Once I told my grandmother, “Nana, I still have every single card you ever sent me.” She was great that way. She never missed a birthday, and she also sent cards for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I might be missing a holiday or two. I was 21, and I thought she’d be impressed by how much her thoughtful notes (and cash) had meant to me throughout my childhood.
She said, “WHY?! Throw that stuff away!”
I took her advice, and I let it all go. Most of my sentimental items made of paper had gotten musty and mildewed due to being in storage for years. I burned a pile of old cards and letters. One night I burned my yearbooks and my first wedding album. A different night, I burned my journals from ages 9 to 32. It takes hours. Several of my friends were aghast at my decision. They tried their best to convince me to wait, or not do it at all, because there’s no turning back from such a drastic decision. Once something is burned, there’s no way of getting it back, in the way that I’ve seen so many (read: all) of my clients retrieve things from the recycle, trash, or donation bags. The decision to get rid of a sentimental item is permanent.
Regret is one of the strongest, least pleasant emotions. Other strong emotions that are aroused during the clutter clearing process are sorrow, grief, remorse, guilt, shame, anger, hatred, nostalgia, envy, bitterness, avarice, wistfulness, loneliness, and disgust. This process can also lead to a lot of confusion, overwhelm, and acute anxiety. It really helps to acknowledge these feelings while doing the work. In my opinion, the emotional work IS the work. It’s the entire point of the process. Clutter holds us back partly because it feeds on itself and causes its own recursive complications. Mostly, though, it’s merely a physical reflection of the inner world. We displace our emotions and delayed decisions into our stuff. Some examples of this are unplayed musical instruments, unopened books, and unused fitness equipment. Other examples are the relics and artifacts of an emotional journey. Photographs, letters, journals, memorabilia, and souvenirs – things with no resale value or inherent interest to anyone else – are by far the hardest to let go. They are too personal to have much significance to anyone else, but so personal that we are confounded by them.
I’ve seen it all. Photo albums, every possible baby or pet accoutrement, trinkets from dead romances, dried flowers, veils, ribbons, trophies, buttons, bumper stickers, tickets, event programs, posters, game tokens, certificates, report cards, mix tapes, engraved keepsakes, jewelry, teeth, kidney stones, bags of pet hair, cremains… You name it. If it can be personalized or monogrammed, so much the better. It’s like so many barnacles or strangling tendrils of ivy or tentacles.
I was always a saver as a child. I saved my bubble gum wrappers, and ordinary gray rocks, and movie ticket stubs, and pamphlets and brochures, and receipts, and buttons and washers and screws I found in the street, and essentially any physical object I could conceivably claim as mine. Things had mystical powers and properties. I had a collection of marbles that had individual personalities. I saw the backstory of everything. It was easier to interact quietly with these fascinating objects than it was to interact with people.
Gradually, through many years of reading and journaling and working through my own collection of material possessions, I started thinking and feeling differently about my stuff. I started to realize that almost all of the emotions raised by my things were dark. Most of my stuff gave me bad feelings. Some of those simply included my possessiveness, materialism, desire for acquisition, reluctance to let other people touch or use my things, severe anxiety whenever anything got broken or ruined, and compulsion to maintain and store my things even when I truly couldn’t afford to do so. Other emotions were just sad and painful, such as the feelings raised by rereading old love letters that had led to bad breakups. Part of what helped me start to let go was to change my stories: to rework my interpretation of what had happened with that person or in that scenario. Changing the story helps let go of the stuff, but conversely, letting go of the stuff helps change the story.
For example, I’ll never forget the feeling of holding hands with my Nana. She had the softest skin. I always felt so loved by her. I still remember the sound of her voice, speaking and singing. I can picture her so clearly. I remember her favorite outfits and jewelry and her trademark hairstyle. I can picture myself in every room of her house, sitting with her, playing Scrabble or watching musicals. Those potent sense memories have never faded, in spite of the fact that I got rid of all those cards she sent. I don’t have any of her jewelry or framed photos or dishes or furniture, although I probably could have. What I do have is her folding sewing scissors from her work bag. I use them almost every day, and I always think of her. If I ever lose the scissors, I’ll still think of her. She was more than the sum of my memories, and my memories are more than any particular object or thing she once touched.
I’ve reached a point where the very existence of an object with strong emotional associations automatically goes on my hit list. I have to preemptively work on my attachment to it. If ever there is a house fire, earthquake, landslide, flash flood, burglary, or disaster of any kind, I have to assume that the thing I care about the most is going to be the first thing to get ruined. I’ve had several heirlooms that were smashed, cracked, gouged, or stained by professional movers, while my $1 generic drinking glasses have survived half a dozen moves unscathed. Some of my irreplaceable paper notes have been crumpled, smudged, or misplaced for significant periods of time. I’ve had to accept that it is my fate to be a nomad, and that this means living lightly. I’m extremely fortunate that my family, friends, pets, and of course my husband are intact and doing well. In that context, who cares about the occasional notebook or teapot?
It’s just stuff. It’s Past Self’s stuff. I’ve been presented with family legacy items several times, and passed on almost all of them. I have to assume that future generations will be equally unmoved by my own estate. That would inevitably be true even if I had children of my own, but I don’t, and there is no reason to think my nephews or niece will one day be interested in my lock of baby hair. When I’m 80, they’ll be closing in on retirement age themselves. I have a history degree, and you can trust me on this: almost none of us have any artifacts or archival items that would be of use to a museum or library. Once we’ve given some thought to our relative significance to posterity (or lack thereof), we need only consider what role these sentimental items play for us, for our personal needs. Most likely, it’s holding us back in some way. It’s waiting for unguarded moments when it can poleaxe us in our vulnerability. It’s lurking, ready to drag us into depression and keep us stuck in the past. It’s at its best when that past is unpleasant and unprocessed. It hypnotizes us into facing backward, when we could be looking forward, creating a more desirable future. It’s ballast, dragging us down, preventing liftoff, sometimes pulling us under until we founder. It trains us to fuss and worry and sort and stack and schlep. We believe we won’t survive its loss, that our very souls are stored in it somewhere, somehow. We can’t imagine the horrors of leaving it behind and moving on without it. A box of papers becomes an abandoned baby or betrayed puppy. We give it spiritual charisma and heft and resonance.
I’m here to tell you: It’s just stuff. Stuff is not memories. Stuff is not relationships. Stuff is not a personality. Stuff is not a past. Stuff is not history. Stuff is not a legacy. It’s just stuff. All those other things live in the abstract. They are meta-stuff. It’s perfectly safe to detach from them and get some emotional distance. Some might even call it freedom.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.