“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”
— Oscar Wilde
I've been delivered some pretty firm e-smackdowns when writing about sentimental items before. I've upset a few people and lost a few readers. And I'm OK with that because not everyone has the same ideas about sentiment, emotion and stuff. And sometimes people aren't ready to think too deeply on their attachment to particular sentimental items. Both of those is perfectly OK.
I used to struggle to let go of artwork, birthday cards, ribbons, concert tickets, travel documents and gifts because I thought the memory of the person, the time, the place or the celebration was in that item. I worried that if I let it go, the memory would disappear and I would somehow care less.
But I've discovered (and continue to discover) that the memory is in us. Old photos or a memento from a trip can help us recall the memory, but the memory is still there. The question I ask of myself is,
“If I was living life more mindfully (ie. paying attention) would I need to have my memory jogged?”
I think the answer is probably yes, because life is busy and time passes quickly. But surely, if we paid more attention to the things happening in front of us, the people we love, the memories we're making, wouldn't our reliance on sentimental stuff lessen?
I'm not here to tell you to give away your grandmother's pearls or your child's first lock of hair. But I do have three questions for you to ask yourself when faced with the task of decluttering sentimental items.
Asking these questions means you are doing what's right for you and your life, rather than following a set of rules. It also means tackling the sentimental stuff takes longer and is more emotionally draining than decluttering, say, the kitchen drawers or wardrobes. So be patient with yourself. Take time. Don’t let go of certain things if you are really having trouble with it.
You know the best answers for your own life. Sometimes that means going with your gut. Sometimes it means being brave.
Before You Begin
Choose a very small area to start. Perhaps you could work through:
- one storage box of keepsakes
- a shelf of knick-knacks
- a cupboard of old toys or clothes from your grown-up children
Everyone has (or used to have) a place in their home like this. Somewhere that tugs at the heart strings when you think of it.
So pick your spot, grab a garbage bag, a recycle bag and a donate box. And simply start.
Three Questions to Ask Yourself
For each item you pick up, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does this item mean something to me?
Often we keep things because we think we “should”. Or because it is representative of good times, fun holidays, our now-grown children, or people we love. But does the actual item, the thing you’re holding in your hand mean something to you?
If not (and you may be surprised by how many of these things do not mean anything on close inspection) then the decision to remove it from your home should be simple. Decide whether to donate it or throw it away.
2. What emotion does this item bring out?
If you've decided the item does mean something to you, then ask yourself what emotion you feel upon holding it.
Study that emotion for a moment.
What is it? Why do you feel it?
Would you still feel that emotion without the physical item? (If yes, then your decision has again been made. Decide to donate or throw away.)
Do you have multiple items that rouse the same emotion? What if you kept one or two that are truly meaningful, instead of keeping everything as a blanket reaction?
If there is no strong emotional attachment, then again, you can more easily decide to remove it from your home.
3. Would I display the item in my home?
We all keep things that we wouldn’t display in our home. And it’s not my intention to have you remove everything that you wouldn’t hang on the wall. But asking yourself this question forces you again to really examine why you’re holding on to the item and what the item itself means to you.
If you wouldn’t display it, then really examine your reasons for keeping it. (Remember, there is no right or wrong here. But the intention is to pare down and simplify these sentimental things.)
Once you’ve asked yourself these questions and decided whether to keep the item, donate it or throw it away – you can let go and be proud.
Let go of the guilt of removing it from your home.
Let go of the weight of the thing you are keeping.
Be proud that you are surrounding yourself and your loved ones with things that are truly meaningful.
If You’re Really Struggling…
If you’re really having difficulties letting go, you can box up the firm maybes, write the date on the box and 6 months later, if you haven’t missed or needed anything in the box, donate it, unopened.
(Avoid this if possible though – you are more likely to hold on to things unnecessarily if you know there is a second-chance rule.)
There is no easy way to declutter and simplify sentimental items, but these questions should help as you move through your storage. Also know that it does get easier. As you begin to feel lighter and happier in your newly simplified home, it will not be so difficult to let go of things.
And if you’re struggling, please let me know in the comments or via email. It’s hard, and I’ve been there!