by Susan McCarthy
Do you find yourself struggling to declutter things that you know you don’t use or really want? Is there fear behind the thought, ‘I should hold onto this’? The fear of missing out (FOMO) isn’t about being open to possibilities but feeling a sense of obligation to your possessions. Answer questions that can reveal your reasons for keeping things and let go of these self-imposed burdens.
Some years back, for my parent’s fortieth anniversary, I offered to organize the basement for them.
They were people who kept everything, regardless of the quantities they had of an item or if they even used something. The basement had become a crowded space with some areas reduced to narrow pathways lined with bags and boxes of stuff piled in front of the shelves and freestanding cabinets that, once upon a time, had been intended to hold the things they wanted to keep.
Clinging to clutter
I started with an old washing machine box that was not only full but had bags of stuff piled on top. Oh, did I mention that my mother wanted me to show her every item I wanted to discard? I started making progress with some bags of paper.
Then, I found two broken badminton rackets held together with peeling tape. The net was a mess of knot where we’d tried to repair holes. I carried these past my mother, saying, “these are in really bad shape.”
“Let me see.”
I probably rolled my eyes. It had been 25-30 years since these things had seen use.
“Put them back.”
“They’re broken. Why keep them?”
“The grandkids could play with that someday.” Now, my parents didn’t have grandkids. I was edging toward forty and wasn’t in a relationship, so it was unlikely she was going to see grandchildren. I pointed this out.
“Put it back.”
At this point, I got annoyed…but for an entirely different reason. “You’d want your grandkids to play with broken toys?!”
The badminton game went back in the box and that was the end of my attempt to declutter the basement for my parents.
Are you anxious about throwing things away?
I’m a professional organizer, not a mental health professional. If you find that you cannot let go of things and this is damaging your life – you’re being (or have been) threatened with eviction or with losing custody of your children; you’re embarrassed to have others into your home; or you struggle to do basic things in your home, like cooking, showering, or sleeping in your bed because of the stuff in your home, you may need to talk to someone who can help you mentally let go of possessions so you can then physically rid yourself of them.
Do you need to know why you’re decluttering?
When most people start decluttering, it’s because they’ve hit a tipping point of stuff. Their first reaction is that they want to clear clutter because they have too much stuff. But then they struggle to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.
Knowing why you’re decluttering can help guide your decisions. But instead of thinking of decluttering simply as an act of getting rid of stuff, see it as a process of allowing you to do the things you want to do.
By that I mean, clearing off the dining room table for the sake of having a cleared space might not be the most motivating reason. Go a bit deeper. Why do you want to have cleared table? What does that mean to you?
It may mean having the space for family dinners and inviting friends over for a cup of coffee and a chat. Maybe it means having a space where you can spread out and work on your scrapbooking hobby an evening or two each week.
Knowing that this is your real reason for decluttering a space can keep you motivated. It can also answer questions you have about the items you are sorting through. Will this item help you reach the goal you have for this space? If you keep this item, will it serve a purpose elsewhere?
This means that while you may have one overreaching reason for decluttering your home, you’ll also have more specific goals for individual rooms. And you may have even narrower purposes for the pieces of furniture in a room.
This isn’t meant to be overwhelming or fussy. The reason for these goals and micro-goals is to help make decluttering a clearer and more beneficial process.
It’s not about randomly getting rid of stuff. It’s about having the stuff you need, enjoy, and cherish. The other stuff distracts you from your vision for your life.
Why you hold onto clutter
While I was listening to a talk on personal productivity, the speaker brought up the idea that “When you say, ‘yes’ to one thing, you are saying ‘no’ to something else.”
I think this also applies to decluttering. When you hold onto something, you are giving it space in your home. You are saying ‘yes’ to it being a part of your life.
So, what are you saying ‘no’ to? By giving an item space in your home, you now cannot use that space to store another item. And if, like my parents, you keep saying ‘yes’ to many items, you are saying ‘no’ to having the space that those items are taking up.
If you feel anxious about throwing things away (and this can also apply to donating or selling things), consider what you are saying ‘no’ to by saying ‘yes’ to these things.
Are you giving up space, freedom, peace, time, or functionality for the sake of holding onto items?
This doesn’t mean that saying ‘yes’ to keeping things only leads to negative situations. If you enjoy and use the things, then what you gain in your life is the ease and enjoyment of having these things.
It’s like choosing between two invitations for Saturday night. You could go with a friend to a concert, or you could go to dinner with your significant other. You’ll have a great time with whichever option you choose, but you can’t choose both.
When you say ‘no’ to something, you know what you are saying ‘yes’ to.
Why it’s difficult to throw things away
There are all sorts of reasons why it’s difficult to throw things away (or donate or sell). We receive items as gifts or inheritances and feel obligated to honor the giver’s thoughts and intentions…even if we don’t want the item. Keeping the things feels like a way to show the giver what we think of them.
And if we bought the item, then we can get caught up in the idea of getting our money’s worth from the thing…even if that means packing the item in a box and storing it in the basement. But if something isn’t being used or displayed, are we really gaining benefits from the item?
We can hold onto books (even ones we haven’t read) because giving them away feels like getting rid of information or potential entertainment. Are you afraid that if you get rid of those jeans that are three sizes too small that suddenly you’ll lose the weight and you’ll want those jeans you haven’t fit into for twenty years?
Although we know we don’t want or need the items, we keep the items out of fear – the fear of missing out (FOMO). The fear of missing out on the opportunity to show that we are a good friend, to read that book, take up that new interest, and so on.
I’m sure my mother’s determination to keep the broken badminton game was connected to her fear of admitting that she wasn’t going to be a grandmother (I hadn’t planned on not having kids, so the topic wasn’t discussed.)
Holding onto things also can be a way of holding onto hopes and dreams. Getting rid of something can feel like a commitment – no this will not be a part of my life. And then we can feel the backlash of fear. The fear of missing out.
How fear creates clutter
If you fear letting go of things, then you may feel an obligation to your possessions. This doesn’t mean that you think objects have feelings! However, you may feel obligated to use something before getting rid of it to “prove” that you got the use from it that you can.
I find myself doing this – frequently. I’ll realize that a book has been sitting on a shelf, unread for, oh, a decade or so. When I bought the book, I was interested in the topic. Now, not so much. Instead of simply popping the book in a box that I’ll bring to my library’s book sale, I feel obligated to set it on my bedside table and read it.
There’s probably a mix of reasons here – I spent money on the book, which brings up fears about poor spending habits. When I bought the book, I thought I’d develop an interest or achieve whatever goal the book promised.
Giving away the book forces me to face that those things are unlikely to happen. There’s disappointment but also some fear that I didn’t pursue something that I could have, and I’m left wondering if I made a mistake.
These fears can encourage me to keep things that part of me is acknowledging I don’t need or want. The easy thing would be to keep the item.
However, if I question my reason for holding onto something, I can uncover the fear and disappointment that would come with letting go. This can be uncomfortable (which is probably why we hold onto items instead of asking ourselves why we’re keeping them.
However, I can then be more honest with myself and clear the items and the obligations and burdens associated with them.
How do you get clutter under control?
If while decluttering you find yourself holding onto things that don’t use or care about, but feel obligated to keep, it may be time to ask yourself some questions.
Obviously, you don’t want to waste time asking these in-depth questions if you know you are keeping something because you use and enjoy it.
However, if you find yourself thinking, “I should keep this,” listen to the reason you give yourself. Does it make you feel peaceful and free? Or stressed and burdened?
Remember, you are decluttering to reach your goals for your home and life. Finding what’s important to you – and acknowledging what isn’t – gets you closer to living the life you want.
Tired of taking one step forward and two steps back while decluttering? Learn why the clutter comes back and what you can do about it with the FREE guide, 9 Reasons the Clutter Keeps Coming Back.
Hi, I'm Susan
My mission is to help you learn what decluttering can add to your life. Find out more about what I do here.