Decluttering should be a simple exercise. You look at a bunch of items, decide what you want to get rid of and keep the rest. However, if it was this easy, there wouldn’t be so many of us living in overly cluttered homes that we don’t seem to be able to manage. So what exactly is the reason that we can’t declutter?
Here are ten reasons why we just can’t get rid of our stuff – and what to do about them.
1. We Spent Too Much On It
If it’s hard to declutter, it’s even harder to declutter when the item in question cost a significant amount of money. Expensive clothes, exercise equipment, shoes and gadgets fall into this category. They are things that we rarely, or often never use. But the thought of getting rid of them makes us feel awful about the waste of money.
The thing to remember here is that the money is already spent. You can’t get that money back. You might feel like you want to sell the item to recoup some of the loss that you perceive, but most second hand items sell for a fraction of their original cost (it’s something to bear in mind when shopping – as soon as you buy something, it’s immediately worth less). Hanging onto the item isn’t going to make it worth more, and it doesn’t meant that you get to keep the money – remember that the money is already gone. It’s not somehow tied up in the item. The item has its own second-hand value that is totally separate from the money you spent on it in the first place. The thing to do here is to accept the financial loss, understand why you bought the item and why it wasn’t right, and then get it out of your home. Donating is always quick and easy, and helps others. If you really want to recoup something, sell it for an attractive price (enough that it will sell quickly) and move on.
2. We Worry We Might Need It In Future
This tends to be household stuff and clothing. Kitchen items especially fall into this category, but also tools, reference books and seasonal-specific items. If you are even considering decluttering an item, but are worried you might need it, I think the answer is right there in front of you. You want it gone, but you’re worried you’ll regret it. We’re not perfect. Sometimes you might let go of something and then need it at some point in the future. But it’s not something to be afraid of because it happens far less than you think it will. You really can’t live a life in a house where you never need anything because you’d have to live in a warehouse full to the ceiling with products.
I have gotten rid of literally thousands of possessions, and I can’t think of any but the most basic examples of things I needed (nail varnish remover was one, as I only paint my nails once in a blue moon, but the old bottle would have been probably a decade old by that point anyway).
If you can’t stop worrying about needing something, store it somewhere temporarily. It can be easier to accept that you don’t use something when it’s been in the loft for 18 months. But don’t store EVERYTHING.
It simply is not possible to gather and own every single thing we are ever going to need.
Get to know yourself and understand what your needs really are.
3. Sentimental Attachment
We become sentimentally attached to items because they reminds us of something or someone. The most important thing to remember here is that your memories are not in the items they are in your head. And that your love for that person, place or time does not diminish or change if you no longer own an item of memorabilia that is associated with it.
I strongly believe that some sentimental items should be kept as it’s important to share with your family the things that matter to you. Old photographs, letters and memorabilia from important events in your life should be treasured. But these items should be scarce enough to be precious rather than part of a collection of sentimental things that would take days to go through or explain to another person. Keep only the most important things for the most important memories.
As an example you may want to keep the cards that you received when you got married, or when you had a baby. You don’t need to keep the cards that you receive every year for Christmas. You may want to keep a special item that belonged to a lost parent, but you don’t want to keep every item that belongs to that parent. Keeping too many sentimental things devalues all of them. Keep too many and you are less likely to share them, which means that when you are gone nobody will know what they meant to you anyway.
Be selective with your sentimental treasures, keep some of them on display and explain to others what they mean. Everything else can go.
4. it’s a physical representation of who we are
If you’re struggling to identify the exact reason why you don’t want to let something go this might be it. We can have an emotional identification with our possessions – a transference of our personality onto the objects that we own. Owning things can be a way of showing the world the kind of person that we are. We may have lots of books because we perceive ourselves to be well-read or intelligent. We may have lots of clothes because we perceive ourselves to be fashionable.
Owning things that represent our personalities is very common. In itself there is nothing wrong with this – we are all unique and we choose the possessions that we have in our homes for our own reasons. However, you do not need to have an excess of these items. More books doesn’t make you more intelligent, just like more clothes don’t make you more fashionable or attractive. It is healthier to aspire to be the kind of person you want to be regardless of your things. Even if you are in a room with nothing but your clothes and a crowd of other people, you should ideally feel confident in who you are. Physical possessions don’t represent your worth, your ethics or your intelligence, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that they do.
If you suspect you are holding onto things because they represent who you are, and you’re afraid that by letting them go you will no longer be that thing, then spend some time allowing this feeling to sink in. Give yourself permission to be who you are without having to represent it with physical items. Over time, self-acceptance can bring a feeling of peace that allows you to be happy in your own skin without having to collect things to impress others.
5. we were brought up to “make-do-and-mend” and it seems wasteful to discard it
It’s important here to separate what is really making do and what is just hanging onto stuff that you don’t need. For example – if you have 20 dinner plates and you live alone, then you’re not making do and mending. How often do you break a plate? Once in a blue moon in our house of four. Those 20 plates will see you through eighty years of life and more. Unless you live in an earthquake zone. And if you do, then you probably want less stuff rattling around in your house, not more.
Making do is about making things last, it’s not about keeping absolutely everything. If you’re hoarding things because you’re going to “use them up” someday, then it’s time to rethink your approach. This isn’t saving you money. It’s using up your precious space, cluttering your environment, and curtailing your freedom. You simply shouldn’t be planning out 60 years of life with your food, crockery, clothing, or linen.
6. it was a gift and we feel guilty
It’s not uncommon to receive gifts from friends and family members that are not to our taste. These items can remain in our homes for years not because we love them but because we feel obliged to keep them.
Houses do not remain the same from year to year and friends and family don’t expect your house to be a museum that looks exactly the same every time they visit it. If you received a gift that you don’t love from someone who visits your house regularly, keep the item on display after receiving it. This allows the gift giver to feel that you appreciated the item that was bought for you. As time passes and things change in the house you can move the unwanted item somewhere less visible. After a reasonable amount of time has passed it is then perfectly acceptable to pass the gift on or donate it.
Sometimes there is the awkward moment when someone asks where something is that they have bought you. Personally I would never ask about this, but I have been in a situation where someone has asked me where a gift is. There is no easy answer to this question. I think sensitive honesty is probably the best approach. It’s okay to say you wanted a change of scene at home or it didn’t fit with your style/routine, or wasn’t something that you used. As long as you are polite and thankful the person asking has no right to make you feel guilty or to be angry with you.
When a gift is given it is not given with expectation and what you choose to do with the gift is up to you.
7. we want to use it but haven’t got the time
If you don’t have the time to use the item that you are looking at decluttering the question to ask yourself is, is this hobby or activity something that you want in your ideal life?
This is where self-knowledge becomes so important when decluttering because it allows you to look honestly at the life that you lead and decide exactly what you want to be doing with it. Often we may buy things because we think they represent the life that we want to lead when in actual fact they are more of a whimsy or a dream or an ideal that doesn’t really fit with who we are.
Ask yourself when you actually plan to use this item. How are you going to fit its use into your current schedule? If this question is difficult to answer then that’s a clue that the item has no place in your life. You want to be spending your time doing the things that you love. Do you not keep things that you plan to use “someday“.
8. we want to use it but aren’t physically able (too ill, chronic pain, over- or underweight, etc)
If you are in a situation where you are physically unable to use something that you have kept, this is the one time that I would recommend storage over decluttering. It can be very disheartening to donate things and then find that you are well enough to want to use them again in the future. None of us plan to be ill or unwell. If you are in this situation I would definitely recommend trying to move things into a spare room, the loft or the garage so that they are not in the way of your daily life.
What you need to focus on right now is being well enough to live the life that you want to lead. Focus on the real clutter rather than the things that you cannot use due to your circumstances. Especially if those things are items that you have used regularly in the past.
The exception to this is clothes. It’s extremely common to have clothes in multiple sizes due to weight fluctuations. We all want to maintain a healthy weight and wear clothes that we feel good in. Hanging onto clothes in different sizes bulks out your wardrobe. It also makes it harder to find things to wear each morning because of the overwhelm of having so much choice – most of which is unsuitable. Losing or gaining weight is a slow process, and often fraught with setbacks. This is true especially after pregnancy when it may take years rather than months to return to your previous size.
If this is the case it can be quite freeing to decide to accept your body as it is today and to stop wishing that you could get back into your old clothes. I am now nine years past my first pregnancy and although I am not overweight by much I would never have fitted back into my pre-pregnancy clothes at any point. I deliberately chose to donate all of them a few years back. If I do ever return to my pre-pregnancy size I will probably enjoy finding new clothes to celebrate this fact. Not to mention that I am much older now and the things that I was wearing back then are not so suitable for a woman of my age!
Don’t be afraid that discarding your smaller clothes is accepting that you are overweight and that you are never going to do anything about it. Clutter and obesity have been linked in observational studies. By clearing out the old and making space in your life – not just in your wardrobe – but in the rest of your house too, to you may find that it becomes easier to focus on a healthy lifestyle and the weight then becomes easier to lose.
9. it’s of no real use to anyone, but we don’t want it to be rubbish
I think this ties in with the make-do-and-mend mindset. For some of us it can be very hard to think of something going to waste. I suffer from this as my dad recycles and reduces so much. But my dad has carpentry and electronics skills, whereas I have neither.
Trying to find useful homes for things can make it easier to let go. Sometimes a Google search can turn up unlikely companies and places where you can donate things that you think nobody would ever use. There are many organisations that collect household and every day items for Third World countries. There are also charities that collect household items for recycling and repurposing in the UK. It may result in your decluttering journey taking a little longer, but if you can find a home that satisfies your aversion to waste then you can get those items out of your house and free up the space, as well as doing a good deed at the same time.
10. We don’t want to be seen as weird (or perceived as poor)
This one isn’t so much a problem in the beginning. But it does tend to occur when you have decluttered quite a lot.
As you progress on your journey you may find yourself wanting to let go of things that everybody else owns. This can make you feel uneasy because we all want to fit in. We want to be accepted and if we don’t own the “normal” things that other people have it makes us different. Being different can make us feel uncomfortable. We may have ideas of other people’s judgement of our living space or lifestyle.
We do not want to be perceived as eccentric or as someone who is too poor to afford the normal things that other people own. A simple example of this is that I do not own a microwave or a toaster. If I make toast I use the grill in the oven. If I need to reheat food I put it in the oven. I prefer the extra counter space in my kitchen to having gadgets that only have a single use. However I am often met with surprise when I admit that I do not own a toaster or microwave.
While I am happy for people to think whatever they want to think about my choices, I do find that being a mum tends to give me pause over other things. I know how important it is for children to fit in with their peers. I don’t want my children to feel like they are the odd ones out because they don’t have the same things as other people have in their houses. So some things (like the DVD player) remain, even though I personally never use them.
I think the best approach to this fear is to focus on the positive side of your choices. Don’t complain about what the item brings in terms of negativity. Instead praise what not having the item brings to your house. Focusing on positives sends the right message to other family members. If you reach a point where you are uncomfortable with decluttering because you think it makes you unusual or strange, think of yourself as a leader. You are being the change that you want to see in the world. You are setting an example, and being a role model.
Can you identify with any of the reasons on this list have you found any of these emotions when you have been decluttering? It can actually help the decluttering process if you understand the reason behind your reluctance to let go of things. The next time you are struggling with an item have a look through this list pinpoint the reason why you don’t want to let it go and then work through those feelings until you reach an outcome that you are happy with.
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