Stuff: Why we Hold onto it and How to Let it Go


A few weeks ago, I was faced with the task of throwing out nearly everything I own in under 48 hours.  I always thought of myself as a clean person, only holding onto life’s necessities—and I thought I knew what constituted a necessity.

But as I was packing that Friday night before driving across the country, I found the box.

It was box I forgot I owned, filled with memorabilia from all my ex-boyfriends. The box was littered with old movie ticket stubs, love-filled messages in birthday cards and a couple of college sweatshirts. Next to this “ex box” were another two boxes of memorabilia from my time spent living in California and yet another box filled with credentials from past skating competitions.

I sat on my closet floor as dread and panic shot through me when I realized there was no way these boxes from my past—as well as the seventeen coffee mugs in my kitchen cabinet and the collection of spices I had accrued over the past year—were going to be able to make the move to Boise. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why was I crying over spices and, more importantly, these boxes filled with paper and words that I forgot were ever written?

It got me thinking about the emotional connection we can have to stuff. Namely, why we keep this stuff around—even if it lives in the dark corners of our closet—and why it can be so hard to part with it. We may be holding onto this stuff because of nostalgia (think the “ex box”) or in case we might need it at a future point (Like, that time in the future when I could have seventeen friends over for coffee one morning?). We may also be holding onto stuff because it was expensive, and we feel guilty if we end up throwing it out or donating it.

But what began as a good intention—one time we really did need each of those ten pens in our kitchen drawer—has now turned into clutter. 

That Friday night, after I dried by eyes, I was able to part with the "ex box," along with the spices, my furniture and all seventeen coffee mugs. Here are some tips that I used and are helpful to keep in mind when it comes to organizing your life and ridding yourself of unnecessary belongings:

Memories living within you, not in the stuff

This is probably the most important truth when it comes to organizing your life. The memories and the sense of happiness that the stuff in the “ex box” gave me live in my heart—not in the box. Much of the sentimental stuff we hold onto only serves as a reminder of memories that are accessible to us at any time. If you’re having trouble parting with sentimental objects that you know no longer serve you or you just don’t have space for, take a photo of the object. Keep the picture in your phone or on your computer. What you're really looking for by holding onto these sentimental objects is the feeling the object provides you. That feeling comes from within you.

It's going to a good place

This truth really helped me when it came to donating furniture and clothing that I knew I didn’t have space for. Rather than focusing on no longer owning the object, I tried to shift my attention to  finding a great new home for the furniture and items I couldn't hold onto. When you're forced to give something away, attach yourself to the good feelings you get from giving the stuff to someone who truly needs it and will appreciate the item as much you did. This helped me immensely

Use the two-year rule

When it comes to your closet, if you haven’t worn something in two years, DONATE OR SELL IT. Unless it’s something that is truly fabulous and you forgot you owned because it was buried in the back of your closet, there’s a good chance you will never wear it again. And be honest with yourself: if you’re holding onto that dress or sweater just because you spent a ton of money on it—but have no real desire to wear it today—you still need to get rid of it. The money's gone. Having the garment hang out, waiting for the one day you might decide it’s time to wear it will not bring the money back. Give it away or sell it. And, realize—

You can always buy it again

If you’re holding onto random items (think pens, paper, old towels or bedsheets) just in case you hit a financial hardship in the future, this is all the more reason to get rid of this stuff. Preparing for the worst case weighs on you emotionally, whether you realize it or not. Donate pens and extra paper to a local public school; they are always looking for more supplies. Outside of moving to the middle of an abandoned field (and, even then, Amazon could probably find you), I promise you are going to be able to find a place and time to buy this stuff again, when you really have a use for it. 

Focus on what you're gaining

 My new collection of coffee mugs :)

My new collection of coffee mugs :)

Throwing stuff away is HARD. It can make you feel naked, super vulnerable and like all the stuff you worked so hard to bring into your life is suddenly abandoning you. But facing these feelings and learning to work through them is also a chance for growth. Further, living modestly helps you grow. Right now, I only have four coffee mugs. It’s forcing me do more dishes—actually washing the mugs by hand—which is a new skill for me. And the weird part? I’m actually starting to like washing dishes. Living with less will enable you to learn new skills and grow emotionally. 

It's so important to remember that the ability to accrue the stuff that surrounds you comes from you: if you were able to  work hard enough to buy yourself a great couch at one point in your life, you will be able to do this again in the future. Stuff can make us feel protected, and change in any form—whether it’s moving or getting rid of something from the past—can be scary because it's uncertain.  But it’s also exciting. And the true protection and memories we’re searching for in the stuff, actually live within us.  I promise that what you may lose from getting rid of stuff will pale in comparison to what you will be gaining emotionally and logistically.