One thing I enjoy about January is the chance to reorganise, de-clutter, and generally take stock of my commitments and routines. I enjoy these things anyway, but January feels like the time of year when re-evaluation is most appropriate, and I don’t feel guilty devoting some time to these activities. The part I have the hardest time with, however, is the de-cluttering. I have a really hard time getting rid of things.
My home doesn’t look like those over-stuffed garages from TV shows about hoarders, but if you know me you probably know that I tend to stuff every little cranny with things, even if they’re neatly organised. Empty space in my house doesn’t last long. While I like to think some of this is because of not living in a huge place, and because of doing all my work from home, in reality, those excuses only go so far. Living in the space I do have should be part of living within reasonable boundaries.
I know that some people don’t have this problem. They are a-pathetic towards their belongings, having simply a lack of strong feeling about things in general. In fact I think this is a good attitude, and I’m not saying that everyone ought to have my ‘attachment issues’ towards their possessions. However, I know that plenty of people do, for various reasons, experience the same feelings and habits I have with regard to my things. Those things include:
- Sentimental paraphernalia
- Old favourite clothes
- Things that ‘might come in handy someday’
- Things I paid good money for
- Things I haven’t gotten the use out of yet
- Books I might want to re-read
- A garment or project I spent a long time making
I could go into the myriad of reasons these things pull on my heartstrings, including sentiment, guilt, a need to be prepared, or seeking safety. Instead, I’d like to share a few ways I find helpful for getting rid of things when I know my collection has outgrown its space.
Record it with a photo
I used to be really attached to quite a number of stuffed toys, and even into my teens I couldn’t get rid of them because I had endued them with personality and felt guilty ‘abandoning’ them. Partly, I realised, it was because I had lots of memories attached to them and simply didn’t want to forget all of that. Plenty of them also made me laugh, because they were homemade and demonstrated varying degrees of skill in the days when I was learning to sew, or represented a family project fondly remembered. Finally, I lined the stuffed toys up and took a photo of them, which gave me just enough courage to get rid of them.
Do I look at the photo often? Unsurprisingly, no. However, I occasionally run across it when looking through a photo album, and smile. More to the point, the photo gave me one small item to hang onto instead of having to keep a laundry basket’s worth of toys.
A similar suggestion I’ve heard about, if you’re a journaling type, is just to write a little about the item and what you remember about it before getting rid of it.
Transfer the memories
In a similar vein, I often find myself hanging on to memorabilia of various kinds: ticket stubs, dried flowers, napkins with restaurant logos, programmes, etc. At times, I have spent a lot of time and effort meticulously organising these things, only to realise eventually that I just couldn’t keep them all. The question I have found most useful in letting go of these things is: ‘What else could remind me of the memory linked to this thing?’
Very often, there’s a photograph, or simply another item associated with the same memory. At that point I say to myself, ‘I don’t have to worry about getting rid of X, because I’ll remember the event whenever I see Y [the other object].’
Have a get-rid-of holding pile
In the bottom of my closet, I have a spot for clothes or other items that are on their way out. If I feel like I need to get rid of something, but don’t quite have it in me to toss it entirely, I simply put it in the holding pile. That doesn’t take much courage – it’s just putting it in a spot in my closet. Periodically I go through the pile and actually get rid of things or, occasionally, return them to their original home.
When I go through the pile, I usually have one of two reactions. Sometimes, I think, ‘Wow, I’d forgotten about that – I love it!’ This happens occasionally with old clothes that I’ve grown bored of, but which I actually like and appreciate anew after they’ve been out of my closet for a while. I think that’s a fine use for this holding space – occasionally it means I am able to appreciate something and use it again when I wasn’t before. However, most of the time, my response is, ‘I’d forgotten about that for the last three/six/nine months.’ Having already realised that I had forgotten the item and never missed it, I generally don’t feel bad about getting rid of it once and for all.
Guilt, oh the guilt!
This last point isn’t so much a tip as a realisation that may be productive. It dawned on me recently that one reason I am so reluctant to let go of many of my possessions is that getting rid of things seems like admitting to a mistake.
For one thing, maybe I have excess clutter because I’m too acquisitive and spendthrift in the first place. I always wonder this when cleaning out my closet.
Invariably, I also get rid of the occasional item that I myself paid good money for but somehow didn’t use. That always feels like admitting my own poor taste. I’m forever vowing never to buy jeans that don’t fit perfectly, yet there’s almost always a ‘least favourite’ pair in my closet that I wear on the days before a trip when I’m trying to keep everything else clean. Whenever I get rid of that pair of jeans, I have to confess to myself that if I had known better, I wouldn’t have bought them in the first place.
With sentimental clutter, finally letting it go is embarrassing because often I should have let it go long before. Saying, ‘I’m getting rid of this birthday card from ten years ago!’ is tantamount to saying, ‘And I’ve clung to it for ten whole years.’ Yes, I had birthday cards from that long ago when I cleaned out my room in Houston earlier last year.
Here’s my final thought on this kind of guilt and shame associated with purging possessions. For me, it stems from what seems like a good impulse: an acute sense of responsibility to be a frugal, non-materialistic, mature person who respects money and possessions, not to mention valuing work and the environment (which produced the item in the first place) – and who hence never buys what she doesn’t need, and uses everything till it’s broken beyond repair, and repurposes every old card and notebook. However, although I don’t advocate willy-nilly acquisitiveness, and ideally I’d like to be wiser about what I let into my home in the first place, it seems to me that allowing so much guilt to accrue surrounding physical things achieves the opposite of its goal. The goal, as I said above, was responsibility and non-materialism – but allowing guilt about belongings to make you hoard them in fact gives your possessions far too much power. It actually seems like its own form of materialism.