7 Steps to Dealing With Sentimental Clutter

7 Steps to Dealing With Sentimental Clutter

How many of us have boxes of unsorted photos in the corners of our homes? How many of us struggle with the desire to preserve each painting, Popsicle-stick creation, and pinch pot cranked out by our kids? You’re not alone in the desire to hang on to objects with emotional value, but breaking free can be quite rewarding.

Learning to Let Go

When my dad died, several years ago, he left behind a legacy of love and a terrifying number of frogs. Part of me wanted to keep every last one—a connection to my dad, a connection to my childhood. But I live in a New York City apartment. Had I kept all those frogs, my life would be an all-amphibian episode of Hoarders. I know I’m not alone in my desire to hang on to objects with emotional value.

Julie Holland, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, assures us that the urge to hold on to meaningful possessions is normal. “Sentimental clutter is the adult equivalent of a teddy bear,” she says. Organizing consultant Ellen Madere, says it’s about working with the emotional aspects of the process, not against them. Here are her steps for conquering the challenge.

Step 1: Box It Up

Don’t let fate (or a leaky basement) determine what you save and what you don’t. Even if you’re not ready to purge, “put things in ‘question boxes,’ label them, and stash them somewhere safe and dry,” says Madere. If you happen upon obvious junk, toss it and pat yourself on the back. For some, the next step is to let a bit of time pass. “If you’re in a tender emotional state,” says Madere, “grieving because of a death, downsizing into a smaller home, or in an empty-nest situation, it’s best to wait about six months before sorting through anything difficult.”

Step 2: Enlist Help, If You Need It

Just make sure it’s the right kind of help. Do you need someone warm and fuzzy because the work would be unbearable alone? Or do you want a tech-savvy whip-cracker who can post images of your sellables on eBay while getting your nose out of that old diary? “Sometimes it’s just company—it’s nice to have another body in the room to bounce ideas off of,” says Madere.

Step 3: Work in Short Intervals

Going through emotionally loaded items can make you feel depleted, so limit work sessions to three or four hours. If you’re convinced that you can turn your home into a clutter-free paradise in one 12-hour blitz, this rule will be tough to follow. But a fresh, rested mind will help you make smart decisions and avoid Purger’s Regret. When you’re stuck about whether to keep or divest, ask yourself: What’s significant about this object? Does it have genuine, lasting emotional value? Do I like it enough to display it, or will it be in a box forever? Would it be more valuable to someone else?

Step 4: Take a Picture (It Lasts Longer)

Admittedly, a digital image is not the thing itself. There’s no tactile joy to it. But storing something on a computer doesn’t just save space; it also minimizes risk from a preservationist standpoint. “Even with archival paper and plastic sleeves, physical objects can fade or get lost,” says Madere. You can ship off old snapshots and have them converted to digital form by services like gophoto.com. You might also want to photograph meaningful items before letting them go. And if you’re clearing a whole house after, for example, the loss of a loved one, Madere suggests taking pictures of the rooms first, or asking a friend to, if the task is too emotional. “You can make lovely books at blurb.com to preserve the memories in a form you can hold,” says Madere.

Which brings us nicely to every parent’s bugaboo: children’s artwork. The art writer Casey Ellis (brilliantly) suggested that I tell my kids I was creating a catalogue raisonné of their work. This is a fancy term for a complete list of an artist’s output. It sounds impressive, and it means that the original pieces, after being scanned or photographed, can be farmed out to collectors (a.k.a. Grandma) or recycled. Their memories live on in my Flickr pages, to be admired at the kids’ leisure. (So far, that means never.)

Step 5: Save the Best—Toss the Rest

Meaning, keep one to represent many. Madere points out that there are some things that we’re inclined to hang on to in bulk, when a sample might be more powerful. “Sometimes clients will say, ‘I can’t throw that out—it’s a card my mother gave me!’ But it might be a boring card signed ‘M.’ Instead, save a letter and toss that card,” says Madere. The same principle can help you winnow down a collection. Let’s say you have a load of inherited teapots. Pick a favorite that you would most want to see on a shelf in your home.

Marisa Cohen, a writer who lives in New York City, cherished her children’s baby clothes, as well as her own kicky urban–single-girl outfits. Clothes are sweetly painful proof that time waits for no one. Teeny babies become towering tweens. But Cohen had to learn to open her hand. “I’ve hung on to three things,” she says. “The green T-shirt I was wearing the night I met my husband and the baby hats my daughters wore home from the hospital. I keep them in the bottom of the under-bed boxes where I store off-season clothes. So twice a year, when I’m switching from winter to summer or vice versa, I hold them, have a moment, then put them back.”

Step 6 : Give Things a New Home

It’s easier to part with beloved objects if you can later envision them being used by others, says Madere. Just be careful and considerate when you distribute.

Of course, not everything can be given to friends or family. Often one person’s junk is—let’s face it—another person’s junk. So ask whether items are really wanted before you hand them off. If you get that “Oh, please no” look, donate the belongings instead. There are national organizations that would be grateful for your stuff, “but even better is giving where you live, for use in your own community,” says Madere. If you’re not sure where to give, a Google search of your ZIP code and the type of facility you would like to donate to should yield options.

Step 7 : Know Your ABC’s (Always Be Clearing)

Your relationship to sentimental items will probably change over time. “Give yourself permission to get rid of things you once cherished,” says Madere. Every year or so, take a hard look at what you’ve kept in the name of love, and toss or donate anything that’s become more of a burden than a sweet-memory trigger. “Distance gives you fresh perspective,” says Madere.

So what happens to sentimental items that make the cut? Madere advocates bringing them into your day-to-day life. “If it’s a stack of dishes that mean a lot to you, give them space in your kitchen and box up your own for donation,” she says. For less practical treasures, like mementos of a loved one, find a small cabinet and tuck them inside. Unlike a box in the attic, this setup invites spontaneous reminiscing.

And back to my dad, the frogs, and me. We donated the plush amphibians to a children’s hospital and almost everything else to the Salvation Army. I kept a dozen tiny ceramic frogs and one little brass rocking chair, because, you know, there’s just something about a frog in a rocking chair. For a while, I kept them in a little box on my bookshelf, but recently I’ve been letting my girls play with them. They know the frogs belonged to their Zayde, a man one child barely remembers and the other never knew. When I watch them acting out little anuran scenes of courtship and school days, I’m glad those frogs got a whole other life. Sure, they’re getting a little chipped, but they’re being loved by a new generation.

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