Alice Boyes, PhD, author of Stress-Free Productivity: A Personalized Toolkit to Become Your Most Efficient & Creative Self and The Healthy Mind Toolkit. She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today. AliceBoyes.com
You don’t have to be a pack rat to benefit from decluttering your home. The process can help you feel organized and energized, and it allows you to decide who will get your belongings, a task that would be painful for loved ones to do later. But it can be challenging to let go of possessions that you’ve spent a lifetime acquiring. How to forge ahead…
Recognize the benefits of an uncluttered home. Living without order can make you feel anxious and scattered. Making things orderly will result in a sense of calm and can ease tensions with a spouse or grown children who are unnerved by your lack of organization. Decluttering will make your life easier—you will be able to find the things you need…maneuver more easily in your home…and start to transition if you’re preparing to downsize.
There also are many positive cognitive and emotional benefits to decluttering. It involves decision-making, which will help you develop a sense of confidence and competency…you will feel empowered by deciding whether to keep or discard items…and you even may feel energized enough to start ticking other chores off your to-do list.
There also is a fun aspect—you may find things that you forgot you had, creating a sense of serendipity that can boost your mood.
Why is decluttering so hard? You may tell yourself that a lack of time is keeping you from the task, but it’s likely that emotions are what’s really in the way…
Letting go can be a hit to your sense of identity. Examples: Giving away your skis forces you to acknowledge that you aren’t a skier anymore—even if it has been years since you last enjoyed the sport. Giving away the storybooks you used to read to your kids is an acknowledgment of the passing of time. Solution: Don’t think of getting rid of these things as losing them but as deliberately entering and embracing a different phase of your life. You’re forging a new identity for the person you are now, instead of focusing on who you used to be.
Letting go can create anxiety. You may hang on to old phones, computers and gadgets because you are afraid of losing important data. The same might be true of appliances—how many old toasters are hidden in the garage? Solution: Hang on to your latest device (such as your last phone and last computer), and discard earlier ones. Also leery of parting with appliance manuals? You can get PDFs from manufacturers’ websites.
Letting go of gifts may make you feel guilty. Solution: Give yourself permission to get rid of gifts you no longer need or want. Understand that this doesn’t undermine your relationship with the gift giver.
Letting go of aspirational things can bring on remorse or disappointment. Example: You may have purchased the items needed to learn a new craft but never got around to using them…have clothes you bought and never wore. Letting go of these things means admitting your mistake and confronting your regret. Solution: Be compassionate with yourself and ask, What’s the best decision I can make now? Donating to people in need can replace remorse with a strong, positive feeling.
Letting go of collections or memorabilia can be difficult. It’s one thing if these items make up meaningful collections for you, emotionally or perhaps financially, but quite another if they’re just casual souvenirs. Solution: Ask yourself if you often take pleasure in these items. If they’re just collecting dust, give yourself the go-ahead to trash them.
Letting go may force you to relive bad experiences or relationships and process the distress. Solution: Throw out one item associated with a bad memory, and see how it feels. Acknowledge the emotions and memories associated with it, and give yourself some psychological space and nurturing to grieve or process your trauma. Then do the same with the next item.
Important: It’s okay to feel all these strong emotions. Modern psychology used to focus on reducing negative emotions. Now we understand that we don’t always need to get rid of these emotions. They can exist, but you don’t want to feed them and cause them to get bigger. (In those situations, working with a therapist can help.)
For those items that you can’t quite bring yourself to discard today, try one of these options…
One- or three- or six-month box. Set up a large cardboard box, and write today’s date on it. Then pick a time frame—from one to six months—and write that on the box. If you don’t use or donate the items in the box by then, throw them out. If decision day rolls around and you still are reluctant, give yourself one more week to take action by donating, selling or repurposing. If another week passes, trash the items.
Take photos instead. Creating a permanent record can make it easier to let go of items that you no longer physically need. Back up your photos to a cloud service, so you won’t lose them.