Decluttering Sentimental Items: Learning to Let Go
Purge meaningful clutter from your home with this helpful guide.
How to Declutter Sentimental Items and Keep the Memories
Decluttering sentimental items can be one of the most difficult organization tasks. We all attach feelings and memories to objects, but when closets, drawers and cabinets start to overflow with keepsakes, it’s easy to lose sight of the truly special ones among a growing sea of clutter.
By getting rid of those teacups you didn’t really want, you can truly enjoy the objects that bring out your best memories. Rachel Jones from Nourishing Minimalism, Jacki Hollywood Brown from Unclutterer, and Melissa Russell from Simple Lionheart Life break the process down into simple steps for you to follow.
“Keep in mind that the past is not the present. We have an incredible ability to remember only the good things. No matter what season you are in, there is joy to be found. Holding onto the past makes the present joy much more difficult to see and embrace.”
What Is Sentimental Clutter?
Sentimental items are anything that we attach emotion and meaning to. This is different for everyone. For some, it’s children’s artwork and school papers. For others, it’s a set of antique china that used to be displayed in their parents’ dining room.
How to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter in 5 Steps
It’s hard to let go of items that we associate with loved ones or special places. But these steps can make dealing with sentimental clutter easier.
Step 1: Set a Timeframe and System
Before you start, it’s helpful to set a time limit for yourself to avoid being overwhelmed. Jones recommends keeping your decluttering sessions to under three hours to avoid burnout. “Treat this as an important appointment just like yo would make a dentist or doctor's appointment,” she said. “Don’t allow anything to take it’s place.” If you know you’ll get emotional while sorting, ask a family member or friend to help keep you on track.
“These are sentimental items. You’re likely going to experience some strong emotions when dealing with them. Don’t try to do too much at once.”
Just as important is to set clear goals, both for the whole project and individual decluttering sessions. Once you know what your end game is, you can set smaller goals that fit with your timeline for each cleaning session.
It’s also helpful to have close family members on hand in case they’d like to take something you no longer want.
Don’t procrastinate! Melissa Russell explains that the best way is to just start. “The hardest part of a big project like decluttering is often getting started. Once you get going, it’s easier to keep going.”
Step 2: Sort Through the Clutter
Grab four boxes and label them: keep, donate, trash and sell. As you sort, you should put the items into one of these boxes. If the items are larger, you can also use color-coordinated sticky notes to indicate what box those items are associated with.
Questions to Ask When Decluttering Sentimental Items
Brown recommends asking yourself three questions when taking stock of your sentimental clutter.
- If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
- If someone you don't like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
- Does the item evoke happy memories?
If you answered no to more than one question, you should get rid of that thing. To avoid feeling guilt, Brown recommends remembering that “you’re not giving away the person, the love of that person, or that person’s love for you.”
Russell adds that you shouldn't keep an item if you can’t identify a clear reason for why you are keeping it.
When Getting Rid of Meaningful Items, Remember:
- Don't feel burdened to keep something just because it was a gift. There’s no obligation to keep things you won’t use.
- Try not to feel guilty. This is your home and you have the right to make room for what matters to you most.
- Donate things that are still in good condition. Whether it’s furniture or a collection of dinner plates, they can still go to a home where they will be used and appreciated.
- Share heirlooms with other family members. If you inherited something, ask around to see if anyone else might want it.
- Repurpose jewelry or photo frames into something new if you’re crafty.
- Keep one if there are multiples. If you know that you won’t use all of the holiday wreaths your mother had, just pick one that you’ll display during the season.
“If you find that you think you should keep something just to protect someone else from being sad or disappointed, acknowledge that it’s not your responsibility to control their emotions. Instead, focus on your own emotional health. It’s not healthy to have the statue and be irritated with Aunt Sarah every time you see it. So let it go.”
Step 3: Revisit Difficult Items
If you’ve made it through the first round of sorting but your “keep” pile is still pretty full, take a second look. In most cases, you’ll find a few things you now feel comfortable donating.
If you’re still having trouble letting go of your sentimental clutter, keep the memories forever by making them digital. “Sometimes taking a photo of sentimental items can be helpful,” Brown explains. “Knowing that, if you need to, you can see the items again can be the key to letting them go.”
Jones encourages asking the question “Does it help me live the life I want to live?” when decluttering sentimental items.
“If the item is holding you back, let it go. Don’t hold onto items because you want people to view you a certain way. Instead keep items that help you be the person you want to be in 5, 10 and 20 years.”
Step 4: Toss, Donate or Sell Items You're Parting With
With things sorted into various boxes, this step should be quite easy. Remember, though, that you should stick with your original decision to part with an item, even if you start having second thoughts.
For items in good condition, call your local thrift stores and donation locations before visiting to make sure they are currently accepting those pieces. You can also sell them locally using sites like Ebay, Craigslist and Amazon Marketplace.
As for the things you need to toss, the best option will depend on the amount of items and your timeframe. If you have larger items or are cleaning out an entire home, we recommend renting a roll off dumpster to handle the clutter quickly. Otherwise, you may need to wait until your next curbside bulk collection day to toss your items.
Step 5. Highlight Items You've Decided to Keep
Now that you have free space and a handful of items that are especially meaningful to you, give them an equally special place within your home. Displaying a figurine on a shelf or framing a favorite piece of artwork will strengthen the connection and help ease some of the guilt that comes with decluttering.
“A great approach is to find ways to use or display sentimental items in your home. For example, I have a serving spoon that belonged to my great-grandma, then my grandma. I use it on a very regular basis, serving everything from Christmas dinner to mac & cheese. I love that I’m able to use and appreciate the spoon and its history often, instead of keeping it stored away somewhere and rarely seeing or using it.”
7 Tips to Help You Get Rid of Sentimental Things
Struggling with what to get rid of and what to keep? Follow these tips to help you get closure and make a decision on what to do with certain items:
1. Start With an Easy Space
There's no denying that decluttering sentimental items is tough. Instead of starting with a room full of objects, start with just a bag, then a box and build up to the room. It's also helpful to start in areas where you have less personal items. So start in a kitchen or dining room and get to a closet or bedroom last.
2. Remember, You Are Getting Rid of the Item and Not the Memory
In many cases, it's the memories that you truly cherish and take with you, not the item itself. Hold onto those and you won't need the item anymore.
3. Find Closure by Using the Item One Last Time
Maybe it's a childhood camera that you learned how to take pictures with or the saw you used when you first started your woodworking business. If it's an item that's outdated and you've moved on from, use it one more time to remember the good old days before you get rid of it.
4. Keep Items That Bring You Joy — and Only Those Items
Did you remember that you had the item? If not, chances are that it didn't truly ever bring you joy. Those are the items that you'll need to think about and decide if they really should be kept.
5. Take Time to Recognize Items That Are Truly Meaningful
Are you holding onto something because you haven't had the time to truly process what the memory means to you? If that's the case, take some time to think about the item and the times associated with it to discover if it's truly worth holding onto.
6. Digitize Memories
You don't need to fully lose an item just because you are throwing it out. Things like tickets to memorable concerts or sporting events, old photos and documents can easily be digitized with a scanner, allowing you to keep the item, just in a different, less cluttering format. For larger things, take a photo of them before you donate or sell the items.
7. Highlight What Means the Most and Get Rid of Everything Else
Maybe you lost a dear family pet and are still holding onto things like a collar, favorite toy, leash, bowl and photos. Instead of holding onto everything, select a few key items and put them into a display box that lets you remember in an organized fashion.
Keep Sentimental Clutter at Bay
While you’ve done the work of decluttering the sentimental keepsakes that you currently own, it’s easy to use the extra space to stockpile more stuff. If you’re tasked with cleaning out a loved one’s home, it can be taxing to declutter and clean all at once.
“It’s best not to make emotionally challenging decisions while grieving,” says Brown. “If the clutter is building up and must be cleared, consider packing it away and storing it for a few months (have a definite end date) then sorting through the items.”
You can toss the piles of unwanted items into a roll off dumpster to get rid of clutter quickly without the hassle of waiting for curbside pickup or driving back and forth to the landfill yourself.
Ready to tackle the other cluttered areas in your home? Check out our resource guide on home cleanups.
Jacki Hollywood Brown
Jacki is the former Editor-in-Chief of Unclutterer.com. Unclutter offers product reviews, DIY tips and ideas for your home presented by a variety of experts in the home improvement industry. They aim to provide the right guidance so you can create a space you enjoy being in.
Author Rachel helps clients transform their homes into peaceful spaces. Beginning in 2008 in Montana, Rachel began her own minimalism journey, then dedicated her work to helping others by sharing her methods and simplifying tools to easily maintain spaces.
Founder Melissa of Alberta, Canada offers inspiration, encouragement and practical advice to simplify and declutter your home and embrace minimalism. Melissa has been decluttering for 10+ years.
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