A Simple Approach to Living With Less

Overcoming the Sentimental Sabotage of Clutter

It’s inevitable really. Somewhere in the process of clearing out the junk that is suffocating your life, you (or someone you live with) will fall victim to sentimental sabotage. You know what I’m talking about. That emotional attachment to stuff that makes it harder to get rid of things. Notice I said harder, not impossible.

I fell victim to this unfortunate circumstance this week after I cleaned out some of our drawers in the kitchen. I spent nearly two hours just going through a few drawers and then some family members came behind me and took things back out of the discard pile. I am partly to blame because I didn’t throw things out immediately. A fatal flaw, indeed, but I have learned from my mistakes.

I’m not talking about throwing out your wedding pictures or your child’s baby book. (Although when was that last time you looked at the lock of hair from your child’s first haircut). This is more about hanging onto to the clutter that you can’t seem to let go of. Maybe you’ll hear yourself in some of the statements below.

Sentimental Sabotage Statements:

  • “I have to keep this because [insert random person’s name] gave it to me as a gift. Guess what, they don’t know or care if you get rid of it.
  • “But I’ve had it forever.” That seems like long enough, don’t you think?
  • “I might need it someday.” Chances are you really won’t need it. In fact, you probably have something else that would work just as well. If you discover that your life is meaningless or more difficult without out it, someone will probably sell you another one. (In fact, check eBay, someone else is probably trying to get rid of theirs anyway.)
  • “It might be worth a lot of money.” Sure, it might be. Then again it’s only worth something if someone is willing to pay for it. If you’re too attached to sell it now, do you think you’ll be willing to sell it later? If you’re hanging onto something just to hand it down to your kids remember dead pack rats have miserable children.

Do any of those statements sound like you? We’ve all said those things at some point. So how do you overcome this sentimental setback to your minimalist efforts? Be honest with yourself and try to assess why you’re still holding onto that item. For example, a bent and half-broken fox head cake tester that you got for a wedding present (Hi, Mom! Yep, you’re my inspiration for this post.)

Some Questions to Ask if You’re Struggling with Emotional Attachments to Stuff:

  1. Do you still have it because of its function or its memories? If it’s more about the memories and doesn’t have serve much of a purpose it might be time to let it go.
  2. Would you tell all your friends they need to get one? Could you come up with any real reasons why they needed to go spend money on that kitchen gadget or knick-knack? If not, it’s time to say goodbye to your Perfect Brownie Pan.
  3. Is it important enough to pass down to your children when you die? If it’s important to you, write down the story of the heirloom for your children to read someday. Chances are they don’t know why you treasure it. If you can’t think of anything to write about it, then it’s probably not as special as you thought.
  4. Do you use it frequently? Seriously, when was the last time you needed it? Did you even realize where it was hiding all this time? If not, you probably won’t miss it in the future either.

The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to unclutter your life is keep the goal in mind. Just think of how much more time you’re going to have when everything has a home of its own and how easy it is to find the things you really need.


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Article originally published on 09/17/2010

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  1. Thank you so much for this post! “Dead packrats have miserable children.” SO TRUE!

  2. I definitely needed to read this! My son is at the stage where everything art/craft must be saved. It drives me nuts until I look honestly at my own stuff . . . . I think I know where he got it.

    • It’s tough when we realize that we have to set the example, isn’t it? My kids are slowly catching the vision and appreciating not having to spend so much time picking up clutter. Thanks for reading.

    • Karen (Scotland) says

      Try taking a photo of it? I hang all my kids stuff on the wall for a term (or until the kitchen wall is full) then take a good photo of it (the wall, not each item of art).
      I’m not sure how I feel about long term digital storage so I may make a mini album for each child to cover the WHOLE of their pre-school and primary-aged lives (5 – 11). Or I may not. Depends if the photos mean soemthing to them or not, I guess. Maybe the mini-albums will end up for me. 🙂

  3. Karen (Scotland) says

    I have most difficulty with getting rid of stuff because of the “gave it to me as a gift” issue. I have an aunt who often buys me ornaments. I love her dearly and she visits us every couple of weeks but shiny china shepherdesses are not me. Never have been. Never will be. Yet I have one of those on display in my living room. It wasn’t cheap, she only gave it to me a couple of years ago and she’d notice if it wasn’t there.
    So, I bite the bullet and live with shiny china dust-catcher.
    I’m sure it’s earning me good karma somewhere but it depresses the life out of me at the moment…

    • I have these little ceramic birthday dolls that my grandmother gave me every year growing up. Right now I have them stores because I don’t have room for them and I’m not sure what I’ll ever do with them. I don’t really even need to give them to my daughter because my grandmother has already started her collection. I haven’t gotten rid of them yet since I haven’t made it to that box in the storage shed yet but it doesn’t look good for them. The thing to remember is that when someone gives you something meaningful to them, they are giving you love. That love won’t go away if the item does. Plus, no one else has to live with our clutter except us so we get the final vote.

  4. I just discovered your blog the other day and I’m loving it. So practical! We are recent converts to minimalism. 🙂 Every post is so good. I particularly like this one because pack rats & sentimental clutter runs in my family & my hubby’s. We hope to be a shining example! Thanks for your blog.

    • Faith Janes says

      Thank you so much Abbie. I realized I was in trouble when my oldest son proclaimed proudly that he was a pack rat. That was a wake up call for sure if he thought that was a good thing. 🙂 Best of luck on your journey to minimalism!

  5. I am a huge proponent of “take a picture, it lasts longer” (and takes up far less space).

    Some sentimental items are USED frequently and thus the memories grow. If your own children have warm n’ snuggly memories of using “great grandma’s quilt” – then it is a useful sentiment and the memory carries on.

    If the item(s) are only pulled out once in a blue moon (if ever) and your children recall only a mention or lecture that this belonged to great-Aunt so-and-so and is “very sentimental” – they are likely to absorb the message – if not the meaning and feeling behind it.

    For kids art I keep simple office binders with the plastic page protectors. Most art can slide into these. I don’t keep everything – just the “about me” or “my favorite things” and “About my family.” I have toddler through 4th grade art all neatly in one binder on a shelf. My kids do like to flip through and see how their handwriting and artistic abilities have changed and I have a manageable place to save the meaningful things

  6. @ Karen from Scotland: That is exactly what I do with my children’s favourite projects and crafty things that have been displayed for a bit too long. Take a snap and get rid of the item. It’s a lot easier to keep digital photos than a lifetime’s worth of projects and craft-items.

  7. Great post! Been reading a lot about selling all my stuff. Thanks for the info here!


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