Why Letting Go Of Material Things Is So Damn Hard

Helping over 90 clients last year, I have had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people. Most are moving on to new chapters of their life, have had incredible life experiences, and above all, they are rational, practical people. But when we cover letting go of material objects that no longer serve them, the brakes go on, we are ground to a halt, and their defenses go up. It could be their collection of coffee mugs, their kid's baby clothes, or that dress that is two sizes too small. So why is it so hard for people to physically let go of the things that they have major excess of or doesn't serve any purpose? Well, these are the common patterns I have noticed during my decluttering sessions that may help you understand why you are having such a hard time letting go or if your loved one can't seem to part with things that are clearly obvious and easy to you.

The Just-In-Casers

This type of person is quite challenging to rationalize with. I see this time and time again, where clients are stockpiling for an apocalypse. They are the kings of BOGO sales and aisle browsing, buying things when they actually don't need them only to cram it into a closet to be forgotten about. Even during this pandemic, it has been proven that we can find ways to purchase things when we need them or learn to live without for a few days until it arrives on our doorstep... (except for toilet paper - wow that was nuts)! The only way I have had success with getting through to clients who will find any excuse to keep these items because they might use them one day is to make sure they don't bring more in until they exhaust this inventory. Let's take your pantry for instance. In order for you to recognize your spending habits is to actually see them in front of you. The amount of food you have may not be super clear when it's all crammed into a cupboard, but bringing every item out onto your kitchen table and taking stock of what you own is a powerful imagery tool. It's more of a spending and shopping intervention to prevent it from happening again and again. You already have four cases of soup. DON'T BUY ANYMORE SOUP UNTIL THIS IS ALL GONE!

The Don't-Want-To-Wasters

Owning something you never use is just as wasteful as letting it go. The guilt someone has for making a bad purchase is real and might be the reason why you are holding onto something even though you never use it. I'm talking about that treadmill that sits unused in your basement, for instance. You probably used it like a mad man for the first few months, but now, it's just an eyesore in the corner of your rec. room. You can't bear to sell it because you've spent a fortune on it that you will never get back, so it just sits there...used as a drying station for your jeans. Get real with yourself an admit that you made a mistake, and move forward. Learn from your purchase mistake for the future, and ask yourself serious questions before you hit add to cart the next time you want to make an impulse buy.

Anxiety of Not Having Enough

Let's examine the closet. Often, I come to help someone get a hold of their overflowing wardrobe where it's impacting their decision making and stress levels. When I tell them, that we actually only wear 20% of what we own, I often get laughed at. I sometimes use this exercise where I ask them to take pics of their outfits of the day for two weeks. And sure enough, they are wearing the same things over and over again. So do we really need 20 pairs of jeans? Absolutely not, but having a full closet provides safety and security for many because only seeing the bare essentials can make them feel panicked that they don't have enough. This is a far deeper issue than just clothes and needs to be looked at from within.

Emotional or Identity Connection

This is the number one reason why people have trouble letting go of material objects. It's clearly not about the actual item, it's the emotional connection you have with it that you are scared will leave too when you decide to sell or donate it. Let's go back to the baby clothes example. It's not the actual onesie that your wife is having trouble letting go. She has an intense emotional connection to the clothes because it's tied to her child, and if she lets it go, she is terrified that those memories will go along with it, which is completely irrational and untrue, but it's very real to her. We don't really have connections with things, but the true ties are connected to the people we love, a place we have traveled to, or a special moment in our lives, like the first few months of motherhood. Material items are also heavily intertwined with our identity. So if you have recently retired from the corporate world, letting go of your power suits may be tough for you because they represent such a big part of your life for so long.

So how can we overcome this block? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. First of all, cut yourself some slack. This may take some time, and don't beat yourself up if you are really struggling with letting go. Everyone has something that they cling to.
  2. Second, I find that giving your items a timeline helps you to really see how little you use an object. A physical post-it note or sticking it in your calendar will do just fine. So that fondue set you want to keep "just in case" you might need it one day, give it a six-month expiry and if you haven't used it by then, you will be fine with letting it go and borrowing one from a friend if you ever have the need to use one in the future.
  3. Third, if you can't seem to part with an item because it has such a strong emotional reaction to it, find a way to honor it. That china set that's collecting dust in a dark box could be re-purposed into an art project, re-designed into a piece of jewelry that you can pass down to future generations, or used for your everyday use. That's right, actually use the fancy china! It's no good having it tucked away. Find a way to display it proudly if it means that much to you. Again, give yourself a timeline to get this completed; otherwise, it never will get done. Also, I can't think of any better way to honor your connection with that person, place, or moment in time than to donate it to someone or some organization that could desperately use it. All of the tubs full of baby clothes would be so appreciated by that single mom down the block. Remember, this is much harder for people who have accumulated things over a long period of time, so forcing your grandparents to do this in a time crunch often leads to a complete shutdown. Instead, get proactive, and tackle letting go of things a little bit at a time well before a time to move. Tackle things that have little emotional connection at first, leaving sentimental items to the end. Group like things together rather than overhauling entire rooms, like declutter all of your shoes instead of the entire closet. Decluttering is much harder than it looks for many, so if you ever need a professional to come in to help, connect with Jessica. She can help whether you are moving or not.

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