Closet paralysis: /ˈkläzət pəˈraləsəs/ (noun) : an affliction which occurs when a person, often female, looks into her closet in an attempt to dress herself, and finds herself incapable of action. Symptoms include feelings of insecurity, panic, and exclaiming such cliches as, “I have nothing to wear!” “I hate all my clothes!” or worst of all, “Nothing looks good on me!”
I’m only half joking. The “I have nothing to wear!” problem seems like some first-world nonsense because, well, it is. But it’s some first-world nonsense that we need to talk about, because it runs much deeper than sheer materialism. As someone who prides herself on smart shopping, investing in versatile pieces, and regularly purging and editing her closet, I still experience closet paralysis all the time. As someone with a generally positive body image and high self-esteem, there have been multiple times when closet paralysis has brought me to tears.
It will likely be a day that, for whatever reason, I’m not feeling great about myself, whether I realize it or not. I’ll open my closet and stare blankly, assessing each item in turn and deeming it unworthy for one reason or another. It’s not summer-y enough, it’s too casual, it looks terrible on me, it’s ugly, it’s too hot, it’s uncomfortable, it looks terrible on me. Eventually I start trying things on in vain, my mindset ensuring that this will be a losing battle no matter what. I’ll try things on and successively throw them off in frustration until my room is a mess (stressing me out even more), I’m holding back tears, and I can’t imagine feeling confident enough to leave the house. There have been times I’ve actually bailed on friends because of this.
This is patently absurd.
There is absolutely no reason something as simple as getting dressed should have the power to upend my entire sense of self-worth. Sure, the closet frustration is a symptom of whatever bigger problem I’m grappling with at the moment, but it’s also something that women needlessly grapple with every single day. But why? Can we pin it on the unrealistic expectations of what we’re supposed to look like in our clothes? Are we simply buying too many clothes? With the endless choices constantly being laid before us, it a broader case of decision paralysis? Can it be solved through organization? Or do I need therapy?
“As someone with a generally positive body image and high self-esteem, there have been multiple times when “closet paralysis” has brought me to tears.”
A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Research investigated this problem, finding that the more a consumer uses a product for different purposes or in different situations, the more likely he or she will report being unsatisfied with their purchase. So, for example, if a consumer used his or her sneakers solely for the gym, they were reasonably satisfied with the purchase. But if he or she used them for walking the dog, running errands, going to the gym, and walking to work, the consumer was much less satisfied. The more variety (which seemingly must indicate more wear) a product had, the less the consumer liked it. To me, this is baffling. Whenever I get into a clothing rut or a moment of closet paralysis, I turn to the same items of clothing over and over, the comfort and ease of the decision only making me love the item more. Sure new clothing items tend to get more play at the beginning, but in times of “crisis,” I turn to items that I know look good, items that make me feel comfortable.
In my confusion, I asked several psychologists, stylists, image consultants, and professional closet organizers for their takes. Personal Stylist and Certified Image Consultant Laurie Brucker said she encounters “closet paralysis” in almost every closet she works in. “The challenge for so many women is that each item in our closet holds an emotional tie, memory or feeling that when we open up our closet doors all of those feelings, emotions and memories come flooding right at you. It’s not just the clothes you see, its every experience, story, insecurity, and moment as well.
“Then as we choose to pick what to wear each day the conversation flows as such: Should I wear this? No, it makes me feel fat. Should I wear this? No, I’m saving it for a special occasion, whenever that happens, if ever. Should I wear this? No, it looks old and dated, I never have time to treat myself to new things. Should I wear this? No it reminds me of that one time when… In the end we are bombarded by negative feelings about ourselves, our bodies and our lives. And so we just stand there, completely paralyzed with too many possibilities and double the amount of reasons not to wear them.”
“And so we just stand there, completely paralyzed with too many possibilities and double the amount of reasons not to wear them.”
Even if I wasn’t actively considering the memories attached to my clothes, of course they subconsciously bring about certain feelings based on when I bought them, where I wore them, who I was with, any compliments or negative comments I received in them, and a whole mess of other baggage. Point taken.
Clinical Psychologist Erika Martinez works with people facing relationship challenges, and, unsurprisingly, often encounters the “closet paralysis” problem in clients preparing for a date. “In fact, sometimes they cancel their dates because of it,” she said. “Of course, it’s a sign that something else is afoot. After talking to my clients, I find that shame and fear or judgment are at the root. Women are told what they’re supposed to look like by the media. There’s an ideal out there that’s hard to measure up to. When these women look into their closets, they feel they fall short of the ideal. They are fearful that they’ll be judged for their appearance. Fear, shame, and the underlying thought of “not good enough” lead to that closet paralysis.”
Psychologist Paul Coleman seemed to diagnose my particular problem immediately: overthinking. “The description of closet paralysis has at its basis “overthinking.” Overthinking occurs when one is depressed, has low esteem, is worried (more future focus than past), or is a perfectionist. When we overthink we elevate less important details or factors to become more important. So the decision about what to wear on any given day takes on the status of something very important when in fact it is not. Overthinkers come up with too many “What if?” questions, try to anticipate all outcomes (Will I be happy wearing this today? What will others think? etc) and try to reduce uncertainty—all of which results in hesitation or procrastination. They procrastinate for fear of making the wrong decision.”
“When we overthink we elevate less important details or factors to become more important. So the decision about what to wear on any given day takes on the status of something very important when in fact it is not.”
While I am not depressed and do not suffer from low self-esteem, I am the queen of “what if” in almost every aspect of my life. The quote above hits home so deeply that I am honestly going to type it up and hang it on my closet. Even though I know in my brain that it’s just clothes, when I get into the “paralysis” state, it feels like the decision could make or break something critical in my life. It feels like not just the most important thing, but the only important thing. I know it’s absurd, I berate myself about how absurd it is, and the cycle continues.
How can we overcome this? Click through to find out.
Purge Your Closet (With A Friend)
Much of the advice I received revolved around cleaning out and organizing one’s wardrobe, and almost everyone advised against trying to tackle it alone. “I recommend a closet day with a trusted and honest friend whose fashion sense you admire,” advised Erika Martinez. “Have them help sort your clothes into piles (keep, give away, throw out). This also makes it easier to identify wardrobe staples you might need to restock on. Together, make outfits you would feel comfortable wearing out of the items you keep for different occasions that frequently lead to closet paralysis (work outfits, date night, cocktail party, baby/bridal showers, etc).”
Organize, Organize, Organize
Color and Energy Expert Linda Lauren suggested a unique way of organizing clothing—not just based on color, but on how certain colors make you feel. “I do this on a day when I am in a particularly good mood and that promises to help me arrange my wardrobe intuitively, rather than emotionally,” Linda said. “Always think in terms of shades and keep your shades together. Start with darker variations of colors in the back of your closet, and lighter shades colors toward the front. Pay special attention to the colors that make you feel the best.”
Develop An Outfit Formula
Professional Stylist Nada Manley said that in moments of closet paralysis, it is helpful to fall back on a reliable outfit formula. “Mine is a comfy knit dress, a long necklace and wedges,” she said. “I wear this formula pretty much every day in the summer, and it makes getting dressed effortless. Maybe yours is jeans, a cool tee and booties. Whatever it is, an outfit formula makes dressing almost automatic.”
Image and Brand Consultant Natalie Weakly reminded me that “the answer is not to throw money and stuff at the problem!” You need to shop smart, which means investing in quality, versatile pieces that you know you love and will wear often. Wardrobe Stylist Carmen Belcher talked about the transformation in her own shopping philosophy. “I replaced a pair of Express wide leg trousers for an almost identical pair of Balenciaga trousers,” she said. “I bought a pair of Balmain denim jeans and forced myself to purge the random pairs of jeans in my closet which never see the light of day. When I splurged on my Saint Laurent classic moto jacket, I gave my Zara leather jacket to my teenaged niece. I know who I am and what image I want to project. Replacing items I like with those that I love makes it easier to get dressed in the morning. Now I never feel like I have nothing to wear.”
Maintain very high standards when considering adding an item to your closet. As Personal Shopper and Closet Organizer Alexa Alford always tells her clients, you have to love it. “I also recommend them trying the piece on at least once in the week following the purchase *in their own home* before taking off the tags,” she said. “Sure, it was great in the store, but many times you were buying because of the adrenaline rush. I ask them to make at least three outfits with the new piece (they can do this with me, a professional, or alone) and I push them to physically try the outfits on. Things look different in reality than they do in your head.”
Buy Clothes For Your Current Lifestyle (That Includes Weight)
“Don’t be a fantasist,” urges Fashion and Lifestyle Coach Kenny Frimpong. “Shopping for your current weight and shape is always an ideal! Do not shop for the future. Don’t buy a size bigger or smaller because you’re planning on gaining or losing weight. Your closet shouldn’t be full of clothes you can not currently wear. A closet full of clothes that don’t fit or look right can be frustrating.”
Build A Capsule Collection
Basically, this means going back to basics. “I believe that capsule wardrobes are jumping off points,” said Nada Manely. “They have the ability to fill in holes in your closet and to make all your clothes play well together. Start with a foundation of good basics, and all of the closet “orphans” in your wardrobe will have something to play with.”
Create A Lookbook
If you’re consistently struggling with this and not even laying clothes out the night before does the trick (it never does for me, because what I want to wear depends so much on my mood that morning), you should consider creating a personal lookbook. “I do this for clients using their existing wardrobe so they don’t have to think about getting dressed in the morning—they just flip to which outfit fits the occasion,” said Natalie Weakly. Pick a Saturday when you’re feeling great about yourself, grab a friend, and take photos of your most killer outfit options.
Give Yourself A Time Limit
My main man Paul Coleman advised holding yourself to a time limit to ensure that you don’t agonize over the process. “The truth is that whatever you wear in this case will not make or break your day, but your attitude will.”
Focus On What Is Important
Ultimately, when a small problem like getting dressed takes over your consciousness, you have to relegate it back to its normal corner of your brain by thinking about what really matters. “While clothes and one’s appearance no doubt have some importance, focus in on things you are grateful for that are not so fleeting,” Coleman said. “Clothes get worn out, preferences and styles change, but what is important in your life that is more permanent? Your relationships, children, certain values, etc.”
Have you guys experienced closet paralysis? What works for you? Share with me in the comments or on Twitter @kelseyMmanning.