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Understanding and Letting Go of Your Sentimental Clutter

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Photo from Jarmoluk on Pixabay

Sentimental clutter. You’ve probably heard of it and seen thousands of posts and videos on the subject.  There’s no shortage of this content because humans are emotional creatures, and we get particularly attached to objects which represent the past: Our old childhood teddy bears, A+ school work, letters and cards from loved ones, our childrens’ artwork, photos, trinkets of the places we have been, wedding memorabilia, the guitar from that dream of becoming an awesome musician, the gift from an ex, the tableware from an aunt who passed…

If your heart is sinking and cleaching just thinking about getting rid of your grandma’s jewellery, fear not. 

Keeping some sentimental objects isn’t some terrible thing; by all means you should keep that which you love and value. Some sentimental items can bring back happy feelings and memories whenever you see them. Some of them may make you feel close to lost loved ones. 

And that’s okay! 

But most likely you’ve wound up finding this article because you’re overwhelmed and are wondering what to do with it all. And no matter what you read or watch, you still don’t feel you have the magic answer. The one thing that will give you the courage and motivation to traverse the avenues of memories and sort the clutter once and for all!

Believe me, I know what that’s like. 

These kinds of problems with sentimental objects arise when you forget you even had them in the first place. When absolutely everything is sentimental. When you struggle to store them. When they weigh you down and stop you moving forwards. When they bring forth painful memories. When they degrade and cause you sadness. When they pile up and cause pain for whoever has the task of sorting through your treasures after you’re gone. 

If you’re internally nodding with agreement here and sagging at the thought of it all, know that I can help you, but one thing I can’t do is make the decisions for you.

What I can do is help you to realise what is important to you, and to offer you the wisdom and insight I’ve gained over my 5 years as a minimalist. 

I used to own so much stuff that it caused arguments between me and my fiance (now my husband). Although everything looked tidy, every drawer was rammed, some of them bowing under the weight. I lost count of the times letters, keyrings, and other small objects would fall behind the drawers themselves and get stuck. Cupboards and closets were pregnant with memories , trinkets, and collectibles, and if there was a shelf you can guarantee it was full. 

The attic was so full of my stuff I had visions of the ceiling collapsing one day, and it was like a gameshow challenge trying to access Christmas decorations. 

To cut a long story short, I’ve decluttered over 98% of what I once had. What once was crammed into stacks of large plastic storage bins and random plastic bags are now consolidated into a few plastic boxes, and my most precious memorabilia into one beautiful memory box. 

This may seem like an unobtainable amount to you right now, but let me assure you that it took years for me to get to the mindset I am now (it might not take you half as long). 

I was forced to confront a large chunk of my childhood clutter when my frustrated mum came to our house with bags and bags of child me which she had brought down from the attic. She wanted me to sort through it before they got too old to deal with it all.

Only when I started going through it and feeling the emotions did I understand just how much I had accumulated and start to question why. 

As if the universe aligned with my new curiosity, I then discovered Francine Jay’s book ‘The Joy of Less’, and a minimalist emerged from beneath all the stuff. 

However, I didn’t go straight into decluttering the hard stuff. That would be like trying to run a 10k marathon when I could barely manage a hundred metres, or like trying to do fifty press ups while barely managing ten. 

Instead, I started off with the easier stuff before I even got to the things that held memories. There were many bags going out but the emotional impact was small. Things like piles of gaming magazines, writing magazines, jewellery I never wore, and duplicates. Even with those, I whittled them down slowly, fearing that I would regret getting rid of them (I never did!). 

After a while, I started to really appreciate the space I was gaining and understanding that I didn’t need half the stuff I thought I did. As I continued the process of letting go, I eventually reached the point where my decluttering muscles and my mindset were strong enough to start going through my sentimental belongings, including things from people who had died who I was close to. 

I went through these items trinket by trinket, letter by letter. 

With each one I held I thought deeply about why I had kept the object and if it really deserved to be stored in a cramped storage box in the damp darkness of the attic. One of these objects was a Dick Turpin mug which had belonged my Uncle Gordy. I was extremely close to him and it left a big hole in me when he passed. 

I had kept this mug because I had memories of Gordy laughing at me being so terrified of the mug which he kept in his living room display cabinet (I was a child). He always used to remind me about the mug and for some reason I thought that hanging onto it was a memory of him and that I would lose the memory if I let go of it. 

The thing was, I didn’t like this mug even as an adult. I didn’t want to display it, and I knew in my heart that this was no way to honour the memory of Gordy. Instead, I took a photo of the mug, then asked a family member if they wanted it (which they did).  

When I posted it off, I expected to feel sadness, but instead I felt light and even smiled at the silly memory which I’ve still not forgotten. 

Over time I’ve learnt that our most precious memories are stored deep in our souls, not in the objects themselves. Objects can help to bring forth the memory, but even without the trigger, the memory itself isn’t gone. 

As life goes on we accumulate more and more memories, possibly losing more people along the way, and we want to cling to the objects because they make us feel safe and take us back to a period in time. 

But the harsh truth is, you’ll never relive or be able to recreate that period of time in your life. There’s only now. The present. 

And what is it you want out of now? How do you envision your future? Your space? 

It’s those questions which promoted my most recent purge of sentimental objects, alongside entering a new phase in my life and a new job. 

Towards the end of 2021, I left the school where I was a teaching assistant for the past twelve years. The day I left I sobbed my heart out, was given some lovely gifts and was presented with a beautiful keepsake which was an engraved glass block of the school and its logo. I knew this was something I wanted to keep, however, I couldn’t display it with my rampant one year old running amok, so into my memory box it would have to go. 

Despite being curated over the past few years, the box was full from events which had happened since my last purge, and I came to the realisation that if I wanted to live lightly, I had to live more in the present and ask myself harder questions. 

I ended up taking a photo of and getting rid of an old newspaper clipping (with bittersweet memories attached) plus a few postcards I had kept for reasons I could no longer fathom. While I felt motivated, I also decluttered my wedding cards and was therefore able to sell my wedding memory box. 

To celebrate, I bought myself a beautiful new keepsake box with a small drawer and have told myself that once it’s full something else has to go. 

After all, our lives on this planet are only so long. We don’t know when we are going to die or from what, or whether illness and disability will hit and render everything else in our lives useless. And I’m simply not willing to leave this kind of stuff until I’m too old to do something about it, or for somebody else to feel pain sorting through when I pass. 

We enter this world with nothing and we leave with nothing but our souls. 

Therefore, anything not serving me now in this season of my life, including items from memories that no longer hold weight, needs to go. 

One of the biggest things I’ve learnt is that sentimentality is an ever-changing state, and what meant something to me years ago may no longer be important or relevant enough to earn a spot in my life. 

Lastly, I want to make it very clear that your journey is your own. Nobody can tell you what is important to you or what you should want to keep or let go of. Your memories are yours, and what you choose to do with your physical memories is down to you. 

You’ve got the memories. You’ve got the power. 

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