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Learning to Let Go: Decluttering Sentimental Items

How to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter 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. 

Nourishing Minimalism

“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.”
Rachel Jones | Nourishing Minimalism

By getting rid of those teacups you didn’t really want, you can truly enjoy the objects that bring out your best memories.  Jacki Hollywood Brown from Unclutterer, Rachel Jones from Nourishing Minimalism and Melissa Russell from Simple Lionheart Life break the process down into simple steps for you to follow.  

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. 

Letting Go of Sentimental Clutter

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 Gather Your Support 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,” she continues “just like you would make a dentist or doctor’s appointment – 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. 

Unclutterer.com

“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.”
Jacki Hollywood Brown | Editor-in-Chief, Unclutterer.com

It’s also helpful to have close family members on hand in case they’d like to take something you no longer want. 

Pro Tip: 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

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 invoke 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.” 

Melissa Russell

“Try to figure out what is motivating you to want to keep an item. Ask yourself why you’re saving each sentimental item. What is your purpose for keeping it?”
Melissa Russell | Simple Lionheart Life

Russell continues to say that if you can’t identify a clear reason for why you are keeping an item, that you don’t value it as much as you thought and it doesn’t need to be kept. 

Important Things to Remember When Getting Rid of Sentimental Items:

  • Don't feel burdened to keep something just because it was a gift. There’s no obligation to keep things you won’t use.
  • Avoid feeling 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.
Nourishing Minimalism

“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.”
Rachel Jones | Nourishing Minimalism

Step 3. Revisit Anything You're Struggling to Declutter

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 emotional 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. 

Nourishing Minimalism

“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.”
Rachel Jones | Nourishing Minimalism

Step 4. Highlight What 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. 

Melissa Russell

“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.”
Melissa Russell | Simple Lionheart Life

Keeping 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.” 

Melissa Russell

 “Every bit of work you put into decluttering your home, including sentimental items, is adding up to give you more time, space and freedom. Just keep working at decluttering and know that every step you take toward decluttering your home, even the small steps, are making a difference.”
Melissa Russell | Simple Lionheart Life

Ready to tackle the other cluttered areas in your home? Read our tips on how to get rid of clutter and organize your home room by room