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Sentimental Clutter – 4 Steps Toward Letting Go

Saturday 9, Jul 2016

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As a professional organizer I see it all. But what I find really holds people back from letting go is the emotional attachment to items, otherwise known as sentimental clutter. I’ve shared and written about this topic quite a bit on my Instagram account as well as on the Simply Organized blog. My chatter about this very important topic struck a nerve with many people and it turned into a full-blown series. And I take no issue with that! I believe this is a huge area that many of us, if not all of us, struggle with. So it’s a good thing to talk about openly. We have items in our life that are hanging around simply because of the emotional attachment. This is normal. Unless you find that you can’t let go of anything or everything…and suddenly find yourself drowning in stuff.

Your stuff is beginning to own you instead of you owning it.

My research began after my work with a young mother. She has a 1 year old daughter and we were organizing her little closet. I work with her weekly, so we’ve also spent time in her own closet(s). While going through her various spaces I was reminded of our attachment to those special outfits, baby gear items, old work clothes, artwork and papers, and all those “what if” items.

It’s so hard to let go, isn’t it?

If you’re gearing up for some cleaning / organizing, or already have back to school organization on your mind and you’re worried about or avoiding a purge for sentimental reasons, I hope these steps will help you work toward letting go.

Step 1: What’s Your Trigger?

Not everyone has the same emotional trigger or reason for keeping items, but everyone has one. So, what’s yours? Is it because your child made it or wore it? Is it something a family member bought for you? Maybe you feel bad about letting it go because you feel the pressure from the gift-giver to keep it? Putting unneeded pressure on yourself? Was it given to you by someone you love that has passed on? Did you buy it when you were younger? Did you pay a lot of money for it and can’t stand the idea of selling it for a significantly less amount? Is it something you think you’ll wear later?

Take a moment to reflect on what type of clutter seems to cause an emotional reaction for you and why you are feeling the connection.

Step 2: Think About It

I realize I’m speaking to a broad audience with various triggers, but let’s try to take this a level deeper and understand why these items have a grip on you. You can understand by asking yourself questions and answering honestly.

Sentimental clutter is based on memoryYour memory.

Think about that for a second.

You’re still holding onto the memory, so why hold onto the item? Holding onto the item has now become a burden for you to bear. Are burdens healthy? Not really.

I’m a girl that likes to think in perspective so let me share an example to see if I strike a cord. Those bins of school papers or kid’s artwork you’re holding onto. You’ve been collecting them since your child first picked up a crayon. Now that child is in the 4th grade (maybe high school or college!) and you have boxes upon boxes of artwork, worksheets, tests, and other memorabilia.

First answer this, when was the last time you opened the boxes to look through those papers? Are they being cherished if you aren’t looking at, admiring or sharing them?

Now picture your child at 25…30…40…older even. What do you think your child wants to do with those papers? What is your idea behind keeping them? Do you think he’ll want to keep them? His spouse will want them? Or have you now created a burden for someone else? I don’t believe family or friends ever want to create a burden in your life…and I’m certain you don’t want to create burdens in return.

Spend some time thinking about how you can hold onto the memory while still letting the item go. Emotional clutter is the same as physical clutter…it traps you, trips you up and keeps you from that fresh, clean mind space.

Step 3: Go Easy On Yourself

After steps one and two, try not to apply too much pressure on yourself. Chances are these things have been around for a while, so don’t overwhelm yourself too much. Unless of course you’re ready – then by all means, purge away! But for most of us, it’s a deep emotional reaction. If you’re worried about letting it go and still in question, consider boxing up the items, label the box, set a reminder in your phone or calendar for 1-2 months out and put it on a shelf in the garage. After letting time pass, if you realize you never thought about it and still don’t have anywhere to put it – let it go.

Do you have a good friend that’s balanced? One that can help you think it through reasonably? Ask if they can help you. Or you can always hire a professional to help!

Also, work in short bursts of time. If you binge purge for hours on end, you may end up emotionally drained and quite possibly throw in the towel altogether. Set a timer and chill out. Take it one step, one day, one space at a time.

Step 4: Create Limits and Plan For The Future

Once you’ve decided what’s staying and going, create a system for yourself moving forward – with limits. If you set up a rule or several rules it will help prevent the issue from creeping in again. Ask yourself a few questions (yes, even more questions!) before putting it away like, “Is this a memory thing happening again?” or “Can I keep just one and not all of them?”. Allow yourself one bin for sentimental items. Once it’s full, that’s it. Before you put anything into that bin remind yourself of how it used to be, how bogged down you felt, that you made so many strides to get where you are today. Remind yourself that you don’t want to create burdens.

Remind yourself that you deserve to live free of burdens and in a space that feels good, happy and organized!

Limits – these are more often than not a good thing in life…well beyond organization.

I hope these tips will help you move toward letting go of your emotional clutter. Feel free to share your tips for letting go in the comment section so that we can share / connect with other readers too!


I’m Samantha, the SF Bay Area professional organizer, blogger and NAPO member behind Simply Organized. My passion for organization runs deep and I enjoy working with families to help them get (and stay!) organized! I’m an avid DIY’er which means there isn’t an organization challenge that gets past me. I love to keep organization simple because life is complicated enough…so why should your systems be complicated too?

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