You want to declutter. It’s obvious you have more stuff than you need. You could use some extra money. But you are having trouble parting with your stuff. Why is it so hard?
In this article, I’m going to review the reasons why letting go of stuff is so difficult, and how to deal with it. Hopefully, by the end you will have the tools you need to become a lighter, happier person.
Why it’s so hard to get rid of stuff
We get emotionally attached to our things. The strongest emotions that usually create these attachments are love, fear, guilt, and loneliness. Let’s delve into each of those.
Here are some reasons why love may be the attachment that prevents you from letting go of possessions:
- Someone you love gave it to you (example: the last pair of shoes your grandmother bought for you before she passed away)
- You have a fond memory of using the item (example: the apron you wore while baking cookies with your child while they were growing up, or the dress you wore when your spouse proposed)
- You received or bought it on a happy or special occasion (example: a souvenir from your favorite vacation)
- It reminds you of what you used to be (example: the high school or college sports jersey you wore when you won the championships)
Fear is a very powerful emotion; in some instances, it has more sway over us than love. Here are fear-based reasons you keep things:
- You’re afraid of wasting money (example: you bought an expensive kitchen appliance, and if you don’t keep it you haven’t gotten your money’s worth)
- You’re afraid of losing money (example: You believe that the piece of china you bought at a garage sale a few years ago is worth a lot of money. You haven’t had a chance to appraise it and you’re afraid that if you sell it now or give it away, you’ll have lost out on a big payday.)
- Fear of needing it later but not having it (example: you bought a specialized gadget that you never use, but if you don’t keep it you’re not sure you’ll be able to buy it again)
- If you give it away, you’re giving up on who you want to be (example: You bought a paint set because you imagine yourself creating beautiful paintings. It’s been collecting dust for months.)
I think guilt affects most people more than they’d like to admit. Here are guilt-related reasons to hold on to things:
- Feeling unloyal (example: Aunt Jean gave you an ugly sweater, and even though you don’t like it, you feel guilty for not keeping it)
- Being wasteful (example: You can’t imagine anyone else wanting your half-eaten box of cookies, but you’re trying to go on a diet and you really want to get rid of them. How can you when there are starving people in the world?)
- Shame over a decision (example: You bought a house and you can’t afford the payments. You’re drowning in debt but you’d be so embarrassed if you had to admit to family and friends that you need to sell it.)
If you can’t relate to this one, you may be surprised to hear it. But some people actually keep stuff around because it helps fill the void created by human companionship. Here are some loneliness-related reasons one keeps their stuff:
- Empty-nester (Your kids moved out. They say they don’t want any of the stuff they left behind, but you keep it around just in case they change their minds — or decide to move back in.)
- Breakup or divorce (Your significant other moved out, and you’re heartbroken. You surround yourself with the memorabilia of your relationship.)
- Death (Your loved one passed away, and even though it’s painful to see their belongings, it also brings comfort.)
- Geographical isolation (You’re far away from friends and family, so you hold on to your possessions to keep you company.)
- Times past (You have a museum of the “good old days” in your house because your life is nothing like that now, and you miss it.)
Identifying the feelings associated with an item
It’s important to know why you can’t release something from your life because otherwise, you will probably keep struggling with it. Which of the statements above resonate with you when you think of something you have a hard time letting go of? What strong emotions do you feel when you think of giving away, selling, or throwing away something?
Once you identify the emotion, here are some things I want to share with you that may help you accept it and feel better:
- Whatever you’re feeling is a normal response. You are not alone in having these feelings (otherwise how would I be able to list them in this article?). Furthermore, you have a right to be emotionally attached to something for some reason. So don’t beat yourself up further for having trouble letting go of your stuff, and don’t let others belittle you because they don’t have the same attachment you do.
- I am not going to force you or shame you into getting rid of everything all at once. Do it at your own pace when you’re ready.
- It’s okay to need and ask for help. If you feel your emotions run deeper than just wanting to hang on to stuff, get the support of a friend, loved one, or counselor.
I’m going to relate a brief story to you that may help inspire you, and then we’ll move on to addressing your own feelings.
At age 75, my mother lived alone in a remote area in the Catskill Mountains in New York. She had cancer and many side effects from both the disease and the treatment. Swollen legs led to difficulty walking, falls, and becoming bedridden. She lost nearly half her body weight in less than six months. Then she had a blood clot, and then a hernia with a bowel obstruction.
Meanwhile, she forbade family from telling her children (my brother and me) what was going on. We were on the west coast, so we had only filtered information from her and other relatives who lived nearby. Part of her secrecy was from the onset of dementia. The other part was likely fear that she would become dependent on others. Deep down, I think she knew she couldn’t live by herself any longer.
But she loved her home. She went through great expense to buy and then renovate it. She went through more expense to ship all of her stuff across the country, including a car that was probably worth less than she paid for transport. And once she settled in, she accumulated more and more things to fill her home.
With the last emergency, Ryan and I rushed to the east coast through the snow to be with her. We fully expected to stay with her in that place for the rest of her life, because she was always so adamant that she would rather die than leave her house and all her things. So we slept on her floor in the living room and contemplated selling our RV, because we care more about her than our stuff.
But then something interesting happened. Mom realized she had become a captive of that place. She was isolated and alone. She had more expenses than she could afford. She had clothes she’d never worn, and knick-knacks that still had the price tags on them. Clinging to her home and possessions had nearly killed her. Not only that, but she had a four-year-old grandson she’d never even met because the bills related to her house kept her from traveling.
So she let us sell some of her things to get her finances right. She gave away a bunch of items, too. She was even ready to sell the house.
Since then she traveled across the country in the comfort of our RV. She got to spend time with her grandkids and be part of their lives. We traveled together for a while, while still going back frequently to San Francisco so she could receive top-notch medical care and see my brother and his family. Meanwhile, she has my husband and me with her every day. We do activities together, eat meals together, and keep each other company. She isn’t alone and always has the help she needs. As a bonus, she got to experience places she’d never been before, while still having her own space and her most important items. And the best part is she is healthier and happier.
Letting go of her stuff made room for love and fulfilling experiences she would never have if she chose to continue holding on tightly to her possessions.
I helped mom reach this realization, and I did it by discussing the tips mentioned in this article. If she can choose a new way of life at age 75, then I have hope that anyone can do it.
Addressing emotions and letting go
Now comes the hard part. But you can do this. Take a deep breath, read on, and allow for the possibilities for your future.
Letting go of items does not equate to loving someone any less. Things are inanimate objects. They can’t love you back. You are not giving away love, you are giving away things.
Not only that but getting rid of items that no longer serve you is making room for more love. Take a look at my mother’s example.
That said, you don’t have to ruthlessly toss away items with sentimental value or that have fond memories. Why not create a digital or paper scrapbook? Take photos of your beloved items and write a brief caption for each. That way when you want to take a trip down memory lane, you have them all there in a much more compact form. Lastly, acknowledge that they were an important part of your past. Thank them for their presence in your home, and wish for them to bring joy to their next owner.
If you’re holding onto something because of money, consider this. You already bought it. That money is spent; that’s in the past. Now it’s sitting there in your home, and you aren’t using it like you thought you would. So your worst fear has already been realized; the money is gone, and you have an item you don’t need. There is no longer anything to fear, so you can let it go now.
As for possessions you believe have monetary value but aren’t sure, settle that answer once and for all. Give yourself a deadline to get items appraised, or let them go. Sell them if you can. By keeping them, you effectively have zero dollars. But selling them, even if it isn’t for as much as you believe, will garner you a 100% profit over what they give you sitting at your house.
For those afraid of “someday,” think back to how many times you needed this item in the past. If the answer is none, then let it go. I also have a general rule that if I haven’t used something in six months to a year, then the likelihood I will need it anytime in the near future is very low. And if an occasion arises in the distant future, it’s probable that a new, improved solution is available. So it just isn’t worth it to continue to burden myself with it.
Regarding giving up on dreams or abandoning projects, just know that if you want it badly enough, you will achieve it. The ability to do so lies within you, not in that pile of objects you are not using. Also, it’s perfectly fine to change your mind. It doesn’t make you a bad person to decide you no longer want to reach that goal. If you haven't taken the time to use what you bought, that’s evidence you may not be as passionate about it as you thought you were. Think it over, and see if that’s true.
Loyalty is an excellent quality in relationships. But your loyalties should lie with humans, not things. And doing something out of guilt is a bad idea because you will only be resentful later.
I can’t guarantee that someone who gifted you something won’t have hurt feelings if they see you no longer own it. If you’re worried about that, you can be upfront and tell them kindly that while you appreciate the sentiment behind the present, it just isn’t right for you. You want to include it in a donation to the less fortunate, and would like their permission to do so. But the reality is, they probably won’t even notice. Most people have so much stuff that one present would get lost in the shuffle.
And wearing or otherwise owning something to make you feel less guilty or ashamed is inauthentic. You are lying to your loved one, and to yourself, about who you really are. It’s better for everyone to be yourself. When you want or need to let go of possessions because you’re worried about what other people will think, you are not focusing on the opinion that matters most: yours.
Guilt related to getting rid of something because you can’t find a home for it is a struggle I’ve dealt with personally. You can’t sell it, you can’t donate it, and you don’t want to throw it away. So what do you do?
My first choice is to look for a broader market. Perhaps you're just looking too close to home. Someone in your circle of people doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t mean nobody wants it. Try using the internet. Here in the States, we have sites like Craigslist where you can list stuff for free. People often post “curb alerts” if they don’t want to be disturbed or won’t be home, with instructions that the item will be outside (at the curb, in the driveway, etc.) and is available to the first person who comes to retrieve it. You can also try Facebook or some of the apps I mentioned in my previous post about selling your stuff, as they often have free sections available. Most people love free stuff and will take things they don’t need just because they’re free. But that is now their cross to bear, not yours.
You can also look for artists who upcycle old objects. For example, I saw a show a while back about a woman in the UK who was hanging out at the dumps. She would look at what people were taking out of their cars and if something caught her eye, she would ask them if she could have it. Then she would transform it into one-of-a-kind artwork. I’m sure someone like her would love a donation of random items you’re certain are worthless.
If you can’t give it away for free, consider finding a place to recycle it. Sometimes this means paying for shipping or a pickup, but if it’s important that it not end up in a landfill, then maybe it’s worth it to you to pay a few dollars. I saw an article recently about a furniture company. They recycle old toys. These toys are made of plastic, and usually have a lifespan of 6 months before they break, or are no longer wanted, and get thrown away. The company rescues them from the landfill and makes them into furniture. Another company allows you to ship back used toothbrushes to be recycled again, while another lets you donate your old shoes for recycling.
If all else fails, then my opinion is it’s better to throw it away than keep it. It’s sad how much trash this world is generating, but all you can do is make better choices next time. Think about where that object will end up before you make your next purchase.
I used to take care of seniors in their homes, and I was usually there because they either had no one else to help them, or their relatives were too busy. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone spend the end of their lives alone, often in a home that serves as a shrine to the past.
But this doesn’t just happen to the elderly. Anyone who suffers great loss or is socially isolated is susceptible to collecting possessions in an attempt to replace human love and contact. But as I said before, they are just things. They can never love you back, and they are never going to give you the comfort you need.
The best remedy for this situation is to have more social interaction. Ask yourself what you need to do so you can be more engaged in the world of humans. Do you need to improve your emotional or physical health? Do you need assistance with transportation? What resources are in your local community that can help you? This might be a place of worship, a community center, or social services.
Sometimes people see asking for help as a sign of weakness, or think of it as “taking charity.” They want to hold on to their independence and not feel beholden to anyone. But I invite you to try a different perspective.
Communities are there for a reason; humans can't live isolated lives. We need each other. Just think if someone needed your help. Wouldn’t you want to give it to them, and not have them feel like they owed you? You would do it simply for the joy of helping. Have faith that others will feel the same way, and not expect you to repay their kindness unless you are able.
There is also no shame in using social services provided by your government. They exist because you contributed to that system with your tax dollars. It’s like buying a medical or car insurance policy; you’ve paid into it, so it’s there for you to use when you need it. Are there other people who need it more than you do? Maybe. But hopefully they, too, are smart enough to recognize to ask for that help when necessary. It’s there for everyone who needs it (and qualifies for aid), not just the most desperate.
Most people find that as their life gets full of love, happiness, and fulfillment, they need their possessions less. They can let those items go. You'll probably have this happen naturally as you recover from grief and loneliness. Once again, do this at your own pace, and be kind to yourself.
How to keep from getting more stuff you don’t need
I hope this post was helpful to you. If you use any of these tips, I’d love to hear in the comments or an email about how they worked for you.
And once you’ve unburdened yourself from your clutter, the trick is to keep from getting cluttered again. So how do you do that? We’ll talk about that in the next post: How To Stop Buying Stuff You Don’t Need.