Clutter: What If It Hurts To Let Go?

What if getting rid of some­thing makes me sad? Does that mean I should keep it?
- Annie, a Sick of Being Stuck September! participant

Background (if you need it to understand the really good stuff that follows): I read a great book and it inspired me to test my personal and professional belief that releasing that which no longer serves us in our physical environment would result in dramatic changes in not only our home but our non-physical lives as well (health, love, creativity, finance, life purpose, etc). I invited a few million people to join this clutter clearing adventure and we are about half way through this one-month experience. Great! Now, we’re all caught up. Where will I ever begin? Oh yes…

This experience is blowing my mind.

These people (540 strong and still growing) shock me every single day with their courage, determination, honesty, and perhaps more than anything, their results! It’s actually working. People who were desperately stuck, unable to make the changes they desired for months or years in some cases, are actually doing the daily challenges and clearing massive amounts of clutter from their homes.

Twenty-seven items out of your closet on the first day, then the same in the kitchen on day two, and not just collecting them but getting them all of the way out of the house. It was inspiring, the enthusiasm contagious, and the feedback was remarkable. Most of them were doing far more than the challenge required, and almost everyone who’s participating in the conversation has begun to report feeling free, increased confidence, more energy, and even some relief from the symptoms of depression.

Our first group call was a conversation about how clutter needs an exit strategy. Crafty, right? I showed up with five important elements of clutter clearing that could, without the proper consideration, become obstacles. They were a strong foundation for us to build our success upon.

Next: Clutter Needs an Exit Strategy (5 Considerations)Clutter Needs an Exit Strategy (5 Considerations)

Time and Energy – We have to actually make the time to do the challenges each day. If you’re too busy, or too drained, the reality is that no email that I can craft and deposit in your inbox will make this change possible. You have to make room in your day to physically do this. The good news is that unless your situation is extreme, it’s not actually all that crazy of a commitment.

Decisions – We have to be able to decide if we need this (insert thing) or not, over and over again for everything in your space. I suggest asking of each item, “Does this item serve me more than the space it occupies would serve me?” Basically, what we all want is more space to breathe, think, and live, and as far as I’m concerned, every item is auditioning for a sacred spot in my house.

Means to Move - We have to have the physical strength to carry this stuff away, or some other means of having it carried away for us (this is a great part to ask for help with if you lack the energy or strength to do it alone). We probably need to have something to put this stuff in to carry it away–trash bags, boxes, bins, etc. It turns out, most of the people haven’t complained about not having something to put all of their stuff in. It seems where there is excess, there is also sometimes an excess of containers.

Destination – We have to do something with this stuff, as stacking it up by the back door isn’t quite far enough away to provide any freedom. Some will inevitably be trash but think ‘recycle, reuse, repurpose’ whenever possible. Finding someone who can use that which no longer serves you (clutter) can be one of the most rewarding aspects of clearing your space.

Sell or Share – We fill our space, sometimes even accidentally, with stuff because of our perception of it as valuable. Sometimes we can find the time and energy to make the decisions, and we have the means to move the clutter to an ideal destination… but we can’t let go of the value of that stuff. It can be difficult to release the possibility of receiving money in exchange for our possessions, especially when your financial garden isn’t in full bloom!

If so, we must to either invest more time, energy, decisions, and means to find a destination that’s willing to pay for our stuff… or let it go. We can chose to have a hard sale, estate sale, find a dealer or collector of that stuff, list it on eBay/Craigslist/etc., (or however else you might attempt to unload this stuff) ourselves. We can even try find someone to do it for us and split the profit. Those options each require different resources–time, energy, brain power, etc.–and unless you’re prepared to carry that out in a very short term way (my guidance for these people is by the end of the month in question), it’s best to just release it.

(Insert unnecessary conversation about how once you’ve released all of that junk, what you need will flow to you with ease. I’m not in the mood to sell that one today, so it’s up to you to decide if you believe that or not.)

I thought those five were a freaking fabulous foundation for us to craft exit strategies for the clutter… and we were off to a remarkable start! I was quite pleased with myself. (Note the premature confidence, falling on just this side of completely self-destructing arrogance. Cue doom music. And, probably a giggle or two from those who know me well enough to know this isn’t the first time that music has been cued.)

Next: And then there is the hurt… a sixth issue for consideration.

I started getting comments, emails, and phone calls from Sick of Being Stuck September participants about the pain that was coming up around this work. A few examples of this include: condolence cards from a when a parent died, decades worth of statements representing a significant financial inheritance, clothes and food that were donated in a time of great need (but don’t actually serve them), and the extraordinary amounts of goods acquired when it was easier to shop… than to feel. I find myself having the same basic conversation around all of these different types of possessions, all of them like the following exchange that I had with Annie, one of the Sick of Being Stuck September! participants.

What if get­ting rid of some­thing makes me sad? Does that mean I should keep it? Declut­ter­ing my divorce papers/stuff felt very free­ing. How­ever, I am find­ing it dif­fi­cult to get rid of a mag­a­zine the Dr.’s office gave me when I was preg­nant. I mis­car­ried and it has sat down my base­ment col­lect­ing dust for seven years. Since my divorce four years ago when I have tried to declut­ter the base­ment, I always think about get­ting rid of it, but keep it. I always fig­ured some day when I was hav­ing a baby I would need it. This week­end when I chose to declut­ter the base­ment, iron­i­cally it was the first thing I put in my box to go. As I con­tin­ued with my declut­ter­ing I started get­ting sad at the thought of get­ting rid of it. I feel like it means I will never have my dream of hav­ing my own fam­ily. I decided to sit on it for a few days to think about it. I don’t think I really want it any­more, but ques­tion if it’s healthy to toss it, since I feel like I’m giv­ing up on my dreams. I had sev­eral other baby things, that I gave to friends and fam­ily as they had babies. I fig­ured I wasn’t using them now, so some­one else may as well get use out of them. So I’m not quite sure of the hold this mag­a­zine seems to have on me. – Annie

What if get­ting rid of some­thing makes me sad?
I sus­pect it’s not the releas­ing of it that makes you sad, it’s that con­sid­er­ing releas­ing it reminds you of how that thing makes you feel. It’s not let­ting go of the mag­a­zine that makes you sad, it’s that the mag­a­zine reminds you of the baby you lost and that’s ter­ri­bly sad. That’s why we cling to things, releas­ing them makes us remem­ber the feel­ing asso­ci­ated with it. As we release the item, we release the pain. If we keep the item, we con­tinue to expe­ri­ence the pain. Even if we have it packed away, it’s never truly out of our con­scious­ness. It has its hook in you, drain­ing you.

Does that mean I should keep it?
Ulti­mately, the goal here is to own only those things that we use or truly love. We want to be sur­rounded by things that feel good to us. You cer­tainly can keep any­thing until you’re ready to release it but I don’t do “should” (see why here). And I cer­tainly wouldn’t advise any­one to keep any­thing that has a painful asso­ci­a­tion. That is the oppo­site of the progress, the free­dom, we are seek­ing here.

Next: Continued…
Since my divorce four years ago when I have tried to declut­ter the base­ment, I always think about get­ting rid of it, but keep it. I always fig­ured some day when I was hav­ing a baby I would need it.
When you have a baby, you will need sup­port, infor­ma­tion, and inspi­ra­tion… and you will receive it, just as this magazine came to you with such ease before. This one is for the baby you lost. You won’t need it for the next child. Your loss is unde­ni­able, painful, and a mil­lion other things that I rec­og­nize only in the way that another woman who’s lost a child in her womb can know. That mag­a­zine rep­re­sents that life and the loss of it but the magazine is not that life or that loss, and releas­ing it will free you, not from having had a miscarriage but from clinging to the loss in a way that holds you back.

I feel like it means I will never have my dream of hav­ing my own fam­ily.
I gen­tly, lov­ingly, and respect­fully ask that you con­sider this state­ment again… is it true that releas­ing this mag­a­zine will keep you from hav­ing a baby? Or that it will keep you from remem­ber­ing that you want to have a baby? I imag­ine that your response is some­thing like, “of course not.”

Is there some­thing dif­fer­ent, per­haps some­thing more true and consistent with your actual feelings about this life and loss, that you can do to honor the memory this magazine represents? I’ve heard of many dif­fer­ent ideas (for exam­ple plant­ing a tree, writ­ing a let­ter and releas­ing it by fire, wind, earth, or water, etc.) and would be hon­ored to explore some of them with you, if you’d like.

I understand now that there is a sixth element I neglected before, and it must be tended in order for us to release these things that no longer serve us. I’m seeing it over and over again, this paralysis between our spirit and our stuff. The reason that stuff is here, occupying the space we need to breathe and think and live, is that it causes us discomfort to release it. It causes us discomfort to even consider releasing it, or perhaps even to consider it at all. So, we try not to. We put it in our basements and our attics. We stuff it in the closet and close the door. We spend our entire lives trying to find a way to manage our stuff–buying more organizing materials, searching for “better” housekeeping ideas, and beating ourselves up for failing to keep our stuff in order. That’s managing our stuff, instead of managing our lives.

The stuff is locked into the feelings and the feelings are locked into the stuff. It doesn’t matter from which side we break the lock. What matters is that we break it. When we have the courage to say, “I’m sick of being stuck,” and begin this process of releasing those things that no longer serve us, everything becomes possible. It works because dealing with our clutter is simply a willingness to, at long last, deal with ourselves.

Image credit: puuikibeach via Flickr


Baba N.
Past Member 2 years ago

I only have " things " i really need,,,,don't like to much stuff around

Jo Recovering
Jo S2 years ago

Thank you Christy.

Randi Eckstein
3 years ago

This was good, I'm going to try and put myself to the test ....

Betsy M.
Betsy M3 years ago

clutter. :( still trying to get on top of it. (no pun intended)

Nimue P.

I'm doing my best :)

Rosemary Rannes

I remember trying to 'size down' and left some things in a friends basement until I could sort through it all ; however, he had a flood and basically that ended what might have been a huge problem ! Down sizing yes, but i'm not a minimalist !

Jess No Fwd Plz K.
Jessica K4 years ago

Had a lot of stuff from my parents' house when they passed, but donated much of it when I moved overseas. The move helped clean up the logjam. Thanks.

Joanna W.
Joanna W4 years ago


Joanna W.
Joanna W4 years ago


Dave C.
David C4 years ago

years ago my wife said I wouldn't or couldn't throw things away, really got me to make changes and now most of our clutter belongs to her and her hobbies...