Fighting the Emotional Attachment to Your Stuff

The things you own can control you in a number of ways.  Some things may control you financially if you bought them on credit and you are having to make monthly payments, or if they are expensive to maintain.  Other things may control you by taking up your time to maintain, such as a swimming pool.  But the things that control us the most are those for which we have an emotional attachment.

I love that old whatchamacallit.

A heap of scrap metal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I went on a trip with my brother in law and he brought up the subject of his grandfather’s farm where he used to take me fishing over 40 years ago.  His grandfather passed the farm on to my brother in law’s dad and his brothers and sisters. His father is doing well, but is in his 90s and soon the farm will be passed on to my brother in law, his brother, sister, and some cousins.  Dick, my brother in law, visited the farm,  looked in some of the out-buildings on the property and was overwhelmed by the amount of things stuffed into them.  Most of the items had no practical use or any real monetary value and needed to be hauled off as trash or sold as scrap.  When approached about cleaning the out-buildings of junk, Dick’s father’s first response was a resounding NO!  Although he hadn’t seen what was in the sheds for years and some of the items had not been used for up to 50+ years, his first response was an emotional one.  Who knows what treasures may be buried in those sheds or what pleasant memories may be stirred by seeing or handling them again.

After some time passed, Dick’s father began to see the practical advantages of dealing with the cluttered sheds.  He realized that when he passed, his kids would be left to deal with  all the junk on the farm and all other details of his estate as well.  He visited the farm and after looking through the out-buildings, he allowed them to start hauling off items to the dump and to scrap.  He also realized that by dealing with his belongings now, he was able to pass items that have been sitting idle for years to his children who could use them now.

Tears for Christmas Decorations

It is hard to part with items that have memories attached to them.  Special gifts, a favorite childhood toy, the worn sweater we bought ourselves for Christmas 15 years ago that is now too tight to wear seem to be the hardest items to let go.  I still have my high school letter jacket, don’t ask me why.  It just seems like sacrilege to throw it away even though it doesn’t fit anymore and I’ve been out of high school for 37 years and wouldn’t wear it even if it did fit.

My wife and I battled our emotional attachment to items many times during January while we were preparing to move.  We won most battles, but lost some also.  Maybe it was caused by an accumulation of events, but I actually teared up a little as I was packing some Christmas decorations for donation. They were decorations that we hadn’t used for years.  Some of the boxes were sealed because the decorations  had never been used.  Still, as I looked at how nice some of them were, I felt some tears in the corner of my eyes.  I had to walk away for awhile and gather myself before I could finish packing them.

How do you win the battles?

You don’t have to win all the battles, but if you want to gain the benefits from living a simpler, uncluttered life, you need to win most of them. I am amazed by how much my wife and I sold, donated, and gave away in January.  There were some items that we ran out of time to sort through before we moved and will deal with this spring.  Other items we decided to keep, whether because we needed and were using them, or because they were special to us and we made the decision to keep them.  We gave in to our feelings a few times, but overall we were successful in significantly lightening our load.  Along the way we learned some techniques that helped us overcome our emotions.

We found that it was easy to decide to get rid of most of our stuff.  We found hundreds of items that we hadn’t used for years and only had to make the decision whether to sell, donate, give away, or trash those items.  I’ve written a post on the process on how to declutter your life titled “Clear Away Clutter – 4 Steps to Get Started”.   There are several great books to help with reducing clutter, including “The Art of Being Minimalist” by Everett Bogue and “The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life” by Leo Babauta. The difficult items were the ones to which one or both of us had an emotional attachment.

As we would sort through our items we would come across items that we hadn’t seen or used for years, but would immediately trigger a fond memory.  The temptation was always to keep the item, but then we would ask ourselves if we were really interested in saving the item or if it was just the memory that we wanted to save.  Most times the item’s only use was to trigger the memory, and in that case a picture of the item would do the job just as well!

When an item was being kept because it was a special gift or it had been a favorite item at one time, we would ask ourselves when was the last time we had used or even thought about the item.  We were often surprised how long it had been since we had thought of it and we realized that we could easily do without it.

Sometimes we would lose a round, but still win the battle.  There were quite a few items that we put in our pile of items to keep when we first sorted through our stuff, only to move it to the sell or donate pile a day or two later when the initial emotional response had faded away.  I think it is a good idea to review any decision to keep an item for sentimental reasons a few days later and see if your feelings may have changed.

The hardest items for my wife and I to deal with were the childhood memories we kept of our son.  They were much harder to part with then any items we kept from our own childhood.  Honestly, we didn’t look at those items at all in January.  We knew it would be difficult and also that we didn’t leave ourselves enough time to deal with all the old school papers and family photographs.  We will face those decisions this spring and ask ourselves the tough questions, like whether we need 100 crayon drawings from our son, or will 10 be enough?  Do we need each report card from every quarter our son was in school?  Since we don’t know who the people are in that old black and white photo, do we need to keep it just because it must be some kind of family member or we wouldn’t have the picture?  We must have 5 huge totes full of photographs and another 5 smaller totes full of school papers, drawings, Valentines Day cards, etc. from our son and foster kids.  I know we don’t need 5 pictures for each Christmas gift our son opened in 1989.  Many hours will be spent eliminating or scanning and digitizing photos and papers.  I will be sure to share that experience with you, my readers when the time comes this Spring.


Please join me in the fight to make 2011 the Year of Less.  Read my post “A Call for Change…Make 2011 the Year of Less” and confirm your participation by signing the proclamation at the top of the right-side column.


6 responses to “Fighting the Emotional Attachment to Your Stuff

  1. Pingback: Clearing Out Old Junk Could Change Your Life Forever

  2. quite useful i have attachment issues to alot of stuff i own, i also found its alot easier if you take a picture of the item that way it can trigger those pleasant memories again and a digital picture takes up no space what so ever

  3. Pingback: The Stuff Families Are Made Of « The Meat and Potatoes of Life

  4. Hi Rick
    I am going through your last stage (the sentimental stash) at the moment. It is tough. In fact so tough I am a little stuck. I call them my Piles of Procrastination. It is reassuring to know I am not the only one. Jo

    • Jo, thanks for the comment. The sentimental stuff is the hardest to deal with. Just take it one pile at a time. Please let me know how you do with your piles of procrastination (I love that name) and I’ll share your successes with my readers. Rick

  5. I’m dealing with emotional attachment to things right now as we prepare for our year overseas. Probably the hardest thing to sell is going to be my truck. I always wanted a 4X4 truck and I bought one almost 15 years ago. That truck and I have been all over the country, seen countless miles of gravel roads, camped in incredible places. I love driving it! It’s going to be very hard to part with it. But I also know that many new adventures lie ahead and this truck is only standing in the way of bigger and better things. But still it’s going to be hard to part ways.

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