Our huddled messes yearn to be free
February 1, 2017 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Need some positive low-pressure phrases to encourage letting go of possessions.

We just moved. We are approaching the idea of decluttering now. Just didn't have the time and energy for that before the move. Disposing of the accumulated stuff is hard! We have stuff from friends, parents and other family that have died as well as our own things. Accumulated this and that, a lifetime of mementos, garage sale finds and lots of gifts from friends and family.

My husband has a harder time than I do of letting go of things. He can hardly even sort through a box. Every item brings back memories and he has trouble deciding what to do with the thing in question. He has a poor memory so he is somewhat afraid of not having access to the memories or missing a possible memory trigger.

When we sold our house we really liked the pared down look the real estate agent encouraged us to develop for showing the home. My husband says he is finally ready to clear out some things. He says if we can't find the thing we are looking for it is like we don't own it anyway. He has let go of some things already and I really want to encourage him to continue.

I was talking to my husband one day and said something along these lines: these belongings we have are made of elements from the earth. We should let them out so they can be used, so the earth's material isn't wasted. He responded well to that. Saying 'let's get rid of stuff' does not have a positive tone.

I need positive phrases, mantras and approaches to keep our momentum going! Thanks!
posted by goodsearch to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Not phrase, but I like taking a photograph of the thing that I'm getting rid of. It makes me feel like I still have part of it, although it takes up a lot less space. Then you can keep the memories but not the atoms.
posted by GuyZero at 2:04 PM on February 1, 2017 [12 favorites]

Marie Kondo talks about thanking things for their service. I find that really helps me.
posted by kitten magic at 2:23 PM on February 1, 2017 [14 favorites]

Yeah, I feel like Marie Kondo is absolutely the go-to person for decluttering advice.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read the idea somewhere (can't remember where) that as long as you're getting rid of things that can be replaced, it's easier to think of the place you'd buy it from new as storing it for you until you need it. The price you pay them is the compensation to them for the storage and safe-keeping of the item. I've found I've used this idea a couple of times and it really can help.
posted by cgg at 2:28 PM on February 1, 2017 [12 favorites]

Marie's a bit much for me, but I like the act of touching/holding things and asking "Does this make me feel lighter or heavier? Is having it a joy or a burden?"

I also liked Peter Walsh's advice that I first heard in his old TV show Clean Sweep. When you'd come across something like Mom's old things stuffed in a box under the bed, you ask yourself if keeping it like that respects and honors Mom, and if not, maybe you can honor her by taking one or two things to display and finding the rest a new home (i.e., Goodwill).
posted by troyer at 2:30 PM on February 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

My favorite quote on the topic comes from Sufism: "We should give thanks when we lose something, since God has removed from us the burden of caring for it."

Sadly, that's my own paraphrase and I can't seem to recall the author or exact reference. (Also, it's a religious reference, so perhaps not applicable to every mindset. But perhaps it'll be helpful to you!)
posted by ragtag at 2:31 PM on February 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

Second taking photos. If you can, arrange to have them made into a photo book - something concrete that he can look at to reconnect with his memories. Or an electronic photo frame so that the photos of the item rotate through. If it isn't worth being highlighted in a book or photo frame is it really worth keeping in a box you never open?

If you are in an area with freecycle or something similar, it was really wonderful to be able to things to a good home. You or your husband can actually meet the person and hear them say "thank you" when they pick up the item. Much more satisfying for things with emotional meaning than just dropping them off at Goodwill or a other donation station.

Imagine every inch of your house as a value that can be used to store this or that or be contribute to the free space that you value. Ask yourself, "does this item is worth paying rent on its space every month, month after month?" This help you focus on the fact that keeping things is not free.

This may not work for him, but I weighed everything that left the house during a purge and kept a running total on the refrigerator. It was encouraging to see it add up and it helped me feel more successful to remember how much we had gotten rid of already even though I couldn't always see the difference. (The rule was weigh everything that left the house, not to come back, sold, trash, give away, as long as it wasn't (a) regular weekly garbage or (b) immediately replace by another, similar item. )
posted by metahawk at 2:31 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of freeing my possessions to live their most useful life. Like, picturing my sad lonely waffle maker shut in a dark cupboard at my house, rarely used, vs being freed to live on a kitchen counter in the sunlight and used frequently by a family who LOVES WAFFLES is really helpful for me.
posted by stellaluna at 2:32 PM on February 1, 2017 [17 favorites]

Another thing I said to myself while disposing of things is "I don't run a museum" although perhaps that's specific to my issue of having to throw out 25 year-old Microsoft Windows 386 boxes.
posted by GuyZero at 2:33 PM on February 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

One day is today. Today is the day I get rid of more stuff. Progress daily.
posted by AugustWest at 2:35 PM on February 1, 2017

Nthing Marie Kondo. I don't completely agree with her and I don't recommend following all her advice to the letter, but I think she addresses the emotional side of possessions really well. Thank your things, relieve them of their duties, and send them to their next job when you can.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:47 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The concept most helpful to me for getting rid of a lot of things is the "magic closet." If I'm not sure I will use something again, I don't think of it as getting rid of it permanently, I'm just putting it in the magic closet, where I can retrieve it later if I want. The magic closet is eBay. Whether I sell my clutter item on eBay or not, the odds are pretty good that I can always find one later there.

I have to say, I'm not sure that there has been a single time I've had to reach into the magic closet to get something back that I've gotten rid of.
posted by The Deej at 2:48 PM on February 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

Keep only what you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
posted by teremala at 2:54 PM on February 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

It has never ceased to amaze me how little I care about something once I've heard it hit the bottom of the trash can. If I really feel like I *must* have it back, I reach in and pull it back out.

Reaching in happens so rarely I can hardly recall an instance.
posted by Wild_Eep at 2:54 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

For gifts, it might be helpful to think of it as an exchange that occurred and is now over. You were given something and got that pleasure, and the gifter got the pleasure of knowing you were pleased with the gift at that time. All obligations caused by the gift are complete - you can't devalue the gift no matter what is done with it or if it is even remembered because its unique value lies in the past.
posted by Mizu at 2:55 PM on February 1, 2017 [14 favorites]

My wife was standing close to me, chatting, and with one hand wiping the screen on my desktop computer, which was not well planted on the desk. The computer fell to the floor, smashing the glass face of the thing into many many pieces. My wife got hysterical, fell to the floor, sobbing non-stop. All I could think to say was: Don't get upset. It is only stuff. Only a thing. It can be replaced. I is only stuff.
posted by Postroad at 2:58 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really feel for you on the subject of possessions owned by people who have passed, and I think that there is a particular phase of grief where letting go of those possessions is particularly difficult. So if any of those losses are fresh (less than a year or so) it might not be the time to be ruthless yet. However, I found that in sorting through my mother's things, it helped me to remember that my mother loved me very much, a lot more than any of those possessions, and she would want me to be happy, and not to feel weighed down by her things.

One phrase I have tried to use in the way you're suggesting is: "I can keep the memory without keeping the thing." Especially so if you take a picture or write down/dictate a strong memory associated with that thing.

Consider also: living in an uncluttered environment is something you value, but giving away sentimental items is distressing. Is it worth enduring that distress to get to the goal? If you think it is, remind yourself of that while you're decluttering.
posted by Cheese Monster at 3:01 PM on February 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I like to dramatically sing "Let it Go," changing the lyrics as needed, when I'm purging my possessions. It helps me keep it light.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

My top three strategies are:

Photos! These can serve the very same "memory jogging" function as the items themselves, and maybe even better if you get them printed with a caption that describes the memory associated with the item. I like Shutterfly and they have near-constant deals on photo books. I pretty much never buy unless they are having at least a 50% off sale -- they come around pretty often so it's great especially if you're not printing something time sensitive.

Put the things you're thinking about getting rid of in a box, tape shut, and label with the date. Stash in the basement/garage/closet. Wait one year. During that time, maybe you will discover you want one of those things, and you can still very easily retrieve it -- sometimes I will find I DO actually miss that slightly odd headband or whatever and it's easy enough to open the box and retrieve it. But if after a year you can't even recall what's in the box? Drop off at Goodwill unopened.

Especially with sentimental, emotional attachment objects, actually display and use your favorites! Nothing will jog a memory unused and boxed up. But if there's a certain item that always reminds you of Mom or whatever, be intentional about making it part of your space so you can actually use it to remember someone/something/some time fondly.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:05 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

What's the worst thing that could happen if I get rid of this?
posted by Bruce H. at 3:05 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Someone else may really need this.
posted by soakimbo at 3:30 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Things I say to myself:

I'm so privileged to be able to donate this to someone who needs it.
I can appreciate this without owning it.
Someone will be so delighted to find this at Goodwill.
I have more than enough, I should release this thing back to the universe.

I also donate to specific needs through social media. For example a case worker on Nextdoor needed some NB size clothes for a lady trying to leave her abusive spouse. Make a bag up and take it. Lord knows my baby will never want and it's selfish to not spread the wealth. I was moving and had partial bottles of approximately 101 high end stuff for curly hair. I gave it to a teenager whose uncle I knew so she can find what works for her hair. Stuff like that is really really satisfying.
posted by stormygrey at 3:38 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mostly I just look around myself and wonder what someone would think if they had to clean out my apartment because I'd dropped dead. That has kept me free from a lot of useless junk, even though I do have to consciously get rid of stuff on a regular basis.
posted by janey47 at 3:52 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Marie Kondo (nthing her books!) advice that I loved the most was on gifts. We hang on to gifts because they are an expression of love from the giver, however, it's unlikely the giver would want us to be lugging it around for the rest of our lives just to please them.

Make sure to thank people for gifts. Then, when you don't want/need it anymore, you can part with it in good conscience.
posted by Pearl928 at 4:17 PM on February 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

For the stuff from deceased people, can you find one or two good quality things that represent them, and make those items important in your life?

Then, when something that creates memories but isn't useful comes up, you can say "You wear your Grandpa's watch everyday, and we have his highschool prom photo on the wall in the living room. We're not going to forget him."

Start with the big stuff. Extra furniture for example. That will have the most immediate impact. Leave the small boxes of jewellery and momentos till last.

Also nthing imagining the joy of someone finding the awesome thing at the Op Shop. This is particularly useful for clothes that don't really fit, but you held on to because they are amazing. "There's a poor student looking for a costume for a party who will be astounded to find that bright yellow cowboy jacket. It will make his day. And he'll wear it to the party, and people will exclaim at his amazing luck in finding it, and then he will donate it back to the Charity, and a theatre teacher will find it and use it as a costume, and be so pleased to have found the perfect jacket for her v low budget high school production. Etc".
posted by kjs4 at 4:50 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Specifically for the things related to someone who is passed, this worked for me about my late husband. My first impulse was to keep everything, no matter what, but all stuffed in boxes so I wouldn't look at it and cry. I've moved twice since he died and I was forced to deal with those boxes in order to live in smaller spaces.

If the reason you are holding onto an item is because of a link to someone gone, think about the nature of that memory instead of the of the item itself. Can you remember them using it, holding it, talking about it? How did you feel then, in the moment you remember? Is this the memory you want of the person you lost?

You will get more solace out of keeping those few items with the strongest links rather than many things with weak links, or links to negative memories.

An item used, worn, or just displayed where you can look at it in daily life will keep the person close to you.

An item stored with reverence and brought out at special times to invoke or share memories can hold very powerful emotions.

But things in a box in the closet just gradually lose the memory charge until they are nothing but guilt and dust.
posted by buildmyworld at 4:52 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pastabagel's advice has always worked for me, though it's more about acquiring items: I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

That can help is getting rid of stuff too - letting the world curate the item for me, rather than doing it personally.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:43 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

For gifts from someone who is far away or deceased, it's better to have a few things that you can display or easily access than boxes that are packed away in a closet.
posted by radioamy at 5:50 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a hard time going through and getting rid of stuff too. If there is a pile of 20 things, it's like 20 individual decisions, and it's very difficult. However, I've gotten a bit better at it, and this is my strategy: Here is an item that reminds me of a beloved person or event. 1) Can I use it? It has to be practical to clean and not broken and useful and not a duplicate of something I already have. If I can really use it, I keep it. If not, I move on to 2) Do I have any other items to remind me of this person or event? If not, I keep it, but if yes, I move to 3) If I'm still having trouble getting rid of the item even though it is not useful and is a redundant memory-holder, I look at it and ask myself if it's just such a weird and wacky object that it belongs in my wunderkammer. A wunderkammer is a cabinet of curiosities, and I let myself keep a small collection of things for including in it. If it doesn't fit in one of those three columns, I start thinking of who I can give it to or where I can donate it, or it heads for the trash bin.
posted by molasses at 6:04 PM on February 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

A gift is a passing on of an object to do with as you wish because it is now yours. A gift is a gift, not a lifetime obligation.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:12 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

For books, I look for it on Amazon if I'm not sure if I want to get rid of it. If there are lots of used copies available cheap, then I can get rid of it, knowing that I can get it back easily if I change my mind. I have re-bought books, but not many.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:47 PM on February 1, 2017

Love people. Use things.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 8:37 PM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

"the things are not the people."
"the things are not the memories."
posted by Miko at 8:55 PM on February 1, 2017

Theres a few thoughts that i run with, some have been mentioned here.

- if i havent used it in over 6 months, maybe someone else could need it right now

- the best kind of gift is shared. like if someone gives you a bar of chocolate, you share it with them - the thing is just a symbol of love/other. and that love isnt 'tied' to the thing.

- "forever" loans are also effective - for instance, i loaned a guitar my grandfather gave me to a dear, dear friend who couldnt afford one at the time (i have two) under the condition if i ever get a kiddo in the future that shows interest in playing i'd come around asking for it

- these days i also think a lot about people with nothing. doubt they forget people becaude they arent surrounded by stuff, i think you remember because you tell their stories and live in a way that hopefully honors their memory

but it is hard. good luck!
posted by speakeasy at 11:52 PM on February 1, 2017

I know it's overly used but 'Let go or be dragged' is one of my favourites. It's especially useful with anger but it's good for giving you the feeling of the 'weight' of possessions and of how they come to be 'in charge' of you.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:09 AM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

When I did this, at some point, I had this epiphany that I was weeding out things anchoring me to the past in order to invest in a better future. I was snipping off leeches on my time, energy, physical space and mental space in order to have more of those things now and in the future. And it felt awesome.

The past is gone. All we have is now. Don't let your past eat your future.
posted by Michele in California at 4:10 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

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