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How to Let Go of Sentimental Clutter

The road to happiness must be uncluttered or else it is a road to somewhere else. Many people believe that cutting down on clutter simply means removing physical objects out of their path, yet they rarely consider just how that clutter ends up blocking them in the first place. And being of a sentimental bent can increase your proclivity to clutter one hundred fold because you'll never meet a memento you don't want to keep... Become more philosophical about acquiring 'stuff' and learn how to shift the sentimental clutter right out of your life.


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    Reflect on what sort of clutter proves sentimental in nature for you. Not everyone will have the same sentimental triggers or reasons for keeping clutter. However, there are some fairly standard reasons that bring about sentimental clutter:
    • Someone you care/cared about very much gave the item(s) to you.
    • Your children made it or brought it into the house.
    • Your loved ones bought it or brought it into the house.
    • It brings back awesome memories of a very special time that has long since passed, perhaps "halcyon days";
    • You made it or bought it when you were younger/going through a crisis/experiencing a life transition or epiphany, etc. or you got it when traveling overseas.
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    Recognize where the value in the sentimental object emanates from. It isn't the object itself that is creating value and causing you to feel sentimental. Rather, it is you who are doing this, by adding value to the object through attaching your memory to it. Remember that no matter how much magic or uniqueness you have imparted to the object, it isn't the person or the moment – it is simply an object and it's an object that is potentially holding you back. It is your way of bringing that person or moment into the present and hoping that the magic still holds now. However, that moment is a memory and the feelings, emotions, and interactions first present when that object came into your life have passed. You are always entitled to the memory but allowing such objects to create a burden on your present life is unhealthy.
    • Emotional attachment is the biggest reason for why people are not able to let go of their clutter. And yet it is stifling and immobilizing to be storing "memories" in the household equivalent of hardware (your brain being the software). It follows you everywhere, trips you up, and prevents you from doing things you'd rather be doing because it's there, in the way, hiding the gear you really need to be using to enjoy your life!
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    Separate the sentimental from the practical and the liberating. Sentimental clutter can soon drown you when you cannot create boundaries between it and the remainder of your life. Allowing sentimental clutter to fill your current life soon becomes a way of bloating the present with the past, of recreating memories instead of forging ahead, and even of hanging on to a self or onto other people who have since changed considerably (such as children growing up, your own entering another phase of life, etc.). On the other hand, practical and liberating things in your life are the tools with which you make current living better, easier, and more enjoyable. Practical things have a place and are not clutter, they're not shoved away in unmarked boxes or at the back of cupboards; instead they're in clear places, getting used regularly. Liberating things are the daily items that enable you to get your chores, living, and leisure sorted. And you also gain that wonderful element known as "space" – to have the space is to have freedom from clutter.
    • There is such a thing as "too much to remember" and you cannot possibly recall it all, so allow yourself some forgetfulness and learn to appreciate the freedom in that.
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    Consider your space allowances. If you have the space for a whole lot of sentimental stuff, maybe you feel you can hang onto it. Even then though, that's a folly because you're still going to be confronted by it even in a large house. One day, some day, you'll have to go to that storage space and check it out and ask yourself why you have all that stuff there... The problem for most people is that too much stuff tends to cause us to expand our space instead of making the most of the space we have. Once we start feeling we don't have space, we think about bigger living premises instead of reducing. And that hits the wallet, the psyche, the planet's resources, and your sense of well-being. If your space is bulging, you need to tackle the sentimental clutter the most precisely because it is the hardest to let go of and yet the most liable to be preventing you from living a fulfilled life right now.
    • You're in a big mess if you're renting out space to cover the extra stuff you've got. None of it can be worth the need to rent space!
    • Imagine watching people going through your sentimental clutter from hovering above after your death. Do you feel good about what they're finding or enormously embarrassed?
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    Develop a series of tests for your sentimental objects rather than seeking to keep them all. It can be very hard for a sentimental person to let go of sentimental objects; it can feel as if a large chunk of who you were/are and the things that make up you are going with the object. To ease the transition from clutter to clarity, allow yourself a sliding scale of sentimental objects or a series of test questions. Keep the objects only if they meet the grade, be done with them if they fail. Consider such tipping out points as:
    • If I haven't looked at it for over a year, it has had its time.
    • If I am too embarrassed to display it, it is not an object worth keeping.
    • If I have so many of this kind of object that I am blurring the memories, be done with all of them.
    • If I am still harboring anger, resentment, irritation, or other negative feelings toward the person represented by this object, it is time to let go for my mental health's sake.
    • If the sentimental objects consist of several items from a member of the family who has long passed and I am not using them, not displaying then, and not enjoying them but really only hoarding them, then it's probably time to share the items around more of the family than just me. (In this case, often there will be new members of the family old enough to care for heirlooms after you've hoarded them long enough, so be kind and pass some on.)
    • If I hate the object but have imbued it with redeeming powers or as a reminder to be a better person, it's time is up. I am a better person for having kept it so long and for making a major decision to toss it.
    • If I am prepared to display it, care for it, use it, wear it, play with it, read it, whatever action it needs, then I can keep it. For now.
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    Cut down on the trinkets, letters, cuttings, etc., kept or piled in boxes and other containers. Sentimental boxes have a way of breeding around sentimental people. And how easy it is to shove a full shoebox or other box to the back of a shelf or cupboard and forget it's even there... And yet, it is taking up space and not serving you at all, especially when you find another 15 of these special boxes" cluttered all about the house. Be honest with yourself; just how many of those Christmas cards, love letters, recipe snippets, travel brochures, ticket stubs, children's artwork, and so forth, are you truly going to look through again? Start consolidating the many special boxes or piles to one. It will take time but you have one more chance to travel down memory line as you sort and toss.
    • Be very selective. Pull things that you really want to keep together into one box and when it's full, either cull or don't add anything else. In the case of children's mementos, it could be a sign that they have left one growth stage for another and that means a mental shift for you too. Same for your own phase shifts in life; they are natural, healthy, and it does no good to cling to what you once were.
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    Use the digital world to clear up the physical space for you. Digital cameras, computer memory, online albums, and cloud computing are your allies in the journey to remove sentimental clutter from your world. Since memories are a particularly large reason for feeling sentimental, photographs can become a means by which you can keep your memory and toss the object. Remembering that the memory is inside of you, not in the object itself, treat the photos as "memory triggers without spatial dimension". Take a photo of each object before disposing of it or donating it (do try to donate or recycle wherever possible). Store your photos on your computer, in cloud computing, on a photo site, or wherever it's easiest and most fun for you to go through when you're feeling a need to track back down sentimental lane. The beauty of this process is that every memory trigger is in one easy-to-find spot, it's not taking up any space, and it's not going to be lost. It does work!
    • Become a digital scrapbooker. You can hoard away and play with creativity to your heart's content and none of this will take up space in your non-virtual world!
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    Set limits and boundaries. In the future (after your initial declutter experience), use limits or boundaries to prevent you from adding to a sentimental clutter pile, drawer, or space in the house. There are several ways that you can do this, including:
    • Asking yourself each time: "Is it necessary, is it just about my memory, is it going to make a difference or a mess in my life?"
    • Using containers for anything stored. If it doesn't go in the container because it either isn't the same as the other things in the container or the container is full, use this as a reason to pause and ask yourself if it's necessary to keep it at all.
    • Reminding yourself that you do not need more space. What you need is more time, more relaxation, and less impingement of the things that tie you down in life.
    • Developing a sorting mentality, not a piling mentality. Both are habits and you can break the bad one and liberate yourself with the good one through sheer practice and self-talk.


  • If you're a perfectionist as well as a sentimentalist, you are going to find yourself procrastinating because no matter how well intended you might be, there is a risk that your sorting, organizing, and selecting the best will never be good enough. Realize this tendency in yourself and be very forgiving; once you let something go or organize it, let it be, no matter how imperfect a choice you feel it might be.
  • If you have a "faulty" memory, spend some time working on it and the reason behind why it's so faulty. Is it nutritional, anxiety-related, laziness, or some other reason? In the case of anxiety, depression, feeling the blues, etc, holding on to things can be an excuse to use the memory lazily and to let stuff do the work. Yet, it isn't mentally healthy for you as ultimately this stuff will clutter your creativity and ability to think and the memories evoked by stuff can actually hold you back physically from moving forward in your life or even moving around your home.
  • Teach your children how to treasure memories internally so that they carry them wherever they go, whatever they do or do not own. Focus on playing down materialism and focus on relationship building, connection, and love.
  • Deferring the removal of sentimental clutter from your life is another way of deferring living your life to the fullest. Set yourself a deadline.
  • For some people, seeing a return can help motivate to stay uncluttered. Sell or donate sentimental items of value to people you know will make use of them when it comes to children's clothing, buggies, cribs, items from a hobby you've outgrown, clothing, etc. Seeing the joy of someone else who will actively appreciate the items can be a wound-soother.
  • When you're reformed, help other hoarders free themselves from the clutter that binds. That's a truly good deed you can perform.
  • Photo albums labelled with year and occasion dates are excellent ways of remembering the past good times and objects.


  • Forgetfulness is not always a curse. It is good to forget some things to leave room for more new experiences. And you'll be surprised what things trigger dormant memories, such as a smell, a person's face, a glance, a sound, a color, etc. Use these unexpected trigger points to increase your sense of wonder in life.
  • Be compassionate with yourself. This is not going to be easy, although necessary, and a treat or two is in order after you complete each sort and throw out. A treat that gets you out of the house with nothing to be brought back into the house is ideal. Try going out to dinner, cycling by the lake, watching a movie, visiting friends, etc., and not shopping or bargain hunting!

Things You'll Need

  • Storage containers and labels
  • Garbage bags and bins
  • Donation boxes and bins
  • Reminder notes to help you change your habits

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