At the beginning of my minimalism journey, I found it relatively easy to let go of things that weren’t essential to me. However, like most people, my momentum slowed down when I was presented with the challenge of decluttering sentimental items.
These items included things like:
- My Disney branded pillow
- Certificates, ribbons and trophies from high school
- Old watches I bought when I was travelling overseas
- Letters and cards from friends and family
- Drawings from when I was a child
For you, it might be old records, books, silverware, clothing, or just about any possession you can think of. That’s because there are so many emotional considerations when it comes to the things we own.
What might not mean anything to me, might mean the world to you, depending on the context and history of the thing.
Even if you fundamentally understand the benefits of having fewer things, it doesn’t make it any easier to make decisions on decluttering sentimental items.
It’s an emotional rollercoaster that none of us want to ride. I mean, who would? I suppose those of us courageous enough to pursue simplicity 🙂
So this post is for you if you’re struggling to part way with things in your life with sentimental value.
This is not to say that you should discard all the things sentimental to you. Not at all. But where do we draw the line? We’re incredibly skilled at justifying what we should keep.
I thought it would be interesting to explore why we derive sentimental value from things, the fear around letting them go, and some tips to help us move past these fears.
Why our things matter to us so much
As you’re reading this post, pause to look around at the things you own. You could be in your home, your vehicle, office, or perhaps it’s what you’re wearing or what device you’re using to read this article.
Now ask yourself, why did I get these things? Maybe this is a straightforward question, or perhaps you can’t remember. No problem, I have another question for you.
What memories do you associate with the things you can visibly see in your space?
For example, I’m currently drafting this article on my 2014 MacBook air. This is the same computer I used to launch this blog.
The pants I’m wearing remind me of when I started wearing the same clothes every day.
Everything we own is associated with memories.
We use things to help us remember
- Relationships – How many of us hang onto something because it reminds us of our first kiss? Or the death of a family member?
- Accomplishments – We’re always wanting and seeking validation. So we’re particularly proud of what we achieve in life. We look for any reason to help us remember our moments of success.
- Experiences – Imagine you’re at a concert featuring your favourite musician and they throw a piece of their clothing into the crowd, and you catch it? This is a memorable moment in your life. Of course, you’re likely to hang onto that piece of clothing to remind you of this experience.
Physical possessions create multiple triggers
When it comes to remembering relationships, accomplishments and experiences, our things create multi-dimensional triggers to help our memory.
The scent and feel of an item transcend us to a moment in time. For example, I used to play a popular card game called Magic The Gathering. And yes I know it’s super nerdy, but it’s a great game!
I learned how to play Magic in grade 4, and I remember the smell of my first deck of cards. All magic cards have the same scent.
So when I stumble across some old cards now, it’s the smell that reminds me of the countless hours I spent building decks and playing against my best friends.
Think about how many movies you’ve seen where an adult character goes back to their family home and grasps an old stuffed toy with incredible emotion as they reminisce on the memories. That’s how I feel when I see and touch these cards!
We associate value with things
Another reason we struggle to declutter sentimental items is that we link monetary value to our things.
It’s hard to let go of something that we got at a large discount. We fear we’ll never get that kind of deal again.
Or maybe we have jewellery, model cars, collectable figurines or other vintage things that have appreciated in value. With every year that passes, the value increases, and so does the sentimental worth.
Another type of behaviour related to placing value in things is known as the endowment effect. It’s a bias that occurs when we overvalue things once we assume ownership of them.
This is especially true for things that wouldn’t commonly be bought or sold on the market, usually items with symbolic, experiential, or emotional significance.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the Endowment effect here.
The fear of losing possessions
So now that we know why our things matter so much to us, I want to briefly discuss two reasons why we feel fearful of letting go of sentimental items.
Our memories are precious to us, and if we lose the trigger of an item that represents that moment in time, do we trust ourselves to remember?
Well, surprise surprise, our memories are not stored in our things. Our memories are processed and kept in our brains—specifically the hippocampus, neocortex and the amygdala.
So is the fear of decluttering sentimental items about remembering moments, or wanting to remember moments? More on that later.
As I reflect on my behaviour with sentimental items, it was always much easier to keep something that wasn’t essential to me, than it was to discard it at the risk of feeling regretful.
Regretful that we may want that item again in the future. Regretful if we feel like we’re rejecting people near and dear to us because they thoughtfully gifted this thing to us.
Or regretful that you no longer want a reminder for a particular memory. Lastly, regretful that we didn’t recoup the monetary value of something we owned.
I don’t know about you, but the feeling of regret is a feeling I try to avoid.
But not all hope is gone. Next up, I have a combination of mind tricks and practical tips to help manage the fears of memory loss and regret when it comes to decluttering sentimental items.
Tips to help you overcome the emotional resistance to decluttering sentimental items
1. Learn to be content in the present
So much of the concerns associated with decluttering sentimental possessions is about preserving the past or mitigating our future.
Reflection and planning are useful to do in small doses, but holding onto things we don’t need, pushes us further away from the present.
Here’s the thing. On average, we have 23,000 breaths each day. This is a second-by-second reminder that we’re alive.
If you’re focused on contentment and gratitude for being alive, you’ll find that your fears around decluttering sentimental items will soon fade away.
Read more: 13 Practical Approaches To Being Content
2. Remember, you are not your things
It’s easy to get confused about the role things play in our lives. Everything we own is effectively just a tool for us to use. They’re not fundamentally who we are.
For example, my first mobile phone was a Nokia 3315. This was the same phone I used to message my first girlfriend, to play snake, and ultimately begin my journey to adulthood. Sure the phone played a role in these experiences, but if I didn’t have a phone, I’d find another way to have similar experiences.
This is not to say that our things don’t play a role in representing who we are—because they do. Put it this way—I don’t have any piercings. But if I covered my body with piercings this afternoon, I’d still be the same person tomorrow.
It’s worth repeating. You are not your things.
3. Keep a journal
Words and images are timeless tools we have to keep our memories. Think about famous historical literature from the likes of Seneca the Younger and Shakespeare, and the impact it’s had on society.
Their words live on through the ages as we derive lessons from their work and apply them to modern times.
This is not to say that you need to be a world-class writer. But keeping a journal for yourself is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your mental health. And as a by-product, it acts as an archive of your life.
Rather than relying on things to remind you to be introspective, journaling is a method specifically designed to help you reflect and think.
4. Create a multimedia library
You are the director of your life. So why not capture the most visual experience you can?
This could be in the form of photo albums, art, digital images and video.
Instead of relying on sentimental items to capture moments, start carefully building a library of media that showcases your life.
In the context of technology, how many of us take the time to curate a digital photo library we’re proud of? How many screenshots do you have on your phone right now ruining your image feed?
Take charge by being your own creative director and not only will you have fun drawing, painting, photographing, filming, editing, adding music, but you’ll also have a beautifully crafted media library of your life.
5. Keep all of your sentimental items in one place
Despite recognising the over-dependence we place on the things we own, that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of all of our possessions with sentimental value.
Since Maša and I started our minimalist journey, we’ve kept a sentimental box each. It used to be one of those 60L plastic boxes from Target. Then eventually, we started sharing a box. And today, we both have a shoebox each with our sentimental things.
Now it would have been fine if we still had a big plastic box each today, but because we review our sentimental regularly, over time, we became less dependant on what we had.
For instance, every time I opened the box, I was thinking, “why did I decide to hang onto these things last time?” My current self was often confused by the actions of my past self.
It just goes to show that as we grow older, we create new experiences, and the old experiences don’t matter as much. At least this is the case for me.
I think so much has happened since I became a minimalist, that I no longer feel the need to be triggered for past memories to feel happy.
So I suggest that you keep a version of a sentimental box that works for you. We choose to tuck our things away in a box. But your items might be out in the open. I suppose the important thing is to regularly review if these things are worth keeping.
And don’t trick yourself into thinking that there’s no cost of keeping things you don’t need especially sentimental items.
Remember, we hang onto these things to remember meaningful relationships, experiences and accomplishments. It’s not necessarily healthy if you’re triggered continuously to live in the past instead of the present.
Decluttering sentimental items
I hope this post has helped you reflect on the value of your sentimental possessions, and to have the courage to let go of some things that may be holding you back.
I’d love to hear from you now.
What has been your experience with decluttering sentimental items? Have you caught yourself struggling to let go? How did you overcome it?
Let me know in the comments below.