Let’s start with physical objects: someone has brought back a set of memorabilia 20 years ago from a trip to Spain with his significant other at the time. Those items have been around for all that time, for reasons that might have made sense back then, but don’t necessarily make sense now. Item #1: a framed picture of the two of them sitting in a restaurant at the beach, with an impressive sunset right behind them. Item #2: a set of five seashells hanging out in front of the picture frame, and item #3: castanets with the words “Alicante 1998” painted on one side and a plastic sticker of a flamenco dancer on the other side, half peeled off.
Here’s the thing: the person in the framed picture has not been his partner for a while now. What is his motivation to keep the picture on display? Hanging on to the ‘good old days’? Self-torture because he feels he has failed in that relationship? Regret? Nostalgia? All of those are negative reasons, keeping the person anchored in a past that does not necessarily make him happy any more. So why keep the picture up at all? Is he simply used to it sitting there, or has he stopped seeing it altogether and it has blended into the scenery? Neither of those are good enough reasons to keep it around. If anything, they are good reasons to get as far away from them as possible. Now what about those seashells and the castanets? Do they really add to the décor? Even if they do, but how often has he picked them up to dust that shelf and thought by himself “why do I keep these at all?”
Maybe this is the time to think about it more clearly: he should ask himself that question and try to answer it in all honesty. Really think about it and see if he can come up with even one (proper!) reason to keep them. Most likely he’ll be hard put to come up with good reasons to keep them. As for the castanets: really? Unless he actually plays the castanets (which I seriously doubt), what about those things entices him to keep them? Be honest now!
Besides the practical and esthetical reasons for the decorative elements, it is likely that his conscious brain has forgotten about them, and the only thing they really do is nag at his unconscious brain, telling him that something needs to be done.
Here’s a little exercise for you: you may not have the Spanish connection described above sitting in your home, but I dare you to look around and identify items that fall into the same category: they seem to have always been there, they appear to have significance or were a link to something that is only in the past and has long since turned into something unrelated to your current life. Our lives change constantly, and with each change come leftovers we don’t immediately identify as no longer being valuable to us. Unfortunately, those items not only become irrelevant, but they often keep us from moving on and becoming our new selves.
Look hard, I’m sure you’ll find something, and holiday memorabilia are only the top of the iceberg: what about those books that a long-lost friend left behind, or the plants that a friend left for you to water and never came back to reclaim, or the comic books of your youth you have not touched in 30 years? Dolls, cuddly toys, candlesticks, scarves, CDs and DVDs, cutlery inherited from some distant relative, furniture stored in the attic… anything could fall into that category I like to describe as “used to be useful/significant/desirable, but is no longer all that”.
If you can identify any of those things in your home, you can turn decluttering into an experience! Here’s how you do that:
Pick up one of the items and try to remember where and when you made the decision to bring it into your life and keep it. That could be a joyful memory, but also a sad one. Don’t shy away from the sad memories, embrace anything that comes up and experience the emotion: smile or cry, but go with it completely. Once you have done that, put the item down and find out if your reaction was based on a memory of the past, or if it was something that matters to you today. If it was a sad or bad memory, ask yourself if you want to be reminded of this memory all the time. Most people would say ‘no’ because there is no good reason to be dragged down by your belongings, especially if it is your subconscious brain doing the dragging! There may be reason to let go and be done with this particular reminder. As mentioned before: we change all the time, and not everything deserves to stay with us.
This process can be slow and difficult at first for some of your items, but you’ll probably find that it becomes easier once you start to understand your standard motivations to keep things. That doesn’t mean you won’t come across items that trigger you more than others. If things are too hard, just step away from that item and revisit later. Clearly there is an attachment that you might not be ready to address. Let it be for now, and move on to another object.
That brings us to habits: we are creatures of habit and keeping things beyond their emotional expiry date is not the only habit we seem to treasure: some habits we hold dear can be as disturbing as the emotions we experience when picking up and thinking properly about an object in the previous paragraphs. Old habits are often hard to grasp, and we rarely are aware of them ourselves. Our family and friends, however, are good at picking up on those things. Think about this classic one: returning to places that holds negative emotions, like the village where we spent an unhappy childhood, or the house your parents lived before they passed away. Another classic is the habit to keep unread newspapers until there is no other way but throwing them out.
Many of those habits are unconscious, like nervous ticks, twisting your hands, or counting things. And many of them are associated with accumulating things that have no obvious use (“I like the look of those”), are broken (“I’ll fix this when I have some time on my hands”) or could come in handy (“what if I need a screw just like this one?”). Those could be based on having a hard time letting go of things because you grew up in a time or place where everything was scarce, or the idea of throwing something away that you have paid good money for is unbearable to you, or you are an arts and crafts person who lives to collect but has no time to actually do any arts and crafts. It is difficult to become aware of bad habits, and they are hard to break, but it is certainly possible to change if you really want to.
An important reason for habits to stick around is that we tend to hang on to ideas that we have held true for a long time: “waste not want not”, “there are children in [x] who would love to have that”, “we do it like that around here”, etc. are just a couple of ideas that we hang on to, just because…
It’s a GOOD idea to question those, and test them against your current reality. YOU need to be happy with not just these ideas but all their implications on your own life. Anything we own, we are used to and we believe to be true is subject to changes in our lives, if we realise it or not. Whatever worked in the past often does not work any longer. We need to gauge our present against what we have brought with us from the past and discard whatever does not serve us today. If “waste not want not” does not really apply to you, why follow that tenet at all? Maybe it was necessary 20 years ago, but your situation and reality have changed and the same is not true anymore.
Decluttering can be a journey into your past, an experience of memories, an exploration of your subconscious and a new evaluation of long-held beliefs. That journey can be difficult, but once it’s over, you’ll find that you can breathe more easily because many burdens of the past have been lifted, and they have made room for new ideas, objects and experiences.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.