One step toward uncluttering: get rid of the things that make you feel bad

The things we own don’t just serve utilitarian or decorative purposes; many of them also have an emotional connection with us.

When I look at the pictures on the walls of my office, they bring back memories of fantastic vacations and they make me smile. I have four coffee mugs that were gifts from people I care about, and they constantly remind me of these wonderful people.

But, sometimes we wind up owning things that don’t have such good associations. Our things might remind of us of sad times, of people who weren’t kind to us, of the company that laid us off, etc.

Often, we haven’t articulated to ourselves just how an item makes us feel. Once we do, it’s much easier to decide if it’s something we want to keep in our lives.

The following is part of a story from Derek Powazek about his relationship with a handmade coffee mug that he had for years, including some years that involved a relationship that ended badly:

I was now living in a new place, with a new love. And a decade and a half later, that old black and purple mug was still in my hand every morning.

But now … it just made me feel bad on a barely conscious level. It reminded me of the failed relationship that nearly broke me.

So one morning, as I waited for the coffeemaker to finish its burbling with that old mug in my hand, I looked around my new kitchen, in my new life, with a new woman who loved me, and I realized it was time to stop holding on to things that hurt.

In Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett wrote about “aftermath junk” — what you get from “keeping something to remind you of a terrible experience, like the knife that cut the tendon in your hand, that old cast, your kidney stones, your ex-boyfriend’s insulting letter and even his frayed jacket, the cleats you were wearing when you scored the goal for the other team and lost the national tournament.”

It isn’t just things with negative associations that can make us feel bad. I once owned a lovely painting of a little girl, given to me by people I love. But, after a number of years, I realized she always looked sad to me, and I didn’t want pictures of sad people in my home. I gave the painting away to someone who didn’t have the same reaction I did and could therefore appreciate it much more.

Sometimes the thing making you feel bad is an unwise purchase, so you have what Gretchen Rubin calls “buyer’s remorse clutter.” However, as Cindy Jobs explained, “Unfortunately, keeping a bad purchase doesn’t make it a better purchase.”

As we move toward the end of the year, consider taking some time to remove anything in your space that makes you feel bad, for whatever reason. As Erin said back in April 2012: “Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.”

18 Comments for “One step toward uncluttering: get rid of the things that make you feel bad”

  1. posted by Brian on

    One Christmas my wife and I were young and broke and we made a pact to spend only $20 on Christmas for one another. I kept the promise; she presented me with a painting she’d had done of herself which was lovely and elegant and cost $80. I cried and put it away. I saw it as a betrayal of our efforts to get ahead. About 10 years later she got it framed (again, spending more than we had agreed on) and presented *that* to me as my Christmas gift. I put it behind a shelf. She took it out and hung it over our bed. That painting makes me sad and humiliated and serves as a daily reminder of broken promises (an ongoing theme in our marriage.)

  2. posted by Leslie on

    Since separating and moving back to San Diego and then a second move after a year here (w/o benefit of boxes), I had time, as I was carrying my possessions by hand down a flight of stairs, to take stock on which of my items had a purpose and/or made me happy. Being able to give some of the items to others, the garage sale and the subsequent donation of the remaining items gave me an unbelievably liberating feeling.

    I was still holding on to some jewelry and a few smalls because they were tucked away in drawers. I came across an article (don’t recall where) about a man who wore a watch (everyday for 25 years) that he purchased when he returned an engagement ring (his girl had turned him down). Someone had commented to him that since the watch was tied to a sad time in his life, maybe he should consider selling it in favor of something else. According to the article, not only did he sell the watch, but it lifted whatever burden he was holding on to and he started dating again (seriously summarized story). Well, dingdingding, I realized that I was holding on to things that would always stay tucked in a drawer because I couldn’t bear to look at them. So, I went through my jewelry/smalls and listed many of them on craigslist/ebay. I’m hoping that what for me is encased in negative feelings will bring others happy/good feelings.

  3. posted by infmom on

    I retired from my last job under circumstances that were so stressful it left me close to PTSD. I mean, seriously, I once almost melted down in the grocery store because I couldn’t find the popcorn.

    I kept all the documentation from my final struggles with that job for quite a while after all was said and done, because I wouldn’t have put it past some of the people who were involved to keep trying to twist the knife even after they’d been written up in no uncertain terms as liars and I was cleared of the most serious allegations and was able to retire instead of being fired. Who would have wanted that job back?

    Finally I came to the realization that I was hanging on to some really toxic, negative energy. There was way too much paper to run through the shredder and I didn’t want to subject our shredder, which stays in the office, to dealing with that stuff anyway. So I loaded it all into a black plastic bag, wet it down thoroughly with the hose, tied up the bag and left it out on the patio for several months to let the paper disintegrate. Then I threw it in the trash and walked away with a happy heart.

    I got some sage and smudged the office (as my grandmother the medicine woman taught me to do) to purge any remaining negativity. And then I could finally move on.

  4. posted by JC on

    We took in and eventually adopted a relative’s child (very long sad story). In deference to the child’s wishes, photos of the original family hung with others on the wall. I purposely ate meals for several years with my back to that wall. I simply couldn’t look at the faces of people who did such great harm. When we moved, I avoided the whole thing by not hanging any photos (lots of windows/plants helped). I also tossed the items that were passed on for future use (nothing of any value). I decided that I would rather beg forgiveness later should it became known that these things were given to me than live with those things in my home. Gifts given out of obligation rather than true friendship are quickly transferred to other homes where they can bring joy with a renewed positive spirit.

  5. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    I just wanted to thank all four commenters for sharing their powerful stories.

  6. posted by Laurie Buchanan on

    If LESS IS MORE, than conversely MORE IS LESS. Simple living prevents clutter in the first place.

  7. posted by Michaela on

    My teen years were rough and I had a lot of learning curves thrown at me during that time. In the last year as I have been decluttering (I’m 35 now), I have tossed many of my items from that era of my life. I just keep thinking, if I died tomorrow I would be embarrassed for other people to see this. I don’t even like to read some of the things I wrote. It brings back a hurt I don’t like to experience. I’m just not that person anymore and I’m in a better place in my life. I kept the things that meant a lot to me – like my concert ticket stubs, yearbooks, cds, and cassettes. I feel better knowing its not here for my kids to find someday. I want them to think the best of me, not that I was some stupid teenager who made a lot of mistakes. Its like erasing history, for all the right reasons LOL.

  8. posted by Joana on

    That time of the year is really the right time to get rid of all the useless items, clothes, thoughts and feelings. Besides, you can donate some of the old clothes, books and toys and make someone happy which is magical.

  9. posted by Pat on

    My mom died when I was 21 and all of my relatives had always told me how wonderful it was that my dad saved my Mothers china, silver, and stemware for me. My relatives acted as if my dad had done something wonderful for me, but was really just stuff. All it represented to me was how little my mother really had of her own in a bad marriage, and I remembered the scenes where my father used the china to control my mom. All I could hear in my head was my dad telling me how much it was worth. I never displayed it or used it; I stuffed it in the back of a cabinet. I sold the silver to finance a trip to take my family to the East Coast to see my husband before he deployed. I sold the china and paid off debt so I could sleep better. The stemware I gave away to someone who enjoyed that sort of stuff. Now I feel peace about it at age 47.

  10. posted by Her from There on

    Interesting post. I too am keeping a heap of papers (emails really) in a file labelled Keep but Dont Read as evidence against a horrible time. I kept hoping the person who put me through hell would come to apologise one day, or I might have to defend myself (again) to someone who believed a long last lie. But…I think I might take a deep breath and delete it. With that file is a file of pictures that are truly beautiful, but again, hold the sadness. I also have a beautiful jewellery case given to me by my SIL to replace one that I threw away because it was given to me by someone involved in that whole horrible time. It is lovely and when I look at it I see my SILs beautiful intent, but I also see the reminder of what it replaced!

  11. posted by Sabrina on

    Great post. When working with clients, they take about their lives while clearing clutter. And as they come to a sad or emotionally negative story, I ask them this question. “Will this object makd you happier if you keep it? “. 99% of the time they say “No”.

  12. posted by Marie on

    Don Aslett’s book was my catalyst on the search for better clutter literature…I hated how his message was buried under the pile of religion he shoves down the reader’s throat. And thus, I found this wonderful blog!

  13. posted by Fay on

    My female relatives keep giving me jewelry as gifts for certain occasions, which has a sweet thought behind it, and all, but I just feel trapped afterward. I don’t even wear jewelry at all unless it’s something I or my mom made most of the time! Plus, when my aunts do it, it feels like they’re trying to get me to pick favorites or something, and the stuff from my Grandma is all stuff I’m scared of breaking/losing.

    Now I think the family things have all gotten to my head, because now I can’t wear a necklace/ etc. without feeling like someone owns me- ESPECIALLY if someone gave me the piece. There was this bell (think harmony bell, since that’s probably what it was) that I had, that I always wore on a cord, everywhere I went. It made noise, and because I’m very and anxious in person, this made me measure out my movements. The fact that it was a bell also added to the feeling of having a collar on. My full name means cat-like, and the picture on said bell was a lion, just to take the joke further. But I convinced myself that the lion was for courage. After a while, I started to feel naked and nervous without the necklace, reenforcing the idea that I needed it. Then, back in October, the cord broke. I did like the necklace- my mom gave the bell to me, after all. I looked for the bell, but it wasn’t in the hallway, so I checked the lost and found a few times over the next few weeks. During that time, I still felt out of place (I AM out of place. I just need to care a little less ^_^) but after a while, I felt less out of place, and I didn’t miss the necklace at all as a source of comfort. I mean, was it pretty, and would I like to have it back? Kind of, but if it would wreck my confidence again, then whoever snatched the demon bauble off the floor can keep the precious 😉

  14. posted by Joana on

    That time of the year is really the right time to get rid of all the useless items, clothes, thoughts and feelings. Besides, you can donate some of the old clothes, books and toys and make someone happy which is magical.Thanks!

  15. posted by [email protected] on

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. I just wrote a post about 5 tips for getting rid of unwanted family heirlooms. Sometimes they have negative memories and other times they just feel like a burden. But people are reluctant to part with them because it seems wrong. But it isn’t. If you don’t need or want something, it’s okay to get rid of it.

  16. posted by Heather on

    I have moved 18 times in 20 years. I found each move, I take less and less. I have let go of items from my childhood (My high school artwork reminded me of how isolated and alone I felt), military life (was fun and I have a few medals to give my son), single life (no comment) and now, editing out my current life. I don’t hold onto much. People question me about well what about for your son. I rather give him great memories than things. 🙂

  17. posted by EW on

    I spent a year as an art student. During that time, I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. I didn’t report it. I remained friends with that person.
    I drew a portrait of them that was commissioned.
    Since it was never paid for, I never delivered it.
    When I fell out of touch with that person, some of my friends told me to keep the portrait because it was one of my better pieces.
    This year around Halloween, I took my handmade grill outside. I tore the portrait into pieces, and placed it in the grill. I burned it while saying a few words about how I hoped all the hurt would be in the past and my attacker would go on to be a better person (far away from me).
    I feel better not having that picture in my house.

  18. posted by Jennifer K on

    I don’t think this is talked about enough. We feel obligated to keep things we shouldn’t. My parents inherited some antique furniture that they lived with for decades. My mom finally realized she did not like that style and it reminded her of a mortuary (do they have much furniture in mortuaries?) and got rid of it. She is so much happier. Me, I had a neat egg-shaped raku style vase I kept for decades. I love raku pottery, but it was given to me by an art teacher who died while her kids were still teens. All I could think of when I saw it was “it was made by that lady that died”, so I finally sold it in a garage sale last year. We really should examine everything we own and think about how things make us feel!

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