Finally discarding the pile of catalogues that’s hiding your dining room table is one thing; getting rid of old photographs, hand-me-downs, or life’s other souvenirs is another.
‘Everything we own is a time machine,’ says Christine Kell, decluttering coach at Gaining Space. ‘People like to revisit the past because they think it was a better time, but if you focus on what’s behind you, you’re not present enough to create new memories, which could leave you quite melancholy.’
Here’s how to make emotional decluttering a little easier (and finally reclaim some space in your house):
1. Start with the bathroom
The stuff crowding your bath (like a collection of little-used, well-worn towels; or those pretty gift packs of bath bombs you got given as a Christmas stocking filler) probably doesn’t have much emotional value — and that’s the point. ‘It makes clearing the sentimental stuff easier,’ says Kell. ‘My clients never think they have to do the bathroom, but I tell them to humour me and see how it feels. It helps you realise how much you don’t actually use.’
2. You can ditch the item without ditching the memory
Many people hold on to stuff left to them by family members, even if they don’t have room or want it. ‘Ask yourself, would your relatives want this stuff to weigh you down?’ says Kell. ‘If you’re not using it, it’s just clutter. You can love and remember your family (and they’ll still love you) without keeping their stuff.’ We promise!
3. Find closure by giving the object a last hurrah
‘I put my prom dress on one last time, took a picture, and shared it on Facebook,’ says Kell. ‘People laughed and commented, and that made it easier to get rid of the dress — because it’s really all about your relationships and sharing the memory.’
4. Everything you own should make you feel good
This seems obvious, but things get tricky when it comes to sentimental items.
‘I had a client who had kept her late mother’s diaries, and when she’d get depressed or angry, she’d look up dates to see if certain days were important to her mother,’ says Kell. ‘Sometimes, she’d go to the box and sob. I told her, “This is not how you want your stuff and your home to make you feel.” Eventually, she was able to get rid of the journals.’
5. You can keep the best — if you toss the rest
Instead of hoarding items in boxes, display a few pieces from an overgrown collection to satisfy your sentimental side. Kell had one client who made art out of his stamp collection and another who took beads from her bridal gown and sewed them to another dress. ‘They’re living things now, and not just dead energy,’ she says.
6. Recognise what’s really meaningful, and what’s just stuff
You may think you treasure that birthday card from your grandmother, but consider it again. Is it a handmade creation with a heartfelt note? Or is it a generic supermarket store card with her name scrawled at the bottom? If it’s the latter, the freedom of clearing it will greatly outweigh the joy you get from keeping it.
‘Think about an entire roll of photos,’ says Kell. ‘Most of them are blurry, or you hate how you look in them, so you shouldn’t feel bad about tossing them. Only keep the ones that contribute to the memory.’
Use the same tactic when paring down baby clothes or your kids’ toys. ‘I had a client who saved her first born’s toys for her second son, but he wasn’t interested in them at all. This cue — that the items aren’t serving you any more — is reason enough to feel OK about getting rid of things.’
7. Digitising your memories can soften the blow
It’s entirely reasonable that you might not want to part with your dissertation (but toss the useless classroom notes) or old love letters. But thanks to the magic of digital scanners, they don’t need to clutter your basement. Save the stuff you just can’t bear to part with on your hard drive or a file-sharing service like Dropbox, and reclaim your space.
8. Make this your new mantra
‘I love this quote: “The barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon,”‘ says Kell. Remind yourself that you’re not casting memories and heirlooms to the side — you’re creating breathing room in your current life, freeing yourself of extra weight, and recognising that what’s most important is happening right now — not in a box in your attic.