Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? How our emotions get in the way of decluttering
Decluttering is not an unheard of project. Many of us have done some decluttering, or at the very least researched information on how to get rid of stuff.
We are learning about the benefits of decluttering and living with less all the time – especially when it comes to our mental clutter and emotional/mental load we as women take on all the time.
Essentially, less is more.
For those of us who have decluttered (or tried) it is likely you’ve come up against roadblocks. Many of those roadblocks probably involved an emotion or two. Can you relate?
You may have found yourself wondering:
“Why is it so hard for me to get rid of things?” or “why is decluttering so hard?”
If you’ve ever felt like that, you’re not alone.
How do I know?
Because my family has donated over 150 large boxes of stuff, sold countless more, and held a three-day free yard “sale” (which means we had enough stuff to actually host said “sale”). Yeah. Trust me, I’ve been there.
This post explores the most common emotions that come up for us when decluttering and will help you identify them. It also includes tips for how to work through these emotions.
Let me explain.
Dealing with alllllll emotions
I need to break something to you.
Our things? The physical items we surround ourselves with? They’re just things. They’re neutral. We, as human beings, attach all sorts of emotions to these things, making it hard to part with them when the time comes.
And no, it’s not wrong to want or have things. Again, they’re neutral.
The issues arise when we:
- start to identify with them
- hold onto them because they evoke a negative emotion
- use them to distract ourselves from dealing with hard things
- allow them to start cluttering up our mind, space
- let them take up our time
Not all emotions that come up when you’re decluttering are going to be negative, but some likely will. As human beings, as a society, we are not good at dealing with negative emotions. In fact, we will do almost anything to avoid them and get away from that icky feeling. Why do you think the search for happiness is so prevalent in our day to day?
Let me give you a quick example: pretend you’re me, and you’re holding on to your pre-baby clothes because you are trying SO HARD to “get back to the way you were” before your son was born. TWO YEARS PRIOR.
It’s an ordinary day, you get up, and go to your closet to pick out some clothes. You open your drawer, and BOOM. You see the pre-baby clothes. Whether you know it or not, you’re going to have some sort of reaction. Mine was usually disappointment or sadness (not that there’s anything wrong with these emotions, but in this case, it led to more). Then cue the negative self talk.
This is how I started each day for over a year. I also avoided buying clothes that actually fit, meaning I was still wearing maternity clothes two years after my son was born. They didn’t feel good and they didn’t fit well. Enter more negativity.
So no, ‘things’ themselves aren’t bad. But when they evoke negative emotions each and every day that aren’t helpful for us, or lead to other unhelpful behaviors, they become an issue. Additionally, they can be a huge reason why it is so hard for you to get rid of things.
What you can expect…
This post is not going to guide you through avoiding or getting away from negative emotions. This is not helpful or, in my unprofessional opinion, healthy.
Instead, this post is going to help you do two things.
Part one is to identify these emotions, which I’m going to help you do. A task as simple as identifying and naming a particular emotion is a great way to lessen the power it has over you.
Part two is to work through the emotions. Yes, that means sitting with uncomfortableness. Before you run off, because I can already SENSE the anxiety starting to rise, hear me out. This will be mostly on you, but I know you got this. I’m going to give you tools to help you move through those emotions and declutter!
Part three will provide you with resources for how to actually declutter! I’m sharing a lot of posts I’ve written which approach decluttering knowing how emotions and roadblocks get in the way.
Part four will briefly address a couple other roadblocks that I feel need to be addressed as well.
So, why is it so hard to get rid of stuff?
In this section, I’ll cover common emotions that rise up when decluttering to help you identify what you may be experiencing – the first step in moving past those emotions!
There are so many reasons we can feel guilt while decluttering. Here are a few:
- guilt over money spent
- guilt over getting rid of perfectly good items
- guilt over getting rid of a gift
- guilt over something that was given to you by someone who has passed away
It’s perfectly normal to feel guilty decluttering. In fact, it is one of the most common emotions that people experience! And we can use it to our advantage, but remembering the guilt feeling to avoid particular behaviors in the future.
But here is the thing. That regular guilty feeling you get by looking at certain items? It’s not serving you. Because every time you look at that item, you feel guilty, whether you realize it or not. That’s mental clutter you DON’T NEED.
The money is already spent.
Someone else could use the perfectly good items you’re not using.
The gift was in the exchange. Remember that items are neutral.
The person would likely want you to be happy and not feel burdened by an item.
Use your guilt to learn from, but don’t subject yourself to the emotion over and over just because you’re keeping a particular item.
According to one study, “getting rid of objects leads to real grief. Parting with possessions that make you feel worthy can cause you to experience sadness–and even depression.”
Maybe a specific item brings up the thought of a loved one that has passed, or a photo reminds you of a different time you long for. Or maybe you’ve been measuring your self worth and identify with things (nothing wrong with that – knowledge is power moving forward).
The study mentioned above does ask a sort of would you rather question:
“…the grief you’ll experience if you toss it or the frustration you experience from looking at the clutter.”
You can work through the grief, but if you don’t do anything about the clutter, the frustration will continue until you decide to do something about it. And then you’ll still have to go through the grief. Sometimes it is easiest to just rip off the bandaid.
Love and fondness aren’t necessarily emotions we would consider ‘bad’. But, they can lead to other emotions, like sadness/grief, which can spiral into other negative behaviors.
For example, maybe you’re keeping all your kids baby clothes. Every time you try to go through them, you first feel the love and fondness of that stage in your kids life. But then, your thoughts quickly turn to: “oh my goodness, they’re getting so big. Soon, they’ll be out of the house and won’t need me any more.”
Depending on the headspace you’re in, maybe this will spiral to anxiety or another emotion.
These examples may seem kind of ridiculous, but trust me, it’s not uncommon.
Another super common and classic decluttering emotion.
You look around at all your stuff, and you can physically feel the overwhelm rising up in your body. You may start feeling like shutting down. Pushing the thought of decluttering aside. You just have no idea where to start!
Or maybe you were able to get started, but after really digging in and into things, you suddenly feel like you’re not sure which direction to go.
Common? Yes? Frustrating? 100%. Something you can move past?
Frustration is an emotion that can easily show up on its own or following another one.
Here are a few places frustration can easily show up:
- At a partner/roommate/family member you live with who may not share the same values/desire to declutter as you
- Frustration quickly following overwhelm
- Frustration at yourself for spending so much money on stuff
- Frustration at yourself for accumulating so much stuff (and keeping it)
- Frustration at wondering where to responsibly donate or get rid of stuff
- Frustration you can’t just get rid of everything right away
There is likely so much more. But you get the gist.
The good news is that frustration doesn’t have to be the end of your journey!
“I’ll use this, someday”. Or, “someday I may need this!” Or, “what if I give away something and then want it back later?”
All of these sentiments (and other similar ones) all stem from anxiety. Ah yes, our old friend anxiety. If you’re anything like me, and you take a closer look at where that anxiety is actually coming from, I’m going to guess it’s not about the ‘stuff’.
So what does it actually mean? It really depends on your personal experiences. And while you don’t necessarily need to dig in and solve everything while you’re trying to declutter, just realizing that these thought patterns are anxiety (and not necessarily the truth) can help you move past them.
Related post: Minimalism and Zero Waste Living Can Help with Anxiety: Here’s How
This is an emotion that comes up often, especially when talking about partners or roommates who don’t want to declutter. Sometimes stuff represents that we’ve “made it”. Maybe you grew up not well off, maybe your family immigrated to the US and worked hard to get to where you are today, maybe your partner lived with their grandparents who grew up in the great depression and kept everything.
This is a hard one to work through, but just being aware, and most importantly, compassionate towards yourself or partner/housemate. Again, identifying this emotion is super helpful to give you a little better understanding of what is going on.
Related post: How to live zero waste and be a minimalist when your partner isn’t
Remember my example at the beginning of the post where I was holding on to clothes to get back to a fantasy version of myself? The ‘self’ I was pre-baby? The hard truth was I would never be able to get that person back. How could I? I was forever physically and emotionally changed.
It took me a long time to get to that acceptance. But once I finally did I could part with those items that literally did not bring me joy.
Another example? I used to work at a craft store, and I wanted to be a fantastic knitter. I bought anything and everything knitting. And I did knit for a while. But then, I stopped.
I moved those knitting supplies three times.
They sat in storage for two years.
I kept telling myself I was going to be a knitter! I wanted to be a knitter! When I had more time, once my son was older, blah, blah, blah. Really, it was all excuses.
I gave the knitting supplies to a friend’s mom who really is an amazing knitter. And I haven’t missed those items once.
Be honest with yourself about why you may be keeping certain items. Is it because of a fantasy person you’ve dreamed for yourself?
Related post: 35+ Decluttering Resources for Getting Rid of Physical, Mental, and Other Types of Clutter!
How to move forward and get rid of clutter
Now that we’ve talked about the emotions behind why it is so hard to get rid of stuff, let’s talk about ways that you can work through them and free yourself from your clutter!
Find your why
This is one of my top tips for any lifestyle change. You MUST have a why. Why (ha)?
Your why will help you get through any roadblocks you come up against. It can be the difference between giving up and remotivating yourself!
When I first started decluttering, I did so because I had read about the mental benefits of clearing clutter. I also wanted to tap into the benefit of freeing up more time usually spent looking for items, cleaning, organizing, etc.
That was my ‘why’.
As I’ve continued to declutter, those are still very important pieces to me. But after my son was born, he was added into my ‘why’.
Your why can change and evolve as you do. Whatever motivates you, that’s all you need.
Write it down, memorize it, keep it close when you’re decluttering. Look at it when you need motivation to keep going.
Take things slow
Decluttering can get overwhelming if you try to take on too much too fast. I see a lot of posts out there saying that you can declutter in a weekend or a few days. And if that works for you, great! Sometimes I like to do a decluttering marathon myself. But if you find that doesn’t work for you, that’s ok too.
I recommend starting small. A drawer, a shelf, a small cabinet…you get the idea. Once you start decluttering and getting through these smaller pieces, you may just find yourself getting a big dose of motivation!
And if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, take a break. There is no need to push through the process if it is just going to stress you out.
Do the easy things first
There’s a reason Marie Kondo recommends sentimental items last. Because they’re the hardest! Remember above when I said start small? I’m talking small and easy here. Like, your junk drawer. Your bathroom cabinet. Places that don’t have a lot of emotion attached. Again, the bathroom. If you come across some items that you’re really not sure about, set them aside and work through them at the end. There is no right or wrong way to declutter!
Memories don’t go away because the item does
Struggling to give something away that holds a lot of memories for you? As a very sentimental person, I get it. Seriously, I got mad at my grandma when I was younger because she threw away a gum wrapper that apparently held very sentimental value to me.
But here’s the truth. Just because you give something away, doesn’t mean that you love or remember the person any less! Remember, items are neutral. The memories we have of a person lives inside us, and can’t be given away. That’s not going to change whether or not you own a particular item or not.
Related post: 5 Guilt Free Ways to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter
You’re not going to love a person any less
This one is similar to the one above, but is worth calling out. Remember how your memories of a person won’t change whether or not you have a particular item or not? Well, it’s the same as our love for a person. Like memories, our love isn’t going anywhere if we give an item away. That love lives inside us, and isn’t going to change because of a ‘thing’.
Take a photo
Sometimes some of the emotions that keep us from decluttering can be released by taking a photo of the item. Doing this can take away some of that anxiety over not having it, because if you ever want to take a look at the item, you can, without the clutter!
Some people print out photos in something like a Shutterfly book, others just keep them digitally. I’ve taken pictures of quite a few things, and to be honest, I don’t find myself specifically seeking out the photos to look at. But, I still feel some comfort knowing that I have the items in photo form, and was able to pass along the physical item a lot easier.
Imagine someone else enjoying the item
Imagine an item you have that you’re having a lot of trouble cutting ties with the emotions around said item. Now, imagine you releasing that item, and imagine someone else using the item. Maybe it’s a baby outfit that you loved your kid in.
Now, imagine another baby in it, learning how to roll over! Imagine the parent/guardian smiling over the baby and encouraging them to roll.
This powerful imagery tool is super helpful (for me at least) in getting rid of some of those harder to part with items. Because here’s the deal. It’s not doing me any good sitting in a box in the closet, when it could actually be in use by someone else!
Do it in the name of sustainability
Having items sitting in storage somewhere is doing NO ONE any good. By freeing up items and resources out of storage and into the consumption line, you’re doing a small part in reducing the amount of new items being purchased. Buying second hand, gifting, or lending is a great way to be eco-friendly (something people have been doing for a long, long, time that is just now starting to become trendy), and you may just have the stuff to help someone do that!
You won’t use it
One method I like to employ for those items I’m trying to convince myself that I’ll get to “one day” is to pack it away in a box, and then set a calendar reminder for my phone to go off in 3-4 months in the future. Once that time rolls around, if I haven’t even thought about touching those items, it is safe to say they can go.
More often than not, I don’t even think about the item. When that alarm goes off, and I go to check on the stuff, it is proof to me that I’m not going to use it! It’s basically proving the hard truth that I already know.
How easily can you replace the item?
Ah, the age old ‘but what if I need this?’
I get it. I’ve said it. I’ve kept things because of it. Especially if I know I have the space.
But this mindset is generally based out of fear. Maybe you grew up in scarcity. Maybe you’re living during a worldwide pandemic and saw how quickly things can fly off the shelves. Or maybe you’re just an anxious person (like me).
Ask yourself this:
“How easily could I replace this item if I ended up needing it?”
Could you borrow it? Could you utilize something else in its place? So often, the answer is yes.
I realize this is a pretty privileged response, and may not be for everyone. Not everyone can just go out and buy a new item. Or has a lot of access to borrow. But on the other hand, some of you do, and could. And in that sense, utilize those resources!
Resources on how to declutter
We talked a little bit about how to declutter, but if you want to get into the nitty gritty, here are some resources that will help you work through all. that. stuff.
Free 7-day decluttering course
Decluttering Ebook with corresponding workbook
Reduction-based living Facebook group – a community to get decluttering tips and support!
Where and how to get rid of stuff responsibly
Wait, what about time? Accessibility?
We’ve talked about all things emotions when it comes to decluttering, but I know you may be thinking of a couple other things. Time and accessibility.
When I say time, you can probably guess what I’m talking about. Decluttering is a process, a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight (just like you didn’t accumulate all that stuff overnight, you’re not going to get rid of it overnight).
But what about accessibility?
Maybe you have limited mobility. Maybe you are dealing with a chronic or serious illness. That’s OK. You can still declutter too, it just may look a little different than someone else’s journey.
Here are some tips.
Take it slow
We already talked about this so I’m not going to go into detail again. Take it slow. Start with smaller projects at a time.
You can also utilize guides like the app ‘Toss’ which gives you one decluttering task a day. Find it here for Apple, and here for Android.
Show yourself compassion
Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t declutter as fast as you want. Or if you didn’t get to a project on a particular day. It’s all OK. Show yourself compassion for the things you have done, and that you WILL do in the future.
Schedule a decluttering ‘meeting’ with yourself
If you’re having a hard time finding spots in the day when you can declutter, schedule a meeting with yourself where you turn on some upbeat music and declutter! Put this meeting on your calendar and stick with it.
If you have resources, enlist in some help! Maybe that means hiring a professional declutter-er. Maybe that’s having a family member come over to help, or asking a friend to take donations to a thrift shop for you. Most people are more than happy to help – utilize that!
Working through emotions while decluttering can be one of the harder pieces of the journey. But with a little work, you can get through them, and get rid of clutter for good!
What are some ways you work through emotions that make it hard to declutter? What is your favorite decluttering tips?
Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?
Oh my god! I think this post was written for me 😂 I’m such a packrat. I never want to get rid of things. The sadness, the guilt, I can relate to it all and I do attach emotions and memories to objects, but honestly I even get nervous about throwing junk mail away without making sure I’ve analyzed every piece. I had to move a lot as a kid and couldn’t take everything with me each time I moved, so I think that contributes to my attachment to things. I definitely need to declutter.
I think I need to slow down I tend to throw away every thing and then when I need it its too late
Intentional decluttering is important! I have found in the fast I would try to get through an area quickly just so I could try and avoid the emotions that come up.
this is such a detailed guide on getting rid of things which don’t necessarily bring joy to us.
love the practicality of the tips.
thanks for sharing this awesome post!
Thanks for reading!
This hit all the feels! I’m totally way too emotional about things and it makes it hard to declutter. Thanks for making me not feel alone in this. I think this post will help me get rid of more stuff. Thank you!
I’m so glad you found some tips to help! Good luck! You can do it!
I used to have lots of things in my place that served no purpose. They just collected dust and take up space. I couldnt throw them cause I am attached emotionally and i feel like If i throw them I will lose my memories too. Thank you for sharing this. Such a good read.
Such a common reaction – and one that I’ve worked through so many times – still to this day! You got this!
[…] Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? How our emotions get in the way of decluttering – Reduce, Reuse, Renew […]