People, Belongings, and the Relationship Between the Two

Woman carrying a box of stuff. People, Belongings, and the Relationship Between the Two

As a professional organizer, I spend a lot of time working with people and their “stuff.” People, belongings, and the relationship between the two can be complex. When I first started in this profession, I honestly didn’t realize how complicated the interplay is between human beings and our belongings.

The things we own can serve a variety of wonderful purposes:

  • Functional assistance
  • Comfort
  • Connection
  • Protection
  • Personal, professional, and educational enrichment
  • Self-expression
  • Emotional regulation

Unfortunately, they can also end up causing some less-desirable situations:

  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Stress
  • Confusion
  • Chaos
  • Financial pressure
  • Familial or professional conflict
  • Exhaustion
  • Grief, sadness, and/or disappointment

Suffice it to say, decluttering a space is much more complicated than simply “throwing a bunch of things away.” In many cases, the process involves making potentially difficult decisions. The good news is, decision-making is like a muscle. The more decisions we make, the stronger the muscle gets. If you are at the front end of a project and feeling like you’ll never be able to get through it, take heart! The process will become easier!

While the relationship any given individual has to his/her possessions is unique, I have learned a few “truths” about human beings and belongings that I thought I would share. Hopefully reading these will affirm you and how you may be feeling about your situation.

What is important to one person may be very different from what is important to another person.

I’ve noticed that we all have some items for which we feel a particular affinity. For one it may be books, for another it is clothes, for another it is tools, etc. Whatever the category, when feel a strong connection to a type of item, we tend to accumulate more of it. In and of itself, this is fine. In fact, I wrote about this phenomenon in a post on “Selective Complexity.” At the same time, if you are ready to declutter this category, be patient with yourself. You may need a bit more support to make decisions and let go of these particular things.

There are some items that most of us have cluttering up our spaces.

Unique as we are, there are some “common culprits” at work in most homes. You are normal if you have these piling up, stashed in, or otherwise crowding your space. The good news is, there are strategies for managing almost all of these.

We largely see acquiring as a positive and letting go as a negative.

Most people would rather go shopping, or scroll online vendors, than declutter their belongings. Who doesn’t love getting new things, right? They are full of promise and optimism.

In contrast, when we remove things from our lives, we may experience feelings of loss. Happy memories make us reluctant to shed items, even if we no longer want, need, or use them. We may also have anxiety about making a mistake.

We often accumulate mindlessly.

Acquisition happens in many formats. In some cases, we intentionally shop for and buy products we want or need. However, a lot of the things we own are often the result of “spur of the moment” behavior:

  • We were given a “free sample” in a store and decided to buy the whole bag.
  • We were on vacation and picked up a souvenir because… that’s just what you do
  • We encountered a BOGO sale, and thought it was smart to buy two when we only really intended on buying one.
  • We picked up an item we saw on sale, or while waiting in a checkout line (retailers know what they are doing!)
  • We bought the multi-pack because it seemed like a “good deal”
  • We placed an online order for something we found while scrolling in boredom
  • We purchased a product at the recommendation of a friend, even though we didn’t need it
  • We went shopping for entertainment
We have things we didn’t buy.

Many times, clients will pick up an item and say, “Where did this even come from?” It can feel like items are walking through our door without our knowledge. Party favors, conference swag, gifts, things left behind by others, freebies, and inherited pieces are just a few examples. I also see many kind people who have agreed to “temporarily house” items for others, stuck with them for long periods of time.

People often have reasons for why they keep things and why they put them in a specific place.

Whenever I come across an “odd” object, one that seems out of place and perhaps of no use, I always say, “Tell me about this.” What I’ve discovered is that, as often as not, people have a good reason for the objects they keep. For example, one woman keeps a mop with no mop-head because she uses it once a year to push her Christmas light cords behind her carpet stairs. Another keeps plastic sleeves from beauty products because she repurposes them to hold her self-made greeting cards.

Organizing isn’t about making a space look a specific way, but about creating spaces that make life easier and better. This may mean one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

We hold onto things with good – but unrealistic– intentions.

Most people have broken items they intend to repair, a project they plan to complete, a hobby they plan to resume, a shirt whose button they plan to replace, a baby book they plan to complete, or some other possession for which they have “plans.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but limbo should come with an expiration date.

As much as we may resist letting go, we usually feel terrific after we do so.

The upside of reclaimed space and improved order almost always outweighs the momentary discomfort of letting go. I tell clients that getting organized is, in fact, a very positive process, often resulting in an even greater emotional lift than buying something new. There is something magical about taking back control and cultivating a peaceful, functional, and pleasant environment. I often see a weightlifting from clients as we work, and facial expressions of joy when we finish.

As my tagline says, there is great “freedom through organization.”

*     *     *

Do any of these truths feel familiar?

Seana's signature

20 thoughts on “People, Belongings, and the Relationship Between the Two”

  1. One of the biggest challenges is keeping things for “aspirational living.” This is not “just in case”, but rather an imagined life different from existing life. Examples of this is keeping tea cups so we can have a tea party at some time. Our stuff gives us a sense of excitement and activity that might not happen.

    1. Such a great point, Ellen. I can think of many pieces that have been kept for “aspirational living” reasons, but with clients and in my own life. Those are hard to let go of, because it is an acceptance of reality we may be resisting. It feels like an end of a dream. At the same time, it might free us to have more time/space/energy for dreams that we have a good chance of actually pursuing!

  2. Golden words: “Limbo should come with an expiration date.” Wow! That’s powerful, Seana! I love all of what you described here and the complex relationship we have with our stuff.

    So much of this hinges on developing awareness and strengthened decision-making muscles. Both come with practice. And if these are things that are not easy, reaching out for support is invaluable.

    While it can be fun and novel to acquire, there is nothing quite like letting go. There is freedom and calm in less.

    1. I completely agree. There is true freedom and calm in less. I think I feel this more as I age. When I was younger, with little ones, having everything I could possibly need on hand felt critical. While I still acknowledge the value of that preparedness, I can also see that having too much made my life burdened and messy. At times, putting my hands on what I needed was rough. There is a balance between prepared and burdened, right?

      1. Yes. I’m with you. I appreciate having what I need, but not so much of it that it becomes overwhelming. This weekend, I did some letting go and brought seven bags of items to a donation site. It felt great! A bonus is the space where I staged and collected the stuff to donate is now free and clear.

        1. I often take donations for clients, or have them piling up in my own space for a time, and it truly is a wonderful feeling to see spaces opened and freed up! Good foryou – seven bags!!

  3. Seana, so much of what you said resonated with me. Our relationship to our stuff is complicated. Our homes can become filled without our ever intending them to be this way. Jonda and I are speaking at the Certified Senior Advisor Conference this week. Our topic is: How Did I End Up With So Much Stuff (and what to do about it). It is loosely based on our book: Filled Up and Overflowing: what to do when life events, chronic disorganization, or hoarding go overboard. Letting go of the extra things we keep is difficult in the moment but the benefits are huge. This is a great topic.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…Productive Things To Do While You WaitMy Profile

    1. What a gift to the conference you and Jonda and giving with this topic. I am sure it will be quite well received. We can all learn on this topic. I hope you have a smooth and successful trip!

  4. I have heard all of these reasons from my clients. The one, clients seem to have the most trouble stopping, is things that people give them or their children. Unwanted, unneeded and a kind person is trying to be thoughtful or helpful. Clients have trouble talking with those people to help them to understand not to bring things over for them.

  5. When you wrote, “limbo should come with an expiration date,” my first thought was that this needs to be embroidered on a pillow (that someone is unwilling to give up). It’s so true! Unrealistic expectations are so hard to dismantle!

    All of your points are apt. I know all of these examples resonate with my clients’ experiences. I’m more likely to keep digital information than tangible “stuff,” though the stuff I have, like my digital materials, all books and papers — acquisition of knowledge is more powerful for me than the idea of acquiring tangible things. For the first two years of the pandemic, the only clothing items I purchased were socks; getting new stuff like that doesn’t excite me. Thank goodness for the public library; I let them do the acquiring!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Organize to Prevent (or Recover From) a Car TheftMy Profile

    1. I adore my library. I haven’t bought a book in years. They also have a wide array of magazines, and an alcove with a fireplace for relaxing and leafing through, which is especially appealing come winter!

  6. With great organization comes freedom. For sure! When the kids were younger (or the older two, anyway), we were very short on money so we accumulated things we didn’t even need. I just hated the idea of them not having a ton of clothes, toys, whatever. We used to love vendor events where you get bags of junk! Ah, the memories.
    Tamara recently posted…Peanut Butter Dream Bars RecipeMy Profile

    1. That is very common, actually. Sometimes the people with the lowest available funds accumulate the most. There is an awareness of not being able to run out and get what you might need, so you tend to hold onto things longer. Plus, sometimes people are giving you things out of kindness, etc. It can be a hard situation!

  7. If people can only buy what they only need and splurge maybe for birthdays and Xmas only.
    I once told my husband that we should move every few years so we can declutter. It’s not the case but the thought of it to keep our home clean and organized is great.

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