How Your Home Can Reflect the Best You
When visitors walk into your home, what story do they "read"? Maybe you've put up wallpaper reminiscent of the pattern in your happy childhood bungalow. Or perhaps the place speaks to a history of pressure and conformity, with stark decor and too little comfort, or a chaotic struggle for survival that shows up in the form of clutter and mismatch. Once you know that it all tells a tale, you can modify your living space to liberate or celebrate various aspects of your life.
Purge the Pain from the Past
We tend to think of decorating as adding things, but one of the best ways to get started on your living-space autobiography is by subtracting—ridding your home of objects that make you feel bad. My clients often tell me their houses are crowded with items that remind them of unhappy events or relationships. "The living room is full of my ex-husband's stuff," said a woman I'll call Wanda. "I've asked him to take it a million times, but he won't." I recommended that she carry everything to her ex's new house and stack it neatly on his porch. By being active rather than passive, Wanda opened up new space in her home and life and finally let go of her unhappy marriage.
If something in your home evokes guilt or obligation, lose it—including my possession passed onto you without your express desire. ("That horrible black-velvet painting was my grandmother's," a friend recently moaned. "What am I supposed to do, throw it away?" Answer: Yes.) You can also shed decorating habits rooted in early conditioning. Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, whose book House as Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home examines the relationship between our lives and our homes, says that many people buy or decorate houses to match their childhood environments. It's amazing how recreating our past can give a sense of inevitability when in fact we have infinite options.
You may have heard the story about the woman who always cut off both ends of a roast before she cooked it—since her mother did this, she assumed it was The Way to cook meat. But Mom was only imitating her mother, who trimmed the ends of a roast because her pot was too small to hold a whole one. To see through your own biases, have a friend walk through your house with you. If there's something you don't like but aren't sure how to change, ask the friend for ideas. A different set of eyes might see potential where you see only obstacles.
Honor Your Heritage
As you let go of irritating, depressing or painful mementos, bring in items that reflect pride and joy in your history. Grethe spent her childhood in Denmark. Now she's very much an American, but a few years ago she began weaving Danish traditions into her house. On her walls, she hung the blue-and-white porcelain plates made in her homeland. Her holiday decorations—strings of red-and-white paper flags, candles, little elf figurines—are classically Danish. Grethe's home tells her distinctive story.
Proud of your blue-blooded family? Go ahead, frame the clan's crest and hang it in the study. If you escaped a tough, poverty-stricken childhood with nothing but the shirt on your back, you might hang Depression-era photographs of scrappy urchins to mark that experience. Add any element that catalyzes a small surge of pride, love, self-esteem, gratitude or confidence.
Go On, Crow About Yourself
You can also fill your home with reminders of the things you love doing. If you happen to be a fanatical mountain climber, try decorating with the colors and textures of your favorite natural scenes: earth tones, natural fibers, rocky surfaces. If you've spent years designing tool-and-die machines, frame some cool mechanical drawings. A violinist I know recently turned her home office into a music room, filling it with antique, handwritten sheet music and old instruments she bought at pawnshops.
You'll get so much pleasure when you commemorate your own best experiences in physical form. I've advocated for years for people with Down syndrome—but to walk through my home, you'd never have known this cause played a part in my life. One day, I hauled out the small awards and gifts I'd received for my work and arranged them in an inconspicuous corner of my house—a corner that now reminds me of the wonderful people I've encountered and the unforgettable events in which I've participated while working for an issue so close to my heart.
Make It New Again
Life keeps happening: your home should be an ideal spot for the best and most meaningful experiences in your future as well as in your past. Picture the experiences you want (or want more of), and then make your house a place to accommodate them.
When my client Ned moved to a new city, he didn't feel at all motivated to fix up his apartment because he didn't know anyone who might come to visit. I dared him to create a place where he could picture friends gathering. Halfway through the project, he got so excited about his newly fabulous digs that he began asking his coworkers and acquaintances to drop in. Ned thought friends would motivate him to decorate, but decorating actually motivated him to make longed-for friendships. The lesson is this: Create the settings for the life you want to live, and the jewel will fit easily into place.
Every autobiography requires its author to select and present what's most inspiring about his or her own life. The same goes for the "environmental autobiography" of your home. When you let go of old business and celebrate the best in all you've lived—and have yet to live—you allow yourself and others to know you. And that goes a long way toward living well.