When It Comes To Hoarding, Should You Let It Go Or Embrace The Sentiment?

Megan Roantree on whether to clear the clutter or embrace being a sentimental stasher.

A couple of weeks ago I was sorting my wardrobe, because that’s what I do. Reorganise and sort, and never get rid of anything. I was rearranging a drawer with so many t-shirts and day dresses in it that it was overflowing. I hadn’t worn a lot of them in years. I folded everything a bit neater and squished them all back in. I came across a red and cream polka dot dress and knew straight away that I’d had it for about nine years. My mom’s friend gave it to her when we were going away, and then my mom gave it to me. It’s a holiday dress though- a flimsy, airy, bright dress that I’d never even wear with a pair of tights heading into work. It has no real sentimental value as I still see my mom’s friend all the time and both are young and well. I know I’ll probably never wear it again, except maybe if I go on a sun holiday next year, but even then, I have a lot of other sundresses.

With all this in mind, I folded it up, put it right in the back of my drawer, and pushed thoughts about not needing it to the back of my mind. I think I’ve probably always been like that, always afraid to get rid of things, just in case. Even though I’m not entirely sure that the ‘just in case’ is. I hate throwing things away even if I don’t need them any more.

Even things I can’t donate, like used notebooks, old posters and random broken trinket boxes, often stick around because I ignore the part of my brain telling me I don’t need them at all.

Like most issues in my life, I can probably link it back to some sad stuff. When my dad died, his belongings because a big part of my memories of him. I never left like I had enough photographs, so his clothes were extra snapshots of him that I could keep. At 13, I had a wardrobe consisting of tweed jackets, waistcoats, shirts and ties which so clearly represented the well-dressed gentlemen that he was. It wasn’t just clothes that became precious though, it was everything he ever gave me and basically anything he touched, which was obviously a lot of stuff, pretty much anything from my childhood.

Then when my friend Shauna passed away a few years later, my teen years became a bit of a museum too. I wanted to hold on to everything and anything from secondary school because she might have had something to do with it. Her parents very kindly allowed each of her friends to have some things that belonged to her- a fleece, a pair of Uggs, some cool accessories she got in America. And so, because my childhood and teen years felt like periods I need to preserve, I could never really shake that feeling as I grew up.

Now, things I had in college or from my first apartment in Dublin are held onto because what if? What if something sad happens and I need those things to remember something or someone that was part of that time in my life? And so the clutter mounted up. I’ve never been on board with Konmari method, made famous by Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo. If you missed the Netflix show, the principle is organising your home by getting rid of physical items that do not bring joy into your life. But what if they don’t bring me joy, but still bring me a lot of other things? Memories, significance, closeness and pain, but pain I’m okay with feeling because it reminds me of someone I love? Holding Shauna’s fleece makes me cry and cry like it’s the day she died, but you best believe it’s not going anywhere.

I was actually relieved to find that there is science behind this. “Research at Stanford University actively showed by using brain imagining that if you attempt to discard an item that has sentimental value, you activate the neural pathway for conflict and pain, while if you decide to keep it, it activates the pathway that reduces anxiety,” environmental psychologist Lee Chambers tells me. “We are hardwired to keep items that we attach to strong emotions and it is difficult to break those associations easily.”

Of course, some people don’t experience trauma or grief, and still find it hard to let go. And Lee says that guilt often is a factor. “We feel guilty if we let go of items we’ve received from those close to us. We think they will feel less loving towards us if we part with it, so we keep it. We also get this pang of guilt if we spend money on the item and don’t end up using it.”

Future ambitions can also stop us from letting things go. “Possessions quite often have been purchased with the desire to become something or take up something new. By letting these items go, we are consciously telling ourselves that we have failed to achieve what we promised ourselves that we would do.”

Then there are those of us who swear it’ll come in handy at some point. “Ask a serial hoarder and they will have a use for everything. But there is a big difference between something you actually need, and something that has a possible use, because in reality, almost everything has the possibility of being used. We have a tendency to overvalue an item’s potential use, without thinking of the negatives of it taking up space, collecting dust,” Lee explains. As well as that, he adds that really, our busy lives are also stopping us from having the time to sort through our stuff.

So for those of us wanting to let go, or who really just need the space in our house, where do you start? If it’s about sentimentality, Lee often encourages clients to take a photograph of the item, and asks them to write about it in a journal. “We then consider if you will still remember the person or event without the item, and often this enables people to let it go, as they realise it’s their memories that are the attachment, not the item itself.”

If it’s about waste or guilt, sharing is caring, says Lee. “If we give the item to someone who will use it and cherish it, that makes us feel great, because instead of focusing on our guilt, we will focus on the pleasure our item gives a fellow human being, and we feel fulfilled when we help others.”

Holding onto things because you might get to it one day isn’t ideal either: “By holding onto them, you are constantly reminding yourself of what you’re trying to be but failing at, and subconsciously, this is damaging for our self-worth.”

Your own honest, clear feeling of the present situation should be the guiding star for what you keep, and what you let go, says Lee. “This takes the emphasis away from single items, and helps you make informed decisions. The aim is to create spaces where you are most comfortable, happy and calm. I advise that everyone should keep at least a few things that have such a value that they would be happy to pass them on to someone else later on, and the attached story would live on.”

So while I might pass on the guitar I never learned to play, or throw out some clothes that don’t fit anymore, my dad’s tweed coat and Shauna’s Uggs are here to stay. And that’s okay!

Images: Twenty20

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