Cutting the Chains on Sentimental Objects

One minute you’re flying along, throwing out and donating bags of stuff at the speed of light, the next, you’ve sat there for half an hour delicately handling your grandad’s prize trophy, or smiling at your son’s first drawing of family. 

Eventually, you put those items back, not necessarily because you want to keep them, but because you can’t face the barrage of emotions or decide what to do with the thing. 

Surely, your decluttering efforts are a failure. So you stop until next time, which might be another year or two from now, and when you’ll face the same object. 

I know because I’ve been there several times. 

One of the most common places to lose decluttering steam is with sentimental objects, which can be anything you have attached strong memories and emotions to. As humans, we do that a lot and can easily attach meaning and feeling to the most mundane objects. For me, one those was a salt shaker.  It meant a lot to the family who presented it to me, so I took on that meaning. 

When you think about sentimental objects you might picture: 

  • Grandma’s jewellery
  • Cards from people who have passed away
  • Old school certificates
  • School reports
  • Good pieces of school work
  • Old artwork from yourself or your kids
  • Handwritten letters 
  • Wedding dress or accessories
  • Wedding china 
  • A favourite toy from your grown-up child 
  • Your first soft toy 
  • Holiday souvenirs
  • Photos 
  • Journals 
  • The dresser that’s been in your family for generations 
  • Nostalgic videogame consoles and games 
  • That ornament that was given to you as a moving in gift

Now, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the odd sentimental item. They can make you laugh, smile, and spark conversations about warm toasty memories. The problem comes when they start taking up a lot of space, trigger bad memories,  make you feel sad, or prevent you in some way from moving on in your life. 

Sentimental items can cause us to stay stuck in the past which cannot be changed or revisited, rather than stepping into the future which is full of potential. 

They can also cause problems for the people who have to go through your stuff after you pass. 

It’s taken me a few years to confront and slowly let go of the memory-filled salt shakers, keyrings, postcards, thank you cards, jewellery, ornaments, and journals in my life. 

Some of the stuff was from previous relationships or close relatives who had passed away.

The hardest things to declutter by far have been my journals which I have kept since I was a kid. Only a couple of them had pages that made me smile. The rest have made me feel sad and distressed, reliving the emotions and events that went into those words. 

The whole thing has been liberating, and with each journal shredded has come a feeling of pure lightness. It’s as if my soul has been stretched to capacity like an overloaded bag, then unloaded and slowly returned back to shape. 

The whole process has been far from easy. In fact, there are still a handful left out of a large plastic box that was once so crammed I couldn’t get the lid on. 

‘What if you want to look back to see how far you’ve come?’ said the voice in my head. 

‘What if you lose a precious memory?’

‘Suppose you want to write a book?’

I had to journal about and really consider the likelihood of those scenarios. It took me several journal entries about decluttering my journals before I felt ready to make a start. 

It’s been similar for other things I have let go of, such as the Dick Turpin ornament that once sat in my Uncle Gordy’s cabinet. 

What if I lost the precious memories of going to his flat? Would he be mad if he knew I was letting go of it? 

Either way, I didn’t want it on my shelves, and it wasn’t doing anyone any favours being wrapped up in some dark box in the attic. So, as if I was jumping into a pool of cold water, I took the plunge, took a photo of it, and let it go. 

And I didn’t lose the memories. And no angry ghost came to me, upset that I dare let go of his stuff. Besides, why would he be so mad at me letting go of something in the material realm when he was no longer occupying it? Why would he want to burden my life? Of course he wouldn’t. 

After that, it became somewhat easier to declutter other sentimental items. 

I also didn’t want to become a burden to anyone else if i died (which could happen at any time), so some of the questions I ask myself is:

  • What would this mean to someone else?
  • What purpose is it serving me right now, really? 
  • What am I afraid of?
  • Why am I keeping it?
  • Why do I want to declutter it? 
  • Would this bring somebody else joy?
  • How much time might this take from someone else dealing with my stuff?

Usually, I am scared of losing a memory or upsetting someone – neither of which has happened yet. The mind loves to create fear and keep you firmly rooted in your comfort zone.

I could sit here and type a step-by-step guide on how you can declutter your own sentimental objects, but because it is such a personal journey, all I can really do is to guide you and show my own thoughts and processes as I declutter my own. 

Perhaps your fears are similar. 

Either way, I can assure you that you won’t lose your memories. I’ve taken many photos of the things I’ve let go of, convinced I might like to see them again, and so far that’s not happened. If you do go the route of taking photos, be wary of accumulating digital clutter, which can prevent you from enjoying the files and photos which are precious to you. 

Sometimes, we come across things which may have meant something to us as a 15-year-old, but no longer holds any meaning where we are now. It’s easier to start freeing yourselves from those kind of sentimental objects, than those which have deeper attachments. 

While you go through your sentimental treasures, it’s worth remembering that the past is the past. You can’t truly revisit it or recreate it no matter how hard you try. People and circumstances change constantly, along with the seasons. 

If, however, there are some things you’d like to keep, why not honour them by displaying them in your home? You could also make or buy a beautiful memory box and keep a curated amount of your most special treasures. 

I recommend that you revisit memory boxes every year or so, because it’s amazing how things that hold so much meaning to us now, can start to lose their meaning and become clutter that you’re fearful of letting go of. 

If you’re feeling stuck, journaling about the object, like I did about my hoard of journals, can be a massive help. Don’t rush yourself to come to a quick conclusion, because you need to understand what’s keeping you attached in the first place, and that’s going to be unique to you. 

Letting go of sentimental objects can be the most freeing and give you the biggest decluttering muscles of all. 

Don’t run from the items, take it slow, and trust yourself to take the plunge when you feel it.

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