4 Obstacles to Decluttering — and How to Beat Them

My husband and I began dating when we were still children. He was 16 and I was 15, back in the olden days when people still talked on the phone and wrote letters. By the time we got married and had three kids, we had almost 20 years of correspondence. I came across our box of cards and letters a few years ago and read it in one sitting. Afterward I had the urge to travel back in time and smother my teenage self with a pillow and maybe Paul’s too while I was at it. Failing that, I considered burning the box. I called Torey, my sister, instead.

“Throw them away,” she said without a second thought. Torey is a neatnik and the tiniest bit twitchy when it comes to cleaning and organization. “If reading those letters brings you down, get rid of them.”

Next I called Nathan, my younger brother, and he recommended the opposite: “How many people in their mid-30s have a 20-year correspondence with their spouse? For archival purposes alone, you need to keep them.”

Finally I called Tanner, my older brother. We laughed about the conflicting advice Torey and Nathan gave, and then he was silent for a moment. “How do you know how far you’ve come if you can’t remember where you started?” he asked. That resonated with me. I tucked the letters back into their box, and there they remained, untouched, until the day they burned in a house fire. And I have never given them a second thought.

Looking back I can see I really wanted to get rid of them but didn’t think I ought to — that was the tension. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, it was that what I wished to do conflicted with what I thought I should.

This is why decluttering (and losing weight and managing money) can be so painful; it’s the tension from the many feelings, often in conflict. Simply being aware of what’s underneath the surface can help us through. There are some common reasons we hold onto things we don’t want out of a sense of obligation; see of any of the ones here resonate with you.

1. “It’s a family heirloom.” Even if the value is only sentimental, how many things do you hold onto because they were your grandfather’s or your aunt’s, dentist’s cousin’s? My dear friend Sharon inherited her grandmother’s china. In the plus column it was beautiful, valuable and from a beloved relative. On the minus side, it wasn’t really Sharon’s style, and it reminded her of some painful parts of her childhood. She decided there were better ways for her to remember her grandmother, and wrapped up the china in a big box and gave it to a mutual friend who collects the same pattern and for whom it was a surprise and a delight.

2. “It was a gift.” After our fire we were flooded with donations. In the first weeks, I sorted through truckloads of things people had given us. I was so thankful for the incredible generosity and, at the same time, there were so many things that didn’t fit or that we didn’t need. It wasn’t long before I got over any qualms I had about passing things on to various charities. Now I assume a gift is truly mine to do with as I please.

3. “I may need it someday.” This comes up across the spectrum, from overbuying consumables to storing extra furniture. This could be the biggest one of all, and at the bottom of it is fear. A subcategory of this is: “I’m not actually sure what it is, but it may be important!” A few months ago I was sorting through a drawer in my desk and came across a random screw. It was thick and substantial; I knew it belonged to something.And then I recognized the old and familiar tension forming in the pit of my stomach with the thought, “Keep it! Keep it! You may need it!” I’m happy to say I reminded myself I had survived losing everything and was not going to allow an anonymous bit of hardware to freak me out.

contemporary kitchen by Justine Hand

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4. “I paid a lot of money for it.” That’s a big one. If you’re in the midst of a big purge, I don’t recommend trying to sell your things, for a couple of reasons. First, it will probably slow you down. Second, when you feel like you’ve wasted money on something you don’t need, you probably aren’t going to make enough from its sale to take away the sting. It may seem counterintuitive, but the most positive thing to do may be to let go, give it away and move on. It’s a paradox that the more we let go, the more control we gain.

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Ultimately, that’s what this is all about: taking control of your home instead of being subordinate to your possessions. For some, when we talk about minimalism, it conjures up images of stark interiors, the idea of not having enough or of things being taken away.

To me minimalism ishaving what you love, but not a bit more than you can maintain. How that looks in your home may differ from how it looks in mine. It comes down to creating the home you long for. Life, like art, is all about removing and editing to make room for what you truly want and need.

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