How to deal with sentimental clutter

How to deal with sentimental clutter

A few weeks ago I had a documentary crew out to our house. They were filming a short piece on the emergence of minimalism in Australia and asked me to be involved.

I was really excited to be asked, but I won’t lie: I was terrified. Terrified of being on camera. Terrified of sounding like a privileged douchebag. Terrified of being found a fraud when people exclaimed, “That’s not minimalism!”

Part of the shoot was done in the small garden shed we use as secondary storage. In it we keep things like our lawn-mower, my gardening gear, house paints, camping equipment, outdoor toys, a couple of boxes of Christmas decorations and one memory box per person.

I was asked to open each of the memory boxes to show how I manage to keep a balance between sentimentality and clutter. I was happy to do this until I was asked to open a plastic crate down on the bottom shelf.

I had no idea what was in there. I knew it was my stuff, but it could have been anything.

Upon opening it I realised it was old marketing materials, catalogues, business cards, order forms, inspiration boards, design sketches and press clippings from my jewellery label. I had not thought about this stuff in over two years, and it’s been more than four years since I closed down the business. The question wasn’t, “What is it?” but rather, “Why do I still have it?!”

I muttered some kind of excuse as to why I still had this clutter, and swiftly moved on.

But over the following days I really thought about it a lot.

I remember having gone through all this stuff during one of my biggest purges, and going back to look at the contents now I can see I did keep only what was interesting or had some sentimentality attached to it.

It’s really interesting to go back and trace your journey towards simplicity by looking at what you’ve held on to during various purges. By looking at the contents of this box I could see the process of becoming less attached to my business (and the goals, successes and stories tied to it) but hadn’t been ready to let go. I could, however, see a big shift, and the good news was that I had been intentional about it rather than blindly keeping everything related to my business.

And, when it comes to dealing with sentimental items, I think that is the key: Be intentional.

We need to be intentional about what to keep and what to let go of. Instead of looking at the box of trinkets or childhood items and saying, “Argh! I can’t decide so I’ll keep it all,” we need to make a decision.

If that decision is, “I love this thing and want to keep it,” then that’s perfect. If that decision is, “I don’t know yet,” that’s OK. It might be the best answer for now. But you need to ask the question. You need to be intentional about keeping things. Otherwise it will continue to be just clutter.

So last week, I headed out to the shed and opened that last remaining box of deferred decisions.

It was interesting to look through the contents and see what I had thought was important. I didn’t feel bad for having kept it, but upon inspection more than 2 years later, I realised it had changed from stuff I had intentionally chosen to keep, to clutter.

And I realised that the transformation from clutter to sentimental works both ways.

When we are initially faced with the idea of simplifying our home, we balk at the idea. “But this isn’t clutter! All this stuff is sentimental!”

Then we move a little further into our journey and we realise that much of that sentimental stuff is, in fact, just clutter. Deferred decisions, guilt and a lack of time.

We move through that clutter slowly, methodically, keeping what we believe to be important. It becomes sentimental again.

It gets packed away, saved for posterity. Then we rediscover it, hiding in a dusty box in the shed, and we realise that it’s no longer sentimental. It’s changed back to being just clutter. Much of it is stuff that we were simply afraid to be without, but with the passage of time has come the realisation that it’s OK.

And so it was that I found myself looking through the contents of that box in the shed. It was interesting, but I was ready and happy to let it all go. So I did. Every single piece.

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a (brief) moment of fear as I picked up each of these items and put them in the recycling box. But, quite literally, the second I let the item drop from my hands, I felt a lightness. A relief. A release. And I knew I was making the right decision.

26 Responses to How to deal with sentimental clutter

  1. Yes. I’m amazed at how much I wasn’t able to let go of at point A in my life, but combing over this “stuff” again, point B always brings perspective. It’s okay to not be ready if the clutter isn’t running your life. But, if it’s all “I’m not ready” – that’s not cool either. ;-) Thanks for sharing a vulnerable spot!

  2. Like Lisa, I’ve found that time is often the difference between being ready to let go and thinking I have to keep everything.

    I make a point of going through anything remotely sentimental several times with breaks in between, because often it’s not until the third or even fourth review that I’m ready to let go.

  3. Loved this and very timely, Brooke! I’ve been struggling with clutter for the last 12 months since we moved to a much smaller house that has virtually no internal storage. This has meant that the garage is filled with plastic tubs. I’m making my way through it all (if you don’t need it in 12 months, you definitely don’t need it!!) however where I’m finding it tough is the sentimental items- birthday cards, baby shower cards, baby clothes… I keep thinking that it will be lovely to show our kids when they are older, but there’s just SO MUCH! How to draw the line? What is the line!?

    • Bonnie, I kept some school items (drawings, assignments) from each of my five children. When I handed over the box to each of them, they all just pitched the stuff! Funny how I thought I was saving interesting pieces of their young lives but they just saw it all as stuff to get rid of. Hmmm. I need to learn from them!

    • Take some digital pictures if you’re worried about wanting to show someone later. That’s what I’ve been doing :) It makes it so much easier to give those things up.

  4. Today I realized I don’t know where the engraved pen my mother received at her high school graduation is! How ridiculous is that? I think I have forgotten the intentional aspect of removing unnecessary stuff from my life. You nailed it, Brooke, as usual.

  5. Really cool that you are going to be in a documentary. We had to make a lot of tough decisions on sentimental items during our big purge. You are very right, you have to be intentional and make the decisions. It took us a few rounds of decluttering in some areas where sentimental items were involved. I think that’s part of it, take it slow, break the attachments where you can, and then revisit those areas after a little time goes by.

  6. Great article Brooke. I’m weeding through the stuff once again. There is progress each time. As you said a little further in the journey changes the perspective on the clutter.

  7. So true! I’m always surprised at just how much “junk” I once thought was important. We’re getting ready to downsize once again, and this week I went through my son’s “baby box.” Why did I think it was necessary to save a box of his newborn diapers? The changing pads from the hospital? I don’t know, but they’re gone now.

  8. Loved seeing you and your calm uncluttered house on telly tonight, it was very inspiring. I think it’s great that minimalism and simple living is starting to get media attention. Keep up the simple living evangelism.

  9. This rings true for me as well. I find I have to declutter in stages. When I look through a box of keepsakes, things that were sentimental a few years ago have turned into clutter and are easy to toss. Thanks for the encouragement to keep asking the question!

    (I found you through Tsh’s link to your appearance on The Feed. Your home is lovely.)

  10. made me remember I’d been trying so hard to keep up with a pen my mom’s church gave away for Mother’s Day the one that mom died on as a reminder, like I could ever forget but it did make her seem closer but it seems to have gotten away – oh well, but I really did like; it wasn’t just the timing; it was a pretty floral one, just like she liked

  11. Hello, I just read the article about you in the Daily Mail and I thought that I’d pop in here and have a look. I’m the opposite, I’m an extreme hoarder. I keep nearly everything and I pick up lots of great stuff by the bins and on the street. Yesterday I got a lovely big white plastic clothes holder and it had a pair of expensive women’s designer black leather boots done with lots of interesting woven stuff. Fantastic. My friend (another man) admired them and made jokes about them. I’m aware that extreme hoarding is now sometimes considered to be mental illness and OCD and such like so I’m going to read some more of your info here and see if maybe I want to take it on board. But I think probably not, I love all my stuff, every last bit of it, and I find empty rooms dull and antiseptic. Ok, this is plenty for a first post. I might add some more if I feel inspired but I don’t want to clog up your blog with flatulent essays about moi.
    Regards, Bill (in London England)

  12. I just found your blog through the video you mentioned in this post. We’ve been moving toward minimalism for over a year now. The turning point for us was when I injured my back and it became chronic. We’ve had to be very intentional about how we spend our time and energy. Our goal is to sell our house and move into a much smaller space, hopefully next spring! Looking forward to reading more of your writing :)

  13. Me again :) Have you done any writing about potentially offending someone with your decluttering?

    I had a very bad experience last year with a family member who was downsizing and gave me some silver plated dishes that really weren’t worth anything. This person didn’t communicate what the dishes meant to them, the memories attached, or any expectations. I decided after a few months that I didn’t want to polish silver dishes I’ll never use. I donated the dishes to a Salvation Army thrift store, figuring someone else would love and use them. Well this family member happened to go in the store and see the dishes for sale. I got quite the angry and emotional response and ended up buying back what was left of the dishes and returning them to her! The whole episode has left me afraid to get rid of some other items I have sitting in my house, unused, that I know would really be appreciated by someone else.

  14. Hi Brooke,

    Just wanted to leave you a comment as this is the first of your pieces I read (last week), and have since gone to the very start of your blog and started reading my way back to the present (currently in March 2012). Life is being rather tough for me at the moment, but reading your blog is very uplifting for my spirit and inspiring on a material level as well.

    Thank you :)

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