De-Cluttering the Sentimental

Before I get started, let me tell you this post has been awhile in the making, and one of the most widely requested posts by my real-life supporters – so I hope I can do it justice! Without doubt, sentimental clutter is the hardest category of ‘stuff’ to manage and it’s no surprise why – when we as humans naturally assign meaning to an object, perhaps inherited, hand-me down or from a prior time in our lives – the perceived value of that item increases tenfold. We see the item and it can invoke a kaleidoscope of memories and feelings of people, places, and times.

Everyone has experienced the wave of emotion or that trip down memory lane going through old boxes during a clean-out or a move. Many of us have hand-me-downs or inherited pieces around our homes as a nod to past loved ones, trips we’ve taken, adventures we’ve had or moments in which we have lived and achieved.

As a former bowerbird, I have certainly had a love affair with sentimental pieces and I’m going to tell you at the get go – there is no magic life hack that will necessarily make it easy to part with. What I hope to share with you today is not a list of ‘killing sentimental clutter in 5 easy steps’ because to assume that the matter of sentimental object management should be either easy, quick or black and white is a major faux pa, in my opinion.

There are many good posts from other bloggers already in existence that touch on the ‘how-to’ of managing sentimental objects and reading this information is a useful place to start. Today I hope to share with you some of the feelings and actions I experienced and took on my journey of managing my memory stuff, in the hope it may helped inspire you.

As a child, I adored trinket boxes and had all the pretty things, and as a young adult I treasured the memories held in toys, old school diaries, notes passed between friends, and inherited items from family. It’s unsurprising then that after a quarter of a century on earth, I found myself the custodian of an unspeakable number of large boxes worth of childhood and adolescent items. These items were in direct competition for space, time and energy with the existing array of items in my home.

Before we moved house in 2016, I had been storing said boxes in a dark cavernous basement in our house – naturally the desirable resting place for truly beloved items, no? No actually. But I don’t think I’m the only one who has done this. If you really think about it, we often hold onto possessions from our past because we say they are ‘precious, ‘treasured’ or ‘special’, and yet they are more often than not unceremoniously shoved into a dark corner to gather dust in our homes. Items of true value and sentiment could certainly be on display in our homes so that our hearts can relish their memories daily, but I think often the overwhelm of unearthing years of emotion contained in those dark, dusty boxes stops us from making progress in our efforts to simplify.

My experience of working through those boxes was both tiring and liberating in one. I started with one box at a time, and I had three empty boxes next to me for ‘bin’, ‘donate’ and ‘keep/consider further’. Like any mission in de-cluttering, it’s easy to find the low-value, low-risk pieces and toss them (in my case – endless shreds of finger paintings, faded or worn out toys, things I looked at and had no memory of whatsoever, old ticket stubs so faded that you couldn’t make out the concert you went to back in 2002). The hard part is working out what to do with the stuff you quite like (in my case – examples included Polly Pockets, pencil tins, school diaries) and absolutely love (in my case, examples included pieces from inherited my grandparents).

I moved the ‘quite liked’ and ‘absolutely loved’ pieces to that third box – the ‘keep/consider further box’. So much sentimental clutter was actually just clutter and once I’d binned or donated those pieces, there were probably 2-3 boxes worth of more treasured pieces I wanted to keep.

Two of the pieces of advice I’d read from other minimalist bloggers absolutely resounded with me during my next step – “Would your loved ones want you to hold on to something and live a life drowning in your stuff?’ and ‘Memories are in us, not in things’. I also have become increasingly practical these days, so I found myself asking ‘Could someone else get actual use from this object that would otherwise just sit in disuse in my home?’. These are all powerful points to think about as you approach your sentimental de-cluttering, and it’s important to member that people will move through ‘readiness’ in their own time and way.

I used these points to decide what stayed and what went. Some items stayed in the box and were re-visited the next week or month with new decisions made under a fresh perspective. Don’t try to tackle it all at once.  Sentimental de-cluttering can be highly emotional and draining, and decision-fatigue (keep or let go?) can leave you feeling drained and frazzled if you don’t take regular breaks and give space and time to work through your things.

Of my hardest category of objects, pieces inherited from my grandparents, I can share with you my approach and what I decided to do with them. There were three key pieces that stood out as memories from my childhood that I had the privilege of inheriting from them – amazingly, all made of wood. I decided to keep two of the three pieces, and donated one.

The two I kept are both currently in my living room, one is a large carved wooden chest which holds some of my treasures and provides ample storage in my home; the other is a wooden solitaire set (pictured) which sits next to my reading nook chair and is both played and admired by myself and visitors to my home. Both pieces still serve a beautiful function and have the added benefit of reminding me of my family’s history which is important to me.

The third piece is one which I won’t specifically disclose, but was a piece that I ended up giving away at one of our garage sales, to a lovely young woman with the most unbelievable serendipitous story. She sought out this object and was in tears as she told me the story of how her grandparents had had an object exactly like this one in their house that she recalled growing up in rural Australia, but how it had been lost through the generations, and when she saw mine for sale she felt it was a sign for her to re-acquire that item and for it to hold a special place in her living room as a reminder of her family history. This could not have been a better way for me to hand over a piece that was no longer adding ongoing value in my life, but that was about to add immense value to hers. I took a photograph of the piece before I let it go in the event that I wanted to look at it again (funnily, I haven’t).

As it currently stands, my husband and I each have one standard size box of sentimental items from our earlier years, and I have some items stored in my wooden chest that I believe will be used or displayed in the future. Like anything, how much you have or how much you de-clutter is not in competition with anyone else and it’s important to employ the virtues of kindness and patience with yourself and your loved ones when addressing this most challenging category of ‘stuff’.

Some closing thoughts:

  • Photographs displayed in your home of loved ones past and present can be a wonderful way to feel the presence and love of prior generations without holding onto physical inherited objects.
  • Objects that generate bad feelings (in my opinion) should be moved on regardless of their source or backstory.
  • It’s okay for your identity to have changed and evolved since you were ‘that’ person or had those objects. That side of you will always still be a part of you if you want it to be. But you don’t need the objects to remind you.
  • Consider the functional use of an object – can you use it the way it was intended, or would someone else get true use and value from it and give that object ‘new life’ if you were to pass it on?
  • Give yourself time to de-clutter sentimental objects – have a box that you re-visit every 6 months if you need to, as emotions and our mental state in terms of attachment can change with time.
  • You don’t need to get rid of everything! But where possible, try to treat the objects you do choose to keep with the love they deserve, including a place in the active space of your home. If you’re looking to put something sentimental back in storage, I’d ask yourself why. Maybe it’s better to let it go.

I’d love to hear how you’ve managed sentimental objects. Leave me a comment below. Until next time – simplify, focus, pursue and count your blessings.

Sarah x

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