Have you ever asked someone for advice on how to declutter your home? Chances are, you’ve probably been met with the over-simplifications: “Just focus on the things you love!” “Only keep things that spark joy!” The sentiment behind these may be coming from a good place. But even still, getting rid of things— clutter or otherwise— is still difficult. Especially when you’re faced with a house filled to the brim with items representing memories, experiences, and maybe even some strong emotions.
When it comes down to it, we all have had those moments of stress (and even guilt) about what to do with a sentimental item. The set of china you were given for your wedding that you don’t have space for in the kitchen sits in a box in the garage. The piece of furniture you inherited from a family member and felt you should keep to honor their memory. The leather jacket you used to wear in 1989 but would probably never wear today, so it hangs in the back of your closet. The following guide should hopefully help you with let go of a few non-essential possessions in a way that hopefully makes you feel lighter and happier.
Why do I have a hard time letting go of things?
Before we dive into our actionable tips on how to get better at parting with some of your extra clutter, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a difficult process. Preserving precious memories, anxiety around possibly needing something again down the line, and finding the time to process everything are all valid reasons for feeling nervous about letting go of sentimental items.
But despite how you may feel, it’s important to remember that your feelings are valid (and often science-based!). To learn more about the psychology of clutter and behavioral reasons why letting go of stuff is just plain hard, check out a few of these resources below:
- 5 Reasons Why Clutter Disrupts Mental Health
- Why It’s So Hard For Us to Let Go of Our Old Things
- 6 Reasons Letting Go Of Stuff Is Hard (And What to Do About It)
- The Mental Health Benefits of Decluttering
How to Let Go of Sentimental Items
1. Get rid of easy items first.
First, go through your house and clear out anything and everything you don’t need or want. Be as thorough as possible to genuinely rid your home of things that are just filling space. Maybe your small kitchen has gadgets and appliances you haven’t used in years. Or perhaps your living room is cluttered with knickknacks and decorative items you purchased ten years ago but are now just sitting there collecting dust.
Whatever room you’re in, go through it with a fine-toothed comb and make decisions about items that are not sentimental first. By starting with simple things, you’ll acclimate yourself to the decluttering process and be more willing to part with the harder-hitting sentimental stuff when you’re ready.
A few easier things to let go of can include:
- Clothing items that don’t fit or that you don’t feel your best in
- Old electronics that don’t work
- Books, puzzles, games, movies, and anything else taking up physical space in your home that you know you don’t enjoy or won’t use
- Extra kitchen essentials you have extras of (glassware, appliances, etc.)
- Duplicate blankets or bedding sets that you have no use for
After clearing out the things you don’t need, you can donate the items to a local charity or community thrift store so that others can enjoy your items.
2. Discover your motivation behind keeping things.
It’s pretty easy to confuse our wants versus our needs. We may think we need the new phone that was just released or the purse that catches our eye at the department store. But if we are physically able to survive without having that item in our life, well, then it’s time to admit that it’s just a want. You don’t have to be a minimalist to agree that if we are genuinely trying to live a happier life with less, then we need to evaluate what we feel we really need. Take some time for introspection and discover what your attachment is to specific items. Feel the emotions that come up and try not to judge yourself in the process.
Trying to learn how to let go of sentimental items? Here are a few essential questions to ask yourself:
- Do I feel burdened by keeping certain items? Are these items limiting my enjoyment of my home or my storage space in any way? (That could be the individual item or the combination of ALL the sentimental things causing clutter and stress.)
- Do I see these items often enough that they can bring me joy? Is there a way to use them so I would enjoy them more?
- Why do I feel the need to keep this? Is it because I love it? Is it because it has good memories attached to it?
- Do I use this item often enough to make keeping it worthwhile?
- Would I feel guilty about letting this item go? Why is that?
Friendly reminder: Letting go doesn’t need to happen all at once, and this process will look different for everyone.
3. Cultivate a gratitude practice to make letting go easier.
Having less “stuff” might actually make it easier to practice gratitude on an everyday basis. That’s because you’re intentionally surrounding yourself with items that make you feel excited and invigorated rather than a bunch of clutter.
One way to practice gratitude is to make an intentional list of things you have in your home that make you feel thankful. Write down everything that resides under your roof that you are grateful to have in your life – family and pets included. As you make your list, you will realize just how fortunate you are. Frame the list or tape it to your bathroom mirror to remind you daily. You can also fold it up and keep it in your wallet to remind you of what you already have when you’re in a situation where you want to buy more or are having trouble letting go of items that no longer fit into your space.
Shifting to a place of gratitude can help lessen the harmful sting associated with letting go of physical possessions. It can cultivate a space for positivity and allow you to keep the things around you that you are genuinely grateful for and part with the rest in your own time.
4. Try not to compare yourself or your home to others.
You might find yourself in a place where you’re happy with what you have. That’s great! Until you see what your neighbor or that influencer you follow on social media has, of course. Maybe their home is decluttered, and you’re envious but feeling stuck. After all, “comparison is the thief of joy,” they say.
Don’t let jealousy steal your joy of having a simpler life. Take it slow but keep moving in the direction of letting go. Go back to your gratitude practice and remember what you have versus where others are in their life. The point here is to lessen the judgment and negativity associated with letting go of sentimental items. Focus on the things money can’t buy or replace, like memories and friendships. These will live on whether you keep certain items or not.
5. Slowly get rid of items with sentimental value.
The decision to get rid of items with significant sentimental value is a personal choice that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The idea is that it’ll make you feel good, not filled with regret and remorse. Take your time! Remember, no hard rules state you must declutter all sentimental items to live a minimal and happy life. You should strive to find a balance that works well for you and your family.
Here are a few of the best ways to balance letting things go with preserving an item’s emotional value:
- Find a way to display it prominently! Frame children’s old artwork, hang heirloom plates on the wall, etc.
- Offer a sentimental item to another family member who would enjoy the memories just as much as you do but will have more room to display it.
- Follow the keep one; lose the rest rule. Keeping just one sentimental plate out on display can be more meaningful than keeping the entire 12-piece set hidden away in a box.
- Acknowledge and cherish the memories, but lose the clutter. If you decide that you do need to part ways with an item, you can always photograph it for a keepsake album if you want to be sure to remember it.
- Make the valuable item into something functional. For example: You can turn your dad’s old flannel shirt into a pillow you can enjoy every day!
- If you’re considering selling an item online, you can always donate the money to a cause you believe in so you feel good about your choice.
Learning How to Let Go Of Stuff Can Be Helpful
Remember, what you keep and what you choose to give away is a personal decision. There is science-backed evidence that paring down excess belongings and letting go can bring more joy to your home and life. So even if it is difficult, it can be worth the effort! By making space in your house, you can be more grateful for what you have as you learn to live a happier life with less.
How do you deal with having too much stuff you love or that has sentimental value to you or your loved ones? It’s extremely common to have things in your home that you feel obligated to keep or have difficulty parting with for whatever reason. We’d love to hear your take on the matter. Feel free to share with us on social media!
Update: This post was originally published on July 7th, 2019, by Lauren Thomann and was revised on March 30th, 2023, with further information from Emily Malkowski.