Ask Unclutterer: Why is it so hard to let go?

Reader Trish sends in this question:

I grew up with a table with a center post. It came with extra leaves so we could expand it. We bought it second-hand and I have had for 40 years. Over the years, the legs have had to be screwed, or glued back on. I have been looking at center post tables for a while but couldn’t afford one. My son received a beautiful one and since he needs to move, he has offered it to me. I would love it! However, in order to get it, I have to throw my current table with its one loose leg into the garbage. Suddenly, that 40-year-old table is very beautiful and I have great sadness at the thought of tossing it out and have the garbage truck crush it to death. I am almost ready to back out of the deal. His wood center post table is beautiful and would be a great opportunity lost if I can’t detach my heart from my old broken table. HELP!!! I don’t understand why it so hard to let go.

That is a great question Trish. Many of us have a hard time letting go of things. A number of years ago, scientist examined the brains of hoarders and non-hoarders. Researchers found greater activity in a certain part of the brain when hoarders were faced with a decision to dispose of their belongings.1 This same part of the brain is also associated with maintaining a sense of “me.”2

This is not to suggest that you, or any of our readers who have trouble disposing items are hoarders. But, I wonder… if we own an item for a long period of time, will we have conditioned our minds to believe the item is part of us? It certainly seems that way sometimes.

From your submission, it sounds like your table, or parts thereof, could still be put to good use. Have you considered hiring a carpenter to build something from the salvageable parts of the table? Perhaps you could turn the table top into picture frames. Collect a series of photos showing your family around the table at birthdays, holidays, or special events and put them in the frames. You might consider building a shelf or serving trays from the table as well.

If you decide to build something new from the old table, set a time limit. If you have not moved forward with the project in six months, then give yourself permission to let the table go. If you are resistant to having it go in the garbage, consider donating it to a trade school or wood working club where the wood could be re-purposed. You might be able to find someone in a Freecycle or Buy Nothing group that would be happy to have the table and you would know it is going to someone who will appreciate it.

If you decide to let your table go, consider the advice provided by Marie Kondo in her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up. Think of the lessons that the table taught you and all of the wonderful experiences you had while you owned it. Thank the table for its devoted service and send it on its way. I held a funeral for a pair of riding boots that I owned for 30 years. I know it sounds crazy, but it helped.

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings. You are human. It is just a “thing” but the memories around the thing are important so do not feel guilty for acknowledging that.

Thanks for your great question Trish. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

  1. Tolin, David F., et al. “Neural Mechanisms of Decision Making in Hoarding Disorder.” Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 69, no. 8, 2012, p. 832., doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1980. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22868937
  2. McGonigal, Kelly. “Why It’s Hard to Let Go of Clutter.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Aug. 2012, psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-science-willpower/201208/why-it-s-hard-let-go-clutter.

5 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Why is it so hard to let go?”

  1. posted by Lisa on

    I have the same kind of problem letting go, even with little trinkets and such. It is easier (still hard) to part with stuff I bought or was gifted, than it is for me to part with things that belonged to my parents or grandparents. But even craft supplies I’m not using, etc, are hard to release. Too much stuff is depressing.

  2. posted by Lizzy on

    I have found it relieves my sadness at parting with beloved objects and actually brings me great joy, to be part of a local Buy Nothing group. I post items I need to get rid of and usually within a week they are taken away by someone who truly wants them. Something to look into – responsibly letting go of objects is an important part of declutteing too often overlooked.

  3. posted by Minnie on

    I blame Disney. 🙂 By making things have voices and personalities, its so hard sometimes to throw something away…I picture it sad on a garbage truck wondering why I don’t love it anymore. And I was taught not to waste so I end up keeping things long past when I want them because it still has use. I would love to be able to let go without any guilt!

  4. posted by Rebecca on

    Take a picture. Often pictures of a former possession brings back many of the same warm memories that the picture do. It’s a very useful technique when you are attempting some serious downsizing.

  5. posted by Sarah on

    Agreeing with Rebecca above, and suggesting that maybe you want to hang a nice copy of that photo in the dining area or kitchen; it will remind you of the table & all the happy times the table represents whenever you glance at that photo, without the table itself having to be physically in your home. (Or you could use a photo of the table with family seated around it, whether from recent years or from many years ago.)

    You could even, if you are so inclined, make a frame for the photo out of some of the wood of the table itself.

    You want to keep the emotion of the table, without having to keep the table itself. Trust that the table from your son will become part of your life & home – and new memories will attach to that after a few years.

    And if the old table is still usable by someone else, maybe freecycle it to someone who will be happy to have it. Just a thought.

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