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Everyone has items in their home that are kept for sentimental reasons. When a client tells me that things once belonged to another person, I step into a different role and help that client process their space. My first step is asking what caused the influx of things and identifying why they feel the need to hold onto the items. Identifying ‘why’ we keep something is key to determining ‘how’ we integrate them into our home. The resulting sentiments can be divided into 3 categories: guilt, loss, and obligation.
A client who keeps things out of guilt may struggle with the loss of a loved one (more on this below), or battle with regret in which keeping an item becomes a form of atonement. However, more often, guilt comes from struggling with the potential of hurting someone if they let an item go. For example, gifted items are VERY high on this list. I often hear, “Well, my (mom/friend/neighbor/boss) gave me this. I hate it, but I have to keep it.”
In guilt situations, I always allow the client to process their own why. I ask them questions about the relationship and give them a chance to think about an item. If you are keeping things out of guilt, here are a few probing questions to be more mindful of what you keep:
- Why do I have this?
- Do I like it?
- Would the person honestly know if I donate/sell the item? If the answer is yes, know that many times this is not an accurate response. I remind clients that the joy in gifting comes from seeing the reaction on the recipient’s face. Once the gift is given, you are not obligated to keep it forever. The item was given and is now yours. You are free to use it, toss it, or share it.
- Would it give me joy to pass this on to another person who may enjoy it? PLEASE do not use this step to continue the clutter cycle. Avoid giving items away unless you think someone would truly enjoy having them.
Keeping items due to loss and guilt go hand in hand. I have a very dear client who lost several relatives all within the same year. She and her husband wound up with a garage full of their loved ones’ possessions, leaving them incredibly overwhelmed by it all. The belongings and the loved ones were so intertwined that moving through the items felt like moving on from the loss. It will never be easy, but here are concepts that we discussed as we worked through her very precious inheritance.
- Who did this item belong to? It can help to talk through the things you are sorting. Tell a story about the passed relative or friend. Reminisce about smiles you shared and happy times together.
- If your loved one were in this garage with us, would they tell you to keep or toss this item? Sometimes we hold onto items that have no merit. It may be hard to part with paperwork, bills, etc. Picturing the person telling you “I don’t want you to keep it” can help!
- If you know that the loved one wanted you to get enjoyment out of a specific object, be selective and put it on display. If you think, “Well, they would want me to keep it,” but the item is stored away in the attic, it might not be in the right place. I often tell clients to make the thought process more real by picturing themselves telling the lost loved one “Yes, I am keeping your things, but they are in a box in the attic.” Exploring the feelings they have after saying it out loud gives clarification to what to do with the items next.
Some of my clients keep things out of obligation. This can coincide with the previous reasons, but is typically confessed more frankly. Obligation sounds like, ” I am keeping my mother’s stuff because nobody else wanted it.” This is never a good reason to keep something! The best way to handle this is to go through the items, piece by piece. Decide what YOU want to keep in order to honor the giver and LET GO of the rest. You will get more joy out of keeping a small portion of gifts/inheritance than from stumbling over a garage filled with clutter you never examine. Use these tips when sorting:
- Do I like this item?
- Was it special to the giver? Why?
- Can I keep a small portion of this to honor them without adding unnecessary clutter to my life?
- If the items hold monetary value, can I sell them online? Or can I donate items to a charity to help share the item with someone in need?
Still feeling overwhelmed? The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering by Claire Middleton (affiliate link) is an excellent resource as you dive into the process. Click on the image to learn more about the author’s real-life organizing plan that you can work through, step by step.
As you likely guessed, my biggest suggestion when sorting sentimental items is to process each piece. Be mindful and think about the items you are keeping; think about your why. Things with sentimental attachments are never easy to sort. It will take time and energy, so be sure to grant yourself some grace as you undertake the task. If you need an extra hand or two, we are here to help with the process. Above all, begin with the most important step: get started!