopped making it better but can't stop making it different, it's time to put yourself—and your house—back into balance with these three steps.
Step 1: Plan Your End Game
The momentum of decorating can have a hypnotic effect that keeps people like Angela fussing long after a room is finished. It's easy to get caught up in this loop when you don't set an end point before you begin. Envisioning a state of completion helps you know when it's time to stop.
Do this in two dimensions, not three. Find pictures of rooms that have the look you want. Draw a floor plan or sketches of the finished space. Don't worry about your artistic ability; all you're doing is imprinting a mental model of "doneness."
When your 3-D space matches your 2-D photos and drawings, you'll feel a sense of resonance. It will be visually clear that the room will look less like your goal—not more—if you continue to decorate. Step 2: Soothe the Source
Some psychologists divide all motivation into two categories: attraction and aversion. Attraction pulls us toward something good with the help of curiosity, delight, love, and desire. Aversion is the need to escape something unpleasant, whether it's fear, disgust, worry, or anxiety. Discerning between the two is another key to decorating without overdoing it. As long as you're moving toward things that attract you, you'll create a feeling of comfort and beauty. The moment fear begins to drive the process, the results will be unsettling.
Angela's incessant decorating came from anxiety, not joy. This was evident every time she tried to stop: The thought of simply letting things be sent her into a state of panic. She experienced intense emotional pain—primarily grief over Mike's death. Decorating was her way of running from these turbulent feelings.
To determine whether your decorating is motivated by aversion rather than attraction, do what Angela wouldn't: Stop acting and see how you feel. Sit in the middle of a room for 15 minutes and simply observe. If you're prone to anxiety, you'll notice everything that's "wrong" with your home—the crooked painting, the off-center vase, the dog hair on the sofa—and you'll experience the compulsion to "fix" it. But if your work is attraction-based, you'll become steadily more appreciative of its beauty. You'll see previously unnoticed patterns in the area rug, the appealing slant of light through the shutters, the calm or vibrancy shimmering from all the colors in the room.
If this exercise reveals that you decorate through attraction, you're in a good state of mind to improve your surroundings. But if aversion drives you, leave your interiors alone for a while and address the unpleasant feelings that are coming up. Write your thoughts in a journal or talk about them with a friend or therapist. Then repeat the exercise of sitting quietly until you can feel calm without changing anything. If you accept your home as it is, you'll be in a position to decorate out of a love for beauty, rather than a fear of being present. The result will be a space that helps everyone feel at home (except for the dog, as you'll finally be emotionally equipped to keep him off the furniture).
Step 3: Learn to Not-Do
As she decorated and redecorated her house, Angela clung to the thought that her busyness was a virtue: She was "getting things done." This is considered so commendable in our society that not getting things done is often seen as weakness or laziness. But there is, as the Good Book says, "a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away." The skill of losing, of casting off objects and actions, of releasing all inclinations to fix, is something most of us not only ignore, but actively avoid.
Yet this is the very skill we need to maintain peacefulness in our homes.
According to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, "When nothing is done, nothing is left undone." This might sound like nonsense or insanity to someone who is caught up in the carousel of compulsive action. But not-doing is a necessary step toward pure being—it's the resting state that fills a person or place with peace and tranquility.
To learn the skill of not-doing, contemplate the part of your home that's furthest from your end-game vision. Think of all the things that aren't satisfactory, that aren't finished. Then remember that finished can be a synonym for dead.
Relax and enjoy the unfinishedness of that least satisfying space. Do nothing to move it toward completion until you can feel, as one Zen master put it, "without anxiety over imperfection." This might take minutes or it might take months. Just let your home be until you feel totally at ease with its flaws. When you finally change the space, do it as an outlet for your creativity and as an adventure in change, and don't fixate on "finishing." What you do to your home is far less important than your state of being while you're doing it.
After a year of constant decorating, and still certain her home needed "something more," Angela hired a designer. She was shocked by his recommendation. "Angela," he said, "you need to snap out of it." He ordered her to get outside and reacquaint herself with nature: to walk on the beach, stare at the clouds and listen to the wind. When she bravely followed his instructions, Angela's anxiety skyrocketed, gave way to grieving and finally left her at peace. From that calm place, she saw that her home was just right. Nowadays, though she still enjoys fixing it up, she's in no hurry because every part of her home is fine as it is—and all of it is getting better.
If you accept your home as it is, you'll be in a position to decorate out of a love for beauty.