I have some things that have been sitting in drawers and closets for years and—while I don't need or use these things—I am pained to part with them. Some are inherited, some were formerly important, some never made sense, and a lot are scraps: of papers, events, good days, and really amazing trips. They're little material bits of my life that sit in drawers or the back of closets. And I've never figured out how to part with them.
Maybe this sounds familiar, at least for some of you, but I have emotional trouble parting with certain belongings. I waffle between wanting to stay on top of my home, and then telling myself it's OK to have some things stuck away because they're "keepsakes" or because what's the harm in a couple of drawers filled with stuff? But I've just spent months helping my dad clear out his family home, and the long and emotional process taught me that if we don't handle our own clutter, eventually someone else will have to do it. And dealing with clutter is never easy.
While I've gotten pretty good about keeping the general stuff of life under control, I still struggle to part with certain things that I no longer use or enjoy or need. I just feel a need to keep them around. Like the items pictured above:
- Three big bins of "keepsake" baby clothes, when one bin would suffice.
- Ticket stubs, museum admissions, plane tickets, event passes, receipts, IDs, writings on writings on writings and random papers for days, guys. Days.
- Certain inherited items that, while I love the history of these items, I don't ever display or use them. But it hurts to admit that—it's like I'm letting my family down in a way. So rather than give them away, I tell myself that "one day" I'll know where to put them.
- Travel books from formative trips I took years ago. Do I logically need to read about what's happening in Paris in 2008 or Italy in 2007? Nope. But am I able to part with them? Nope.
- A literal box of rocks. But, ok, see— when I look at those rocks, I don't see rocks. I see the perfect early June day spent hiking around the Indiana dunes collecting those rocks. I see the picnic we had (prosciutto and havarti sandwiches and lemon Italian sodas), and I see the late summer sun setting as we drove back to city with the windows down. Give it a rest, right? They're just rocks. I know. I wish my brain would give it a rest sometimes.
Why is it So Hard to Part with Sentimental Items?
A lot of really smart people have wondered the same thing:
- According to Julie Holland, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, "Sentimental clutter is the adult equivalent of a teddy bear." (I kept my actual teddy bear until I was 18, so...er, very relatable.)
- A study from the Yale School of Medicine found that "for many, letting go is literally painful" —meaning that for some of us, parts of our brain associated with physical pain are triggered when trying to part with certain items.
- Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., notes that nostalgia can make clearing out a space nearly impossible. She goes on to state that, "we often infuse our junk with the spirit of a moment in time, associating the tangible with the intangible. Our junk becomes the object upon which we project our internal experience."
In my case, this all checks out. I know these items are material connections to people and memories, and I think that by holding onto them, I'm holding on to memories—holding onto connections—and on some level that's comforting. But when the items are no longer being used or enjoyed, I'm not really preserving anything, am I. I'm just hanging onto them. And hanging on is different than preserving. So I need to let (at least some of them) go, and it's hard. But doable, right?
Onto the next phase: the parting. Are you there, Marie Kondo? It's me, Julia...
How to Begin the Process of Parting with Things
I found a few tactics that have proven helpful for me that I hope are helpful for any of you trying to de-clutter items that pull at your heartstrings.
1. Say Goodbye
Bid farewell to an object that holds sentimental value to you but that you no longer use or enjoy. This advice comes from Marie Kondo, author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It may feel silly at first, but spending time with, for example, my kids' baby clothes, holding them, and feeling gratitude for all they represented, helped me let them go. Those tiny clothes did an important job and now they can hopefully do that same job for another baby. The same goes for the inherited items I had squirreled away. I decided to email my cousins to see if they were interested in them (some were), and before sending them off to new homes, I took time to hold, look at, and appreciate the history of the items and the stories of the loved ones behind them. In turn, I felt a deep sense of pride, not guilt or loss, as I packed them to be shipped away.
2. Ask for Help
I enlisted help. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but I am not always the best at admitting when I need help with something ("I've got it" or "I'm fine, I can handle it" are popular catch phrases of mine). However, being able to talk over the process with someone helped lighten the mood and helped me think more clearly about certain items, like certain books and CDs I've been hanging onto, because I wasn't stuck in my own sentimentality. A trusted friend or family member can be a great help in these matters because these are the people that help us check our selves before we wreck ourselves.
3. Box it Up
I created a designated keepsake box (ok actually two: one for me and one for my kids) using vintage cigar boxes. These little boxes will hold a few of my most treasured paper bits. So while I'm still keeping a few impractically sentimental scraps, it's only what can fit in those small boxes as opposed to stuffed in drawers. It made me stop and think about the importance of certain material reminders and allowed me to let a lot of little papers go. It's a start anyway.
4. Take Photos
I did not do this one (but have it in my back pocket). It's another Marie Kondo gem that I've read about: the practice of taking a photograph of an item before parting with it. Marie states, you can always take a picture of an item before parting with it—thus allowing you to keep a symbol of an item, which sometimes is all we're really seeking.
Now it's time for your tips! If you also have a hard time parting with certain sentimental items but have figured out a way to do it, I'd love to hear about your approach. The hive mind can prove very helpful in these situations.