One of the things that makes it hard for many people to de-clutter is emotional attachment and sentiment. It is hard to get rid of things that trigger positive emotions and pleasant memories.
But there’s another kind of emotional attachment to our stuff that we may develop, almost in spite ourselves. This brand of attachment is negative and it is associated with guilt. A lot of times it is associated with bad gifts we receive from good friends and beloved family. Other times it may be clothes that we haven’t fit in years and we are keeping them to motivate ourselves to lose weight. Or it may be misguided purchases that wasted our money and we just can’t bear to let go because it cost so much. It may be associated with craft projects we never finished.
The best way to overcome guilt is with forgiveness. This means we must practice forgiving ourselves. Here are some examples.
A few Christmases ago, my mother-in-law asked me what I wanted her to get me and I told her I wanted crystal. I was thinking of modifying my dining room light and making it into a sort of crystal chandelier with strings of crystals dripping from it. When I said “crystal”, I had “strings of little crystals” in mind. My mother-in-law interpreted “crystal” to mean “little crystal statue” and sent me a crystal swan. Not only was I disappointed (yes, sorry Leann, nothing personal!), but I felt guilty for being disappointed, because I realized it was my fault for not being more specific. I didn’t want a crystal swan, because I don't care for knick-knacks, but I felt compelled to keep the swan, because.. well.. because it was beautiful, and my mother-in-law gave it to me, and I love my mother-in-law. Eventually, though, I realized just how silly it was to keep something I didn’t like simply out of guilt. I forgave myself for giving such unspecific directions, and since part of forgiving is forgetting about it, I made sure I’d forget by donating the swan to a thrift store. Because I won’t see it, I won’t remember it.
One thing that might deter us from giving away bad gifts is the fear that our relatives will ask us, “What did you think of the _____ I sent you?” We fear that our desire to please our relatives will overcome our desire to be truthful and that we will have to lie and say it was fabulous when we thought it was horrifically ugly. We all want to be able to please our relatives and say we loved the gift, but if we really don’t, first, we can’t lie with believable enthusiasm, and secondly, we are diluting our ability to express our true appreciation for future good gifts. What’s the worst that can happen if we say, “I thought someone else would enjoy it better than I could, so I gave it away.”? At worst you could mortally offend a rich relative and be cut out of their will. (But that’s still not so bad, because you don’t miss what you never had in the first place.) And what if that gift giver consistently gives terrible gifts? Then it might be to your advantage to be frank so that they will stop giving you gifts. If they are good at giving gifts, it would be to your advantage to be truthful and even help them out with suggestions for good gifts, because it will help them know better what you would like. Don't expect them to be a mind-reader or a champion guesser.
What about the clothes we keep which we used to fit into and don’t any more? Of course, we keep them because we intend to lose weight some day so that we can fit them again. However, we forget that during the weighty years those clothes we hang onto go out of style, especially the more extreme styles, so even if we did lose weight, we would need a new wardrobe anyway. It is best to forgive yourself for not having lost weight earlier, and get rid of the old, small clothes so you can forget about how long they’ve been sitting under your bed. Then, after you’ve lost weight, rather than thinking you are merely an older version of the thin you once were, it will seem like you’re a new, thinner you.
Another guilt-attachment we may have to our stuff is when we’ve made misguided purchases that wasted our money and we just can’t bear to let go because it cost so much. We have to remember that though there is the money that we paid for it that is being wasted, the longer we keep that something, the more money we waste paying rent on the space it takes up. Forgive yourself for your bad purchase. Getting rid of it both cuts your losses, and allows you to forget about it.
Some may think that it is important to keep those things around in order to remind yourself not to make stupid purchases, but anyone able to learn from their mistakes will naturally become a wiser, more cautious buyer. A wiser buyer doesn’t need reminders of their past stupidity hanging around in order to buy wisely. If anything, hanging on to those purchases has the effect of sapping confidence in one’s self.
What about the craft projects we never finished? Keeping around old, unfinished craft projects not only causes guilt, but it discourages us from getting involved in better, more exciting craft projects. “I can’t do that, because I have a million un-finished things at home.” This locks us into a cycle of “I didn’t finish” guilt and “I can’t do what I want to do” loss and frustration. If the craft projects go unfinished, it is because other things are a higher priority. If you honestly think that there will never come a time when you will be interested enough to finish that cross stitch, then it is time to forgive yourself for not finishing it. Get rid of it so that you can forget about it and be free to get involved in projects that are really important to you. (And don’t feel you are obligated to finish the unfinished craft projects of your dearly departed relatives.) I was finally able to get rid of an old knitting project I had stalled on years ago.
After we do this, it is important to remember that just because that thing seems to define us, it doesn’t mean that it is us. If we get rid of it, we are not getting rid of a physical part of our bodies. We can live and breathe and eat and sleep without that thing. Rather than saying our stuff defines who we are, it would be better to say that it is more an extension of our personality, or an expression of our personality. But even this view is mostly based upon our materialistic culture of “self-expression through possession”. We easily forget that our culture is also based upon freedom of speech, and because of that, the most dynamic and meaningful outlet of self-expression is our words and our deeds. In this way, we can realize that our words and deeds define who we are far better than what we own. (This is a “dangerous” doctrine; it implies a rich person and a poor person define themselves equally well.)
Looking at it this way, we can see that our stuff can define our present personality or our past personality. But to hang on to old stuff seems to be looking backward instead of forward. We need to realize that when we can let go of the things that defined us in the past, we will have room for the future things that come along that define us in the future. It takes real confidence in the future that there are better things waiting for us in the future.