Is It Time to Let Go of These?

old bike

Letting go can be difficult. Our relationships with belongings can be complicated. Often, possessions set down emotional roots, becoming entangled with our identity, self-worth, and purpose. This is one reason why I never pressure clients to get rid of things. Instead, I ask questions to facilitate the processing of discernment and prioritization.

When decluttering, clients often struggle with objects that are associated with a previous stage of life. Common examples include:

  • Clothing and equipment from sports we used to play
  • Tools and materials for crafts we previously pursued
  • Baby and scrapbooking supplies for books we planned on making
  • Paperwork and digital records from previous jobs or committee work
  • Lawn care tools we used in a previous residence
  • Trays and dishes we used for entertaining during another stage of life
  • Food we bought for a diet or nutritional program we used to follow
  • Record albums, tapes and CDs we listened to in the pre-digital era

It is natural for us to accumulate stuff like this. Life is always changing, as are our desires, interests and proclivities. For instance:

  • We downsize from a large home to a condo
  • We develop a new interest or hobby
  • We experience a medical event, leaving us with physical limitations
  • We add to our family
  • We realign our priorities and how we spend our time
  • We establish a new eating regimen
  • We quit a bad habit
  • We shift from paper and analog media to digital media
  • We grow older and and/or become physically limited
  • Our family members move away, changing our entertaining patterns
  • We pursue a new career or retire
  • We relocate to a new climate
  • We move from an academic into a professional environment

Some of the changes we experience are voluntary, planned and joyful. Others are unexpected, painful and difficult. Regardless of the cause, shifts like these often leave us with belongings that no longer fit our lifestyle. On the one hand, we can acknowledge that we don’t really need to keep them. At the same time, we struggle to part with them because they are part of our “story” or have sentimental value. Some of the reasons frequently voiced for holding on are:

“I used to love this.”

“I plan on getting back into this someday.”

“I know I’m not using this now, but I might at some point in the future.”

“It makes me sad to think of getting rid of this. It will feel like an ending.”

“I invested so much money and/or time into these.”

Here is the reality: while any or even all of these statements may be true, they often do not justify an object’s real estate in our space.  We may think it is “free” to hold onto things, but it really isn’t. We rent or pay for living space, so each square foot costs us something. Even if we own our home, possessions can still take up space that might be better used in another way. Often I find that the most convenient and accessible locations are full of these “”idle” pieces, while the active items get stuffed or stacked in less accessible or unpleasantly visible places. If we can’t accommodate the objects we are most frequently using because our storage locations are packed with pieces from the past, it is probably time to start letting go.

If you struggle to release pieces tied to your past, keep the following in mind:

You never lose past experiences. You don’t need to keep the paraphernalia to keep the experience in your mind, heart and soul.

You don’t have to complete voluntary projects. If you children are teenagers and you haven’t made their baby books, it is perfectly acceptable to just give those books away. Don’t feel guilty about not doing things you don’t really have to do.

You probably won’t refer back to it. Ask yourself, “If I needed the information in these papers or books, would I look for them to find it, or just Google it?”

Moving from one life phase into another is neither a bad thing nor a sign of failure. True, you may never get back into cycling or softball, but so what? For whatever reason, you are engaged in other pursuits at the moment. Good for you!

You probably won’t use it in the future if you haven’t touched it in years. Technology changes, fashions morph, and pieces deteriorate. Like it or not, progress often means that the stuff we’ve stored for years never gets touched.

You are unlikely to get your money back. Markets are fickle, and we rarely know what will end up being valuable in a future marketplace.  

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Do you own any items that you haven’t used for a long time but resist shedding?

21 thoughts on “Is It Time to Let Go of These?”

  1. It’s true that part of our human nature is to resist change and to resist letting go of things that relate to that change. I am often thinking of how change is a natural part of our existence and to embrace this as a powerful part of our lives. When we have moved forward, it still takes time to let go of the stuff related to that. I find that baby steps, letting go of a little at a time, helps me the most. That is easier to let go this way.

    1. If you have the ability to shed in layers, or as I say, “Peel the onion,” that can be an easier way to manage the emotional roller coaster. I find that clients may resist letting go at one point, but then change their mind later in the process. Baby steps are still steps, right?

  2. I literally just purged some baking dishes and some of my ceramic pieces in my hutch last week that I no longer have used in a few years. I started to realize I was running out of storage space there. I decided to look through it all. When I did I went in with the idea that if I haven’t idea looked at it or used it some time to toss it. That helped me so much as I ended up with three garbage bags full. My cabinets are indeed lighter to store stuff that I actually do use. So, couldn’t agree more with your assessment here 🙂

    1. Good for you letting go of dishes… three garbage bags full is A LOT! That must have felt so amazing, freeing up space in your hutch the things you really like and want to use. That’s what it is all about:)

  3. What a powerful statement- “shifts like these often leave us with belongings that no longer fit our lifestyle.” So often we hold onto things from the past because they were a significant part of who we were at a point in time. We keep things beyond their usefulness or meaning. We either don’t give ourselves the time to look and evaluate or like you so beautifully described, we hold on because we are emotionally attached and feel pain in letting go. I love all of the ways you described the types of objects that we hold onto from other life stages, the reasons frequently heard for holding on, and ideas for how to let go. Pausing to evaluate and face the things we’ve collected, to ask some hard questions, and make some choices is a valuable process to take. It’s in our letting go of the things that take up physical and emotional space that allows us to lighten our being and move forward.

    1. That discussion and conversation can be rough, which is one reason why I think it can be so helpful to have someone else around to talk with. Sometimes you just need to bounce some thoughts off of someone else. I was with a client this morning talking about shedding a particular type of toy. Her children weren’t happy, but she felt she still had plenty of this type of toy, if/when they wanted to play with it. She told me that as soon as it was gone, they forgot about it and never brought it up again. It’s hard to let go of a “known” for the hope of an improved “unknown,” but often this is really the secret weapon for moving forward.

  4. I love the way you talk about the space in our homes as real estate that costs something and that the things we use most often should be in the easy to reach storage spaces – not the things we are no longer using. Great points and beautifully expressed!

    1. Thanks Diane! I often tell clients that it is human nature to underestimate the carrying costs associated with our belongings. We undervalue the cost of cleaning, storing, moving, tripping over, insuring and otherwise dealing with physical objects. It is unfortunate when we allow the past to impinge on our enjoyment of the present.

  5. My husband and I have a CD changer that has close to 500 CDs in it. All of them have been converted to digital. But, we are still struggling with what we should do with these CDs. We are a music family and are concerned that if we get rid of them, that something will happen to the digital copies. I bet it will be one of the first things we get rid of when we downsize our home.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…10 Wonderful Ways A Father Helped His DaughterMy Profile

    1. That’s a great one, Sabrina! I’ve had the same experience with photographs. Even when I’ve digitized them and put them in a book, I still feel like I should hold onto the originals, especially for vintage photos. The trouble is, many of them are crumbling, which is why I digitized them in the first place. We also have a cabinet full of CDs, but I know we never listen to the vast majority of them. I have a lot of things like that in my space that I know I will quickly shed when the time to downsize arrives. Simply knowing I would let them go is a comfort to me now, and as long as they aren’t in my way, I let them ride.

  6. This is such a great article about letting go of the past. We just recently went camping and it was challenging. It was cold, it rained, there were bugs and we were so uncomfortable. We didn’t sleep. It was awful. Thinking about letting go of the camping stuff is really hard. Still thinking about it.
    Kim recently posted…The Magic of DeclutteringMy Profile

  7. This is a wonderful post! You are right that it can be very difficult to part with objects associated with a previous stage of life, and your tips on what to keep in mind if you are stuggling with letting go are great! The fact that “you never lose past experiences” is one I often discuss with my clients.

    1. It can feel like the memory of the experience will be lost if we aren’t looking at the supplies, but it won’t. To be honest, if we no longer remember the experience, then having the associated “stuff” will likely be of no assistance.

  8. I do love what you said about how we don’t lose past experiences. That’s such a reason people hold on, and it’s a reason I write and take photos. I’m afraid of my brain forgetting all these rich experiences.
    I really relate to having trouble letting go of baby/kid clothes, maternity clothes, and for awhile, I held onto my pre-pregnancy low rise jeans. They were NOT for the hips I have and love now.

    1. Low rise jeans are not flattering on my current body either! I think it is fine to keep a few mementos, but if you are never going to play ice hockey again, you don’t need half of your garage full of the gear.

  9. Sometimes we hold onto things that represent a bad part of our life – I don’t know why we do that but I’ve both done it myself and seen others do it too. Letting go of those things frees up space in our homes – and our heads. We’re not likely to forget we had that experience; we certainly don’t need stuff around to trigger bad memories!

    1. I see that a lot as well. That is where an objective perspective can be so valuable. I will ask a client, “You just said this represents a bad time in your life. You don’t want to display this or even look at it, so why are you keeping it?” Just starting that conversation can be a helpful first step toward getting those things – and their associated emotions – out of your space and your head. Such a good point, Janet!

  10. Wonderful thoughts on downsizing. I love when people let go of their past possessions sooner rather than later. It can be so daunting to wait and much more emotional when you have to do it all at once. Now I just have to convince my husband of this!

    1. It is totally more intimidating when you have to do it all at once. I love when you can declutter at a leisurely pace. That way, you can keep the items you are unsure about and revisit them later. Often, when you come back the second time it is much easier to let things go.

  11. I am guilty of this one: “Food we bought for a diet or nutritional program we used to follow.” Ack!

    I noticed a small collection of “I don’t eat this food anymore” in my freezer before I went out of town and planned to trash it when I got back. Well, I’m back. I have no sentimental feelings and am not attached to this food. But, I should have put a reminder in my app instead of making a mental note! (double ack!).

    Thanks for the nudge, Seana. =)
    Deb Lee recently posted…SMBs Must Optimize Digital Processes To Compete Against Leading BrandsMy Profile

    1. That “throwing food out before vacation” is definitely a thing. I find this type of situation in a lot of homes. We try things, and then we forget they are in there:)

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