Why we hold on to sentimental clutter

Sentimental clutter plagues our attics, basements, closets, garages, and desks. These sentimental trinkets can keep us from moving forward with our lives physically and emotionally. If there is so much of the past taking up space in the present, there isn’t room to grow.

The article “What is nostalgia good for?” from BBC News discusses a recent report from the financial services firm Standard Life, the book Get It Together by Damian Barr, and research conducted by psychologist Clay Routledge at North Dakota State University that may provide insight into why we accumulate so many sentimental items and have even greater difficulty letting them go:

“Most of our days are often filled with with routine activities that aren’t particularly significant — shopping for groceries, commuting to work and so forth,” says Mr. Routledge.

“Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful — to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning.”

Unfortunately, keeping everything from the past can have a negative impact on the future. From the article:

But Mr Barr warns the past can be fun in measured doses and for the right reasons.

“You shouldn’t revisit it as a way of avoiding the present or not thinking about the future. If you spend too much time thinking about the past, you are simply not going to be prepared for the future socially or emotionally.”

While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that “overdoing reminiscence” risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide happiness.

Thinking about the past could also trigger painful emotions, such as grief for lost loved ones or feeling like a has-been if recalling a distant career success.

Since we get a bump of happiness from sentimental items, it’s okay to keep a few of the prized possessions. Make room for the handful of valuable-to-you pieces of nostalgia that aren’t actually clutter. Get rid of the rest of the stuff that holds little-to-no value, though. A quilt from your grandmother might be an object you keep, but a stick you picked up one day in her yard might be something you should trash. It’s impossible to keep every object that comes into your life, so keep what is truly important (not clutter) and clear the rest (clutter) to make room for your present and future.

A few tips for ways to let go of sentimental clutter:

  • Snap a digital photograph of the item and keep only the image. Save these pictures securely online in a program that allows you to keep notes about the image (like Flickr or Picasa).
  • Write a journal entry about the item before you get rid of it. The act of writing down the memory will let you think about the experience, which is usually more valuable than the object itself.
  • Invite friends to a Nostalgia Night and video tape your conversations about the items. If your friends wish to take any of the items home with them, let the object go to a good home. What is left afterward can be recycled, given to charity, or thrown in the trash.
  • Make a deal with yourself to only keep sentimental items that will fit in a specific acid-free storage box or scrapbook. Deciding what will make it into the box or album can be a new happy memory itself.

Be sure to check out the full article for more insights into nostalgia.

17 Comments for “Why we hold on to sentimental clutter”

  1. posted by Janice Scissors on

    Great ideas on letting go of the sentimental clutter. The idea is to keep the memories but not the item. A picture or short description in a journal will jog those memories without the item cluttering up the house.

    If the “memories” are put in a scrapbook or journal on a shelf then they can be viewed when you feel like visiting the past. The rest of the time your uncluttered home will let you live in the present and future.

  2. posted by Alix on

    My uncluttering Achilles heel (sigh)…

  3. posted by Meg Flynn on

    This is the killer for me and my husband as well; especially him. He has several little boxes or knick-nacks and keepsakes from his childhood. I figure as long as they all stay in the handsome boxes he uses (which now look nice on our book shelf) it’s fine. But as soon as he feels the need to buy some rubbermaid box to stuff into an attic, I might have to draw the line.

  4. posted by Craig (TMNinja) on

    Erin – some great thoughts on clutter and nostalgia.

    It amazes me what we sometimes hold on to…even when it doesn’t make sense.

    Like your idea of taking a picture and making a journal of items/memories. People could cut down on a lot of storage and clutter if they followed this.

  5. posted by Leah on

    When it comes to sentimental clutter, I’ve learned that you don’t have to force yourself to deal with it all at once. Every once in awhile, I go through some of my nostalgic stuff and each time I find something that makes me say, “Why was I holding onto THAT?” I take a picture and give it away.

    And I usually find some other stuff that I can’t bear to get rid of. I just box it back up, and wait for when I’m ready to let it go. We don’t have to be ready to let everything go at once, even if it is just a stick from grandma’s backyard.

  6. posted by momofthree on

    Some sentimental stuff, sure….if a person doesn’t keep something from a deceased relative or friend, or keepsake from some moment in life, I would be worried that same person.

    Did I want to keep the TWO five foot tall orange and red silk on silk embroidered panels of female Balinese dancers from my beloved great aunt? No–don’t care for those colors or the oriental decor that she loved. Only kept a small budda for my bookshelf, as did my two sisters. When beloved great aunt is mentioned, my sisters and I strike the dance poses from the panels, laugh and remember how much we loved her. She had no kids so she was like an extra grandma to the three of us.

    I say, keep what you like, purge when the mood strikes, and know that memories last a lifetime. I always like what Peter Walsh (the TV organizer guy) says about honoring what you have. To me, that means taking good care of your belongings, not burying them under mounds of other stuff.

  7. posted by Kari on

    This was very timely since today I sent three boxes, one a beautiful stained glass pendant lamp from my childhood room, the other two a pretty large doll collection passed down from my mother and grandmother, to my sister’s family. I have the room to store it but we don’t have kids and it just seemed silly to have the stuff boxed up. I checked to see if they wanted the stuff and they did–her grand kid will be able to enjoy it. I was so happy to see the stuff going on to some place that it would be honored and enjoyed. That is the point after all.

  8. posted by Melanie on

    Sentimental clutter can be fun to go through in small bits. I recently went through some old letters, cards and pictures and was able to get rid of some things. One item I found prompted me to get in touch with an old friend, and another made my husband and I laugh so hard we cried and nearly wet our pants. Good fun.

  9. posted by Claycat on

    Ah, Melanie, that’s my problem! There are too many fond memories. When I get started going through the paper clutter, I get sidetracked!

    I agree with Alix. It’s my Achilles heel, too!

    I think my problem is my memory. I don’t remember things all that well until I see things that jog my memory, especially childhood memories. They seem lost in a fog.

  10. posted by Melanie on

    Claycat- My memory is exaclty why I won’t toss it all- just cull from time to time so it doesn’t become unmaneagable. As my life and priorities change its easier to reduce some things but some are just too funny not to keep. I do try to keep it to a set amount of small boxes.

  11. posted by Steve on

    All very well to simply take a photo and of course, maybe your memories may last for most of your life, but I think there’s a real danger of losing family connections. I have some ornaments from my grandparents that I love and would never ditch to reduce clutter. They are things I can pass on to my children and they have value, both sentimental and monetary. It makes me so sad to see people on TV auction programs selling off family heirlooms because THEY don’t want them and would rather blow the cash on a quick pleasure trip to the beach. My parents got rid of lots of stuff that they saw as clutter but which had real value for me.

    @Meg: simply because your husband’s things have no meaning for you, doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant meaning for your husband and ultimately your kids which should be tossed aside.

    Please think hard before you end up in a white, sterile, plain Ikea environment with empty surfaces and walls and nothing but fading pictures of long gone objects!

  12. posted by Lily on

    I’ve read countless times about the photograph tip, but I’m not convinced. What makes a keepsake special is its very physicality: I can still touch it, it’s here as it was, say, 10 years ago, it kinda traveled through time and it also bears the signs of time passing. A picture is just a picture, an image. I can still play with my father’s cards, I can’t play with their picture. My favourite plush toy… I can still feel its softness. I dunno, maybe I’m strange, but I prefer to choose a few items to keep and really keep them. 🙂

  13. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    The scrapbook you linked to doesn’t give the best photo protection. As the pages aren’t buffered, acid from your fingertips can migrate through the paper to your photos.

  14. posted by Stormbringer on

    Peter Walsh set me free on stuff that I don’t need. My parents are gone (the first anniversary of my father’s death was three days ago), and I have a box of things that were originally theirs. Walsh pointed out that if something is so important, why is it collecting dust or in a box somewhere? That was an eye opener. My only difficulty now is being able to find a “good home” for some perfectly good small items after I take some of the advice given in this article. At any rate, though, it’s going away.

  15. posted by Nat on

    This is kind of timely for me as I just saw an art exhibit today called “The Dregs.” The artists’ concept was to take the left over objects from an estate sale and remake them into art about these people. It really made me think about how meaning is assigned to an object. Once I’m gone, there will be the stuff that can be reassigned to be valuable to someone else, and then there will be the stuff that is either too personal, such as a comb or lingerie, or the stuff that will only have meaning to me. In the exhibit’s case, it was a huge collection of hotel soaps. I shudder to think of people summing up my existence with the dregs of my possessions.

  16. posted by Lord on

    I like your point about documenting digitally some of the clutter that we have in our home but still has some sentimental value. I actually did that in January of this year by scanning some of the scrapbooks that my previous team gave me.
    BTW — apart from the sentimental pieces – I also had stacks and stacks of magazines and some of them have useful articles. The useful articles – I scanned and the magazines sent to the recycling center.

  17. posted by Eric D. Fields on

    Been seeing this a lot in the last year. Reality TV even exploited it with that “Hoarders” show (I’ve never watched it).

    I can’t stand the fact that I helped my parents move from NJ to FL and packed at least 3 sets of china, one of which was my grandmothers. I outright told asked my mother, “Why are we packing up all this stuff when I’m going to be throwing it back out in, at best, 40 years?” Harsh, but she laughed.

    Experience is always better than material things. Go places, take photos and archive them digitally forever. If you really need a souviner, it better have a place on your wall or nearly-empty bookshelf when you get home.

    I love the one liner, “If its so important to you, then why is it in a box?”

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