Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?

Reader Callum submitted an email to Ask Unclutterer describing his difficulty parting with “I might be able to use this some day” objects and anything he has attached with sentimental value. The email contained the following:

Over the years growing up I always held onto everything I could, and even directly collected things I found or picked up. Like most people I’ve spoken to about this, I have found myself attached to most of my objects … I find it impossible to declutter beyond the very basics! I only just managed to give away some shirts today, which was hard enough as I have had some for a very long time and reminded me of when I was a different person. Luckily I took a picture of them just in case, but I’m not sure if this method will work for some of my more quaint objects.

Callum, right now, your situation feels like it is specific to magazines and t-shirts and electronics and knick knacks, but what you describe is at the heart of almost everyone’s issues with clutter. Simply stated, you are emotionally attached to the things you own. And, as a student who is not extremely wealthy, you fear letting things go because there may be a time when you will need something and not be able to afford buying it again.

Neither the emotional attachment nor your fear of letting things go is wrong. You’re human. You have fears and doubts and you also like to remember happy moments from your past. Everything you’re feeling is normal.

However, things have started to go to the extreme. You have reached a point where you are no longer in control of your stuff. Your stuff is starting to control you and your space. You can’t find the things you need and you can’t let go of the things you don’t want. This happened to me, and it happens to a lot of people. In your case, I think regaining control of your stuff and getting a clear picture of what you want for your life will help to alleviate this extraneous anxiety.

My first suggestion is to take advantage of any mental health services your school may offer its students. Talk through with a therapist why you feel such strong ties to your past and your things. Why are you so interested in making your past a continued part of your present? You may simply have normal levels of nostalgia, but there might be more to it and a therapist can help you make that determination. Since most student mental health services are free, I think it’s a great place to start.

Another action I think would be good for you is to immediately get rid of any item you’re keeping that has negative feelings attached to it. This is usually an easy task, even for the most sentimental of folks. There is no reason in the world to own anything that doesn’t make us happy or, at bare minimum, have no impact on us at all. Your space is limited, you can’t keep everything, so get rid of the bad.

Finally, I think it is important for you — for all of us — to be clear about what kind of a life you really want to lead. Do you have a clear vision of who you are and what is important to you? What does a good day look like to you? What does an ideal home look like to you? Spend some time reflecting on what you want for yourself and your space. Once you know what kind of life you want, you can take actions to create that life. You’ll know what objects in your home represent who you are and who you want to be, and what objects don’t belong in your space any longer. Once you know where you’re going, it will be a lot easier to get there.

This site is full of practical advice on how to organize cables and magazines and all the stuff you may eventually decide you want to keep, as well as has suggestions for where to donate unwanted items. When you are ready to get rid of the clutter, check out those tips. Until then, spend some time in introspection, discover what it is you want for your life, talk through the emotional ties with your past with a therapist, and get rid of the stuff that brings you down. After you’ve done these things, parting with the clutter will be much easier than it would if you tried to do it right now.

Thank you, Callum, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on the next stage of your uncluttering journey! Also, be sure to check out the comments for additional advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

8 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?”

  1. posted by Dee in BC on

    I really liked your answers Erin. You were kind & sensitive. I found this post truly helpful as I am currently de- cluttering my parents home in order to put it up for sale. Thank you for your great site.

  2. posted by Suzy on

    I have that problem with books. I literally have between 1500 and 2000 books. I used to have more. Lots more.

    When I had to move two states away, I knew that I couldn’t take all my books with me. I already had cataloged most of them on LibraryThing.com so that was good. I let go of 1000-1500 of my books by having a younger friend go through the boxes of books that I was donating to the library and, first, check that I had them in my Librarything catalog and second, tag them as a temporary purge. I still wanted to read them but I knew I had to let them go, at least temporarily. This way I could let go of them. I still had a record of them. It was like taking a picture of the books so I could get them again. (some books, I really didn’t want any more, they got a different tag)

    Since the move, almost two years ago, there have been some books that I purged that I want to get to read again. But there’s a good library here and I can use it and then decide if I really want to re-acquire that book.

    This worked for me. Others find different ways.

    and, yes, I still am going through my books, setting many aside to donate or find a new home for. Unfortunately, I still am getting newer books, but at a slower rate than I used to.

  3. posted by Cherilyn on

    And a tip I recall from Unclutterer (the book) is to have someone help you go through things. Don’t touch them yourself. Have a friend sort through a pile or a box, hold things up and ask “stay? trash? donate?” And if you want to keep it, have that person to ask you “why?” I’ve done this successfully with my stuff and for other people. When you’re not holding that high school tshirt yourself, it has less power. When someone asks you why you would keep it since it has holes, doesn’t fit, and has the year 1999 written on it, you realize (more easily) that you don’t need it to go forward. It also makes the things you should keep stand out – as you will have a very solid reason in response to “why?” For those truly sentimental things that matter, honor and protect them in your home. Place them on a shelf to be admired or in a pretty box for safe keeping. If it is important, let it be so. If not, let it go.

  4. posted by EngineerMom on

    I had this problem, especially during the transition after college.

    A couple of things that have helped over the years:

    1. Take some time to journal, really thinking about who you are, who you want to be, and what role your things have in that process.

    2. Acknowledge that certain items have sentimental value. Don’t tackle all the sentimental stuff at once – one category at a time worked best for me, usually oldest first. Think about what you wrote in the journal about where you want to go with your life as you sort.

    3. If it’s something you don’t use regularly, think about the joy and use another person could be getting out of this object. This one helped me get rid of some books I had that I hadn’t read in over a year.

    3. Move, preferably long-distance on your own dime, and make the commitment to not leave anything behind in friends’ or family’s garages or basements. When you have to pack, pay to ship/transport, unpack, and then spend time figuring out a new place to put the object, it’s much easier to say “it isn’t worth it to me”.

    4. For collections, choose a single area in your home in which to display the collection. That makes it easier to practice “one in, one out”, and after living with the space for a while, you may even choose to consolidate further.

    5. Place some trust in your community. Trust that if you get rid of something like an infrequently-used tool, and then discover you need it, you will be able to borrow it from someone (if it’s reusable), or even do a barter/exchange with another object or a skill if it’s not reusable. You don’t have to personally own every tool in order to have access to them, if you have a large community. Libraries, community college auto and wood shops, garden collectives, all of these are examples of places where you can borrow things many people keep in collections at home.

  5. posted by Gail on

    A good friend recently spent 3 months helping an 85-year-old friend empty her 3 story home and prepare it for sale. My friend was brought in to help by the client’s grown children because after a year, they were unable to make any headway–too many emotional issues with both the mother, and the stuff. So I asked her how she proceeded–was every object a lengthy discussion? Was there indecisiveness or regret? I was so surprised by her answer: She told me that her client relied on a pendulum for every decision. She simply doused each book, letter, article of clothing, painting, etc., trusting that her unconscious/higher power was leading her to the wisest outcome in each instance. (My friend was paid handsomely for her assistance with this project, and nearly everything was donated to a veteran’s organization).

  6. posted by SAHMama on

    I had this issue with items of my kids, crafting supplies, and a few collections I had. Now the only personal items I have are my clothing, a few jewelry items, and 1 tote of craft supplies. How did I get there? Post-partum depression.

    After my son was born in 2010, I suffered from it severely. To keep myself occupied, I started to clear built up clutter in the basement, starting with my (at the time) 3 year old daughter’s stuff. Over the past 3 years I’ve been able to let a lot of the physical clutter go, even as I regained my mental and emotional health. My kids are now ages (almost) 7, 3, and 9 months old and my house is a lot easier to manage.

  7. posted by emma on

    I’ve been paring down my stuff for the past 5 years between moving every couple months and now living in France for a year. The biggest suggestion I have is to PACK even if you are not actually going anywhere!

    When I am uncertain whether I really want to get rid of certain clothes, I pack them away in a box and hide it somewhere I don’t see often. If I find myself wishing for something back, I can always retrieve it, but if I go a few months (or with seasonal items, a year) without even thinking about it, I can probably assume the box can go to Goodwill or wherever.

    I’m less emotionally attached to clothes than other things, but I do the same packing trick with mementos –I don’t like living in clutter, so I put them away in a box. If I don’t miss having them around, then I don’t want to hold onto them and figure out a way to get rid of them appropriately. Along the same line, I try to think about why I’m keeping something–I used to have a bunch of things that reminded me of someone I was very fond of. At this point, I still have a few mementos that ‘trigger’ these memories, but I haven’t held onto everything. Still the same amount of sentiment, just less clutter. The memories don’t live in the objects themselves.

    If I really like something but don’t like having it in my immediate environment, I try to give it away as a gift to someone who can use it or would enjoy it more, so that it actually is beneficial to someone. Sometimes it’s easier to know something’s going to “a good home.”

  8. posted by mariposa on

    Hey, I am a clutterer myself, and always try to donate, give away things, clothes, etc. my house looks fine, but it is still plenty of stuff. I spent the last three years decluttering. yesterday I tried dealing with the clothes. I found moth in the wardrobe and m,any clothes had been eaten by them. I realized many things. first, that I save those clothes to save the past near me. I don’t want life to go away and those items make me feel like the past is still here, with all the emotions and the people near me. the only thing that really helps me, is to define who and how I want to be. I want to be a great woman, full of opportunities, work, projects, possibilities. all the clutter just stops me from my goal. broken clothes, and objects, filth, because clutter brings dust, insects and the like, all the memories, just stop me from hitting my goal. this thought helps me, and after three years, by house now looks much better, except of course for the clothes that I am now donating in the next few days. when I am unsure about an item, I think about someone I admire, and think if he or she would keep it. most of the time, the answer is no. Before I started decluttering, I read this blog a lot, and looked for pictures on the web, of beautiful places, and houses, and tried to understand how to make it look like that. and it worked.
    as a final thought, decluttering will cause you some anguish and pain. but do not fear it. they are necessary for us to grow up, and become more free and independent. Love and past and memories do not disappear, and if you declutter, it will give you space for new adventures and experiencies that will make you feel happier.
    do not fear pain, or void, or emptiness. they are a part of our growing up experience, and trying to avoid them is what makes our life cluttered and grey. just try to face your fears, slowly, patiently, being greatful of what you have, and also noticing all the people around that do not have anything and could benefit from your gifts.
    give toys back to children, clothes to people that might feel cold, and stuff to people that might need it. and be patient and firm at the same time. you will succeed, not today or tomorrow, it is a process where you have to respect yourself, but your WHOLE self, who you were, who you are and who you want to become. good luck!!!!!!

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