Lessons In Decluttering

We are finalizing the details of HOPEFULLY buying a house (location is PERFECT, it just hasn’t been updated in 60 years so there’s lots of repairs needed) and I find that discussing decluttering and downsizing is one of my favorite topics. We’ve learned a lot in the 3’ish years to get us to the point where we’re trying to buy a 1500 sq ft house after selling a 4100 sq ft home. The most important takeaway so far is that there are TWO reactions to decluttering. One negative, and one positive, and how you (and the people who share your home) fall on the spectrums of those two reactions will determine your success from day 01.

Positive Reaction

Let’s say you’ve gotten rid of a bunch of clothes. Or maybe books. Or maybe you cleaned out that cupboard. And now? NOW YOU HAVE SPACE. There is space where there wasn’t space before and whenever you see it or think about it you are overcome by a feeling of calm. Suddenly – the absence of clutter in that one location, and the addition of empty space – you feel peace. You feel like you can breathe again.

Negative Reaction

Let’s think about that same space in your closet. Or that empty book shelf. Now, think about how your friend wants to read that book you gave away…You could have given it to her if you still had it! Or maybe you finally lost the weight you had been struggling to lose for a few years and you have a wedding coming up and Why did you give away that one dress? That dress would have been perfect! And now you can’t stop thinking about that one book or that dress and you are MAD. You are feeling regret and frustration. YOU HAD THE STUFF. And now your friend has to deal with buying that book or you have to buy a dress. WHY DID YOU GET RID OF THAT STUFF?

Weighing The Two Reactions

We are all going to experience both if we take a big step to declutter. Now, the trick is, you have to weigh the two against each other. I still, after 3 years of decluttering, feel the peace and the calm of the freedom and the space WAY MORE than I feel the negative reaction to not having that thing I needed that one time. That negative reaction in my mind…that regret and frustration…it fades quickly because it is nothing compared to the peaceful feeling of not feeling burdened by ALL OF THAT CRAP.

HOWEVER – I’m not sure Donnie feels the same way. He still has the most stuff to go through in storage because he can’t quite embrace the peace the space brings as he knows the regret will hang so heavy in his heart. He’s been able to weigh in favor of “decluttering” most of the time as he was excited about lessening the burden of the home we would own. But when it comes to specific items, and realizing they’re gone? He does experience regret much more than I do, so the majority of the final stage of “decluttering” will be on his shoulders as he’s had the harder time letting go of things.

This is a very important balance to understand if you have a person you’re sharing a home with. Because we all know how regret works, it eats at you and burdens your soul. We don’t want to push anyone into the “regret” zone simply because our feeling of peace in decluttering is so strong. You have to find a balance. Luckily, Donnie also feels incredible peace with the lack of clutter, so he often leans more to that side and even understands the appeal of things like “tiny houses” – if he didn’t experience any of the positive benefit of decluttering, we’d have bigger problems.

Consider The Generations After You

This is also something to think about when deciding what to keep of your children’s, or for your children. Because everything you store for them “when they have kids” becomes a burden for them in adulthood. Now, maybe it won’t be too big of a burden, BUT THAT IS UP TO YOU. When we sold my Dad’s house I left with two boxes of stuff from my childhood – AND THAT WAS PLENTY. Especially since he was gone, I’m not sure I would have let myself get rid of things. I’m very VERY happy he got rid of things for me over the years so that I did not have to deal with the burden.

We have to really consider how “value” translates over generations. This little dress is special to me because I remember Nikki wearing it. But will it be special to her? No. Probably not.

UNLESS – there are pictures of her in it. Then she might want to do the mother/daughter photo thing and that is a fun little homage to an article of clothing. So I keep clothes I have photos of my kids in. Of course, it also works for sibling photos too:

A friend of mine joked one time that he and his wife were going through boxes of their son’s stuff, “To help their future daughter-in-law.” Oh, man. Do I get that. Because it is hard as a kid to have a burden of stuff from your childhood you might not even remember, but that you don’t want to get rid of because your parents saved it for you. But it’s really hard to be the spouse of that person because all you have is the clutter and NO SENTIMENTALITY. I kept a lot of stuff of Dads for no real reason and – luckily – Donnie knew he only had to be patient and I would eventually see there was no purpose and would get rid of it. He trusts my purging skills to win out in the end. He wishes I wasn’t so good a purging most days.

But often he had to gently remind me the stuff was still in the garage. And when it came time to finally move out? He was patient with me as I went through the inner turmoil and he was sitting there thinking, “OH MY GOD, JUST GET RID OF IT, WOMAN.”

So, yeah. For the future spouses of your children – don’t keep stuff that your child won’t also appreciate. Are there photos of them with the item? Did they use it to a point where they actually have memories of it? Be aware that you are putting that burden on them with everything you keep. I still have weird dishes of Dads I’m not sure why I’m keeping. I don’t even remember him having them! But they are weirdly sentimental because they were mysterious. And they go on the walls so I can justify they won’t take up space anywhere!

Just don’t lose sight of the cycle of burden you could be starting, or perpetuating. You have memories with the dishes that belonged to your grandmother because you ate Christmas at her house ON THOSE DISHES every year. But will your daughter have the same affection for those dishes? Probably not if you never used them with her. But she will feel obligated to keep them because they were special to you. Do you see what happens in that moment? She is burdened by your sentimentality. And then her daughter won’t even have that and she’ll probably ditch the dishes.

It’s something we’re trying to do – consider future generations – when deciding what is important to us. We don’t want to burden them. And hopefully we won’t, now. If we successfully move into this home we will have to do one final purge and then it will be time to enforce the rule: NOTHING COMES IN UNLESS SOMETHING GOES OUT. And nothing comes in unless we can really justify it by NEED or WANT. We aren’t giving up consumerism, we’re not that brave. We still like stuff. New stuff especially. But we’re trying to weigh that.

EXAMPLE: We don’t have a full set of dishes and sometimes I consider ditching the ones we have and starting over with a new full set. But why? Why can’t I just buy some to replace the missing pieces? Because there’s a weird pressure to have 8 matching place settings? WHY? It doesn’t make sense. So when it comes time? I’ll just buy a few more plates. That’s it. And they won’t match and that will be part of our charm. Instead of burdening some thrift store with my incomplete set of dishes just so I can fulfill some weird burden society has imposed on me.

Anyway – these are lessons we’ve learned in the last 3 years and things we consider every step of the way. Do you have anything useful to share?

9 thoughts on “Lessons In Decluttering

  1. Bobbie says:

    Considering we just added quite a few boxes to our attic after my inlaws died last year (mostly sentimental), I’m the wrong person to ask.

    We have a finished basement with lots of leftover furniture (all from redecorating). Our oldest son just got his first apartment, and we thought we would be getting rid of quite a bit of it. Nope! He didn’t want our “junk” (perfectly good leather couches and chairs!). We thought he would love to save money and not have to buy new, but (because he lived at home after college) he could easily afford to buy his own.

    Still have one more college grad at home, who doesn’t make as much money as his brother, so maybe he’ll want it?

    We’re having a new deck built in a few weeks, and the contractor will have a dumpster to take away the old one. He mentioned that once he’s done we can add whatever we want to it, so I’m going to take that opportunity to let go of some “stuff”.

  2. brenda says:

    I come from a family of savers on my Mom’s side. It’s a huge burden on my siblings as well as our cousins. There was so much stuff that our parents have been storing that we don’t want. I was asked if there was anything I wanted after my grandparents passed. I took a coffee table and a candy dish. I needed a coffee table at the time and the candy dish held fond memories. My Mom kept trying to give me more stuff but I didn’t want or need it. My siblings and I talk about what to do about my parents house someday–it will not be fun. We’ve worked with my Mom several times to go through stuff but there are still 2 storages full of stuff.

    • Cara says:

      Oh, the family pressure to take stuff! When we moved my grandma in to a nursing home, my aunt kept trying to find a home for *everything* within the family. (And, these were not fabulous antiques. Or even particularly good items.) We had all taken what we wanted/could use, but there was so much more she couldn’t let go of. I ended up taking a bunch of stuff and putting it in my garage. A year later I quietly got rid of all of it. By that time, the emotional turmoil had died down and, if she even noticed, she didn’t care.

  3. yasmara says:

    There was an article making the rounds recently called. “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” that really resonated with me.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2017/02/12/sorry-nobody-wants-your-parents-stuff/#688297b224ed

    I come from a family of savers – not technically hoarders because nothing is dangerous or truly out of control (except my Dad’s office, but they keep that door closed) but their garage has stuff literally up to the rafters of the 1.5 story ceiling. They moved from Alaska when they had to pay by the pound & my Dad still brought things like boxes of tax returns from the 80’s.

    I’m the oldest child & my husband & I have already resigned ourselves to being the ones who have to clean out their (large) house eventually. My parents are young (in their 60’s) and in relatively good health, but it is going to be a nightmare someday.

  4. Lucy McConville says:

    Yay, YOU!!! I’m a Professional Organizer (which means I help people declutter for my job) and these are great insights! Especially the part about burdening your children after you are gone.

    As far as Donnie’s reluctance to let go… Was there a time when he suffered a loss at a vulnerable time? Like, did a parent or sibling die when he was young. Or, as an adult, did he have a scary time of unemployment…or does he fear unemployment now? Often times those can be reasons people have a hard time letting go. I had one client who was having a super hard time…borderline hoarder. As we worked through things it became apparent it was due to her younger brother’s death when they were kids. Even though the things she was keeping had nothing at all to do with him. I think it was that experiencing any sense of loss at all (getting rid of something) dredged up the sense of loss she had about her brother.

    Anyway, thanks for the insights about burdening our children with THEIR stuff that is special to US because it makes us think of OUR lives at that time, but will just be a burden to THEM when we pass. That is an angle I had not considered before!
    Smiles, Lucy

  5. Cairenn Martin says:

    About a year and a half ago my brothers, sister and I cleaned out our parents’ house. They were of the depression era and saved so many things “just in case we need them”.
    64 years of stuff- it was overwhelming. I came home bound and determined to start getting rid of stuff here. I started cleaning out but I’ve slacked off. I really need to get back to it. I don’t want my children to have to go through that. (We found boxes of cancelled checks from the 60’s!)

  6. Elaine C. B. says:

    After moving every 2-3 years for the past 16 after joining the military, I still have waaaay too much stuff, and I love the opportunity to purge every couple of years. I get sentimentally attached to things though, and I’ve held onto clothes of multiple sizes because, well, what if…? (Also, bras are stinking expensive, so I’m not letting go of perfectly good B-cup bras even though I currently wear a DD, because, again, what if I do lose that weight I’ve been carrying around?) My husband and I both love to cook and never quite thinned out our stuff when we combined households because I like my stuff and he likes his, so now we have a hodge podge PLUS another random hodge podge in storage. I try really hard not to hold onto books and paperwork, because that just accumulates and sits there forever and it is such a pain to organize. I scan whatever I can and shred/recycle. I try to remember what a pain it is to move it all, to help motivate me to a) not buy and b) not hang onto stuff. We also have a lot of artwork that we rotate through, because we inevitably have way more art than wall space, and I feel like we don’t NEED any of it, but we LIKE all of it, and again, what if our next house is bigger or has the perfect color scheme for that one hummingbird watercolor? Meh. Not so much helpful advice here, just commiserating and wishing I had less stuff, but not quite sure how to prioritize and just DO it.

  7. Olivia says:

    My parents (57 and 67) are going through a messy divorce (much needed though) and after my dad left (leaving all his stuff) it’s fallen to me to sort it all out. And man alive, did he keep rubbish! Boxes of videos! Magazines from 30 years ago! All my brother’s old comics! Some of it was really easy to recycle/ donate/ chuck but the quantity was hard. Overall though, quite cathartic.

    I did find some really nice things to keep of mine and my brother’s which is so great.

    I do think best to go through now – must be much harder after a death because of the emotional differences.

    It’s interesting – my dad clearly kept loads of stuff but I’m as an adult the opposite – always got a bag ready to donate and just add to it as I go along. And am brutal now about books – even if I loved it, I know I’m unlikely to reread so pass on straightaway.

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