How To Declutter The Sentimental Stuff


Decluttering sentimental stuff - Jessica Rose Williams

Items with sentimental value are the hardest to let go, but I think you know that else you wouldn’t be reading this. I’ve always been a sentimental person, keeping all sorts in my pretty ‘memory boxes’ from concert ticket stubs to one of my wedding invitations. Then there were all the photo albums, things people had given me as gifts and all those tacky trinkets I had bought on my travels. It’s all gone now, except for five items, and I feel so much better. I know a lot of people struggle with this process and whilst I can’t tell you what to do, as someone who has been through it, I can share my perspective and what worked for me.

What I did

I would love to have been one of those people who got rid of everything in one go, but for me decluttering the sentimental stuff came in waves. I’d already got rid of a lot before I even attempted it because by this time, I’d developed the skill of determining somethings value to me.

I went through everything individually, in my own time. Things like jewellery from an old boyfriend were easy. I never wore it and the memories weren’t happy ones – I’d much rather have the money from the sale thanks.

Yearbooks were another easy one for me because looking through them didn’t make me feel happy, so I recycled them. I’ve always loved taking photographs and I’d built quite the photo album collection. Going through each one I realised I’d been keeping a lot of them because I thought I should. Even if I thought I looked awful, perhaps they had a family member or a friend in them. I got rid of all those photos that didn’t make me feel joy and I scanned what photos I had left.

Gifts were very tricky. I wanted to get rid of them because I knew they had no use and I didn’t really like them but even the thought of selling, trashing or donating that item filled me with guilt. Would the person who’d bought it for me think I was horrible for getting rid of it? What if they asked for it back? What if they come over and asked to see it? I didn’t want to upset anyone. As an over-thinker, I went through all the scenarios you could think of here.

I realised I was talking myself into keeping things and I wasn’t going to get rid of anything at that rate. So when I struggled, I reverted back to asking myself questions that were less emotional and more practical. Does this item really make me happy? Does it really add value to my life? If they were a real friend, would they really care if I didn’t want it? If I reversed the situation and someone didn’t want to keep something I’d bought for them, I wouldn’t want them to keep it. This thought process made letting go much easier.

Items that triggered happy memories were tough too. They sparked real joy, reminded me of someone perhaps or a certain time in my life. So, yes they make me feel happy but did I really need the item to treasure that memory? No. Not to sound too gushy, but I knew the memory was in me and nobody could take that away. If everything was lost in a fire or a flood, the memories would always remain.

Item by item all those gifts, travel trinkets and the contents of my memory boxes either went to the charity shop, got sold, recycled or trashed. All I had left was some jewellery that once belonged to my great grandmother, a teddy bear my grandparents had bought me one Christmas and the rosettes I had won from Horse of the Year Show. I kept these items because I really wanted to, not because I thought I should. I was happy with that outcome and they now live in my wardrobe where I can look at them regularly.

What I learned

Firstly, as hard as it was, I found that decluttering these items the most beneficial. For example, letting go of all those photos that made me feel bad about myself was a huge confidence boost because now, I only feel happy when I look through my remaining collection.

It’s only once we get rid of stuff, we realise how little value it had. This is such a shame because it leaves you wishing you’d realised this years ago. It’s clear now just how much space this stuff took up in my home and in my life and how negative that was. We all worry that we’ll regret getting rid of stuff and we won’t be able to get it back, yet I haven’t experienced or heard of one person who has regretted letting this stuff go. I never find myself thinking ‘I wish I’d kept that’.

We feel attachment to sentimental stuff because we believe there is some sort of magical essence in the item. We believe it’s that item that holds the memory and without it, the memory will disappear. Those memories don’t disappear because the item representing that memory did and there’s something very freeing about that.

Sentimental items can actually make us feel really sad. If you own items that belong to someone who has died, they sit dormant in our homes and subconsciously we know they are there at all times and that affects us. It can really weigh us down. Would that person want you to feel that way? The chances are not.

Like any skill, the ability to declutter improves with practice. The skill you need to develop is the ability to recognise something’s value to you specifically. We must find our own path and do this in our own way. There is no right or wrong way to go about it.

Tips if you’re struggling

1. Take the time required to really think about how an item makes you feel, how useful it is to you, what value does it really add to your life. Be brutally honest with yourself here. Write the answers down if this helps you think more clearly, there is no rush.
2. Put items you’re unsure about out of sight for a while. If something can live in a box for 12 months and never get looked at or used, it is really valuable? No. The only reason you have it is because you think you should – this is not a good enough reason for anything to take up physical space.
3. It is ok to keep some stuff. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember it’s about identifying what really adds value and discarding the rest, not getting rid of every single thing.
4. You only have to do this once, because once you’ve transitioned to a new way of thinking you’ll never accumulate these items again.
5. Remember it’s just stuff and it has no meaning, you’re the one adding meaning to it.
6. The truth is it’s highly unlikely anybody will notice that gift has gone, they won’t ask to see it. Would you notice if someone got rid of something you bought for them? Be realistic.
7. That guilt you feel is a consequence of our culture. We’re put under pressure to have stuff and hold onto sentimental items. This is all part of the consumerism merry go round you want to get off.
8. Listen to your gut. If it’s telling you that you can manage without this item then go with it. Ignore all the emotion, that will disappear soon enough once the item is gone.
9. If you’re worried about what others will think, it’s important to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing to people like family or friends.
10. Think of creative ways you can minimise things. Digital clutter is still clutter but it doesn’t weigh us down as much. Can you scan all those photos? Switch to e-books?
11. Give yourself the advice you’d give to your best friend in this situation. This is usually much more logical and supportive.

I’m cheering you on and supporting you to go and get rid of all those items you know you want to. You will feel so much better once you do! Make sure you let me know how you get on.

If you enjoyed this post I think you’ll enjoy these too;

5 simple questions that will make decluttering easier
Minimalism and me
Yes, I’m a minimalist. No, I’m not getting rid of that

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How to declutter the sentimental stuff. Decluttering sentimental stuff can be tough. Find out how I did it and what my decluttering tips are if you're struggling | Decluttering tips | Minimalist living | Simple living | Minimalism | Decluttering | How to declutter


20 comments on “How To Declutter The Sentimental Stuff”

  1. “I’m keeping them because I want to, not because I think I should.” This is everything! I think it applies to everything we own, but especially sentimental items. The majority of the stuff I’ve gotten rid of recently were gifts from family.. Some were easier than others to get rid of (like books), but the guilt doesn’t plague me like it used to. If family knew the anxiety it gives me to have all that extra stuff in my life, they wouldn’t be offended to know I’d gotten rid of it . I really love this one Jessica! Thanks!

    1. Thank you darling friend! I was so inspired by your story of your grandmother. I think it’s important to be realistic about this stuff. It isn’t about getting rid of every single thing you own in a lot of cases, just the things that don’t add value – and being brutally honest with yourself about what those things are.

  2. It’s like you read my mind. I’ve been thinking lately I’m due a major clear out and I really don’t have any trouble with getting rid of things, but I wonder if you are now at a stage where you ask people not to buy you things (birthdays, Christmas) because you’d rather not have more stuff/risk getting stuff you don’t want?

    1. I am at that stage and I’m planning some more posts on that as the year goes on. This is why I say it’s important to explain to people why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’m cheering you on with your clear out! Let me know how you get on. I love hearing about clear outs ha ha.

    2. Gemma, we do that in our family – I prefer to give and receive experiences rather than things, and those close to me know this. From something as simple as a ticket to a play or music show, to an adventure (zip lining anyone?), or a consumable delicacy. There are so many experiential ideas you can be creative with!

  3. Years ago we had a family clean-out of a rented storage unit, and I watched in ‘horror’ as my three sons literally just tossed all of their trophies and awards and school paraphernalia into the trash can. I exclaimed…”At least take a picture of it!!!”
    If it’s special and yet you don’t want to keep the physical object, take a picture. Digital clutter is another story, but you can have a space for digital mementos that won’t physically clutter your home or be in your face every day.
    ‘Your’ generation is starting out right, and my sons are starting out right – they are all young adult minimalists.
    As if a family’s worth of stuff has not been enough to keep under control over the years, I just went through a horrendous time with the death of a step-parent followed by a parent. Guess what? I’ve had much of THEIR stuff dumped in my lap and home to process, and it’s been overwhelming. Like I said before….life happens in the middle of good intentions.
    Keep it simple now, or you’ll pay later…and your kids will pay later.

    1. Well said, JEO. Jessica, this was an especially valuable article. The tips are brilliant. My vacation is over tomorrow and I’m excited to go home and clear the decks. Today, though, I stumbled on the estate sale of a famous old-time Christian singer who died at age 104 a few years ago. His family was just now ready to dismantle all his and his wife’s personal belongings and sell the house. I had missed the first three days of the sale and was BLOWN AWAY by how many items this house still contained. What are we thinking to bury ourselves in all this unnecessary stuff – dishes and trinkets and do-dads and linens, etc., all in obscene excess. Maybe boatloads of possessions didn’t bother this couple so much, they were from a different era, but I sure couldn’t have handled it. Your message is essential in these times. Thanks for helping to turn the tide of materialism.

    2. I love your ‘life happens in the middle of good intentions’ saying, I think about those words a lot. People don’t often realise what effects all their stuff will have on the rest of their family. It’s just a totally different mindset but I really believe it’s a better way to be. Speaking from experience of course.

  4. I went through this process a few years ago when moving into a much smaller flat coincided with my reading Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’. It was such a cathartic process to go through, and I felt physically lighter for getting rid of so much clutter.

    Definitely the sentimental things are the hardest to get rid of, but when you start questioning if they actually bring you joy it’s surprising how few do. After having gone through this I now have no problem getting rid of unwanted gifts and, as you say, rarely collect the sentimental items I previously would have.

    I’m moving again in a week and am looking forward to having another declutter!

  5. Your so right Jessica, letting go does feel amazing, I have been sorting through sentimental items and it is so tough, especially when people are no longer with us! But then when you think, my memories are in the here and now, everyday, I think of my beautiful Mum, why do I need ‘Stuff’ to remind me! I can talk about her , I can look at photos, and remember fun, happy times we shared!
    We should talk about letting go more to friends, etc as I really think it helps !

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  7. This is AMAZING and JUST what I needed. I’m about to move to somewhere with a lot less space. I want to take the bare minimal and this post was exactly the thing I needed to read right now. I’ve definitely been guilty of hoarding things I felt were sentimental, when actually I was saving them because I thought I should rather than actually wanting them! Thank you so much. Now where’s that box…

  8. Hello Jessica. I’m a Bloom and Grow course mate.
    I absolutely loved reading this post. Especially thinking about how to declutter my husband’s. It’s always harder to adjust others so I looked at my current situation and I realised that mine is pretty bad as his! So we both read your tips together! It makes so much sense!
    I am not really a minimalist myself and I like collecting stuff too. It’s a huge jump for me to be like your standard, but at least your tactic of decluttering sounds very worthy! So thank you for your help.

  9. Letting go stuff that bring me memmories have been my struggle the last few days. By the time i start my journy througt the minimalist lifestyle it was easy, i’ve never had a lot of stuff but i’m a person that keep memmories in things, just like concert tickets, photographs, and by now i’m not ready to get read of them… It has been my struggle, but by reading you it make me feel that i can do it, finnaly i can take to the trash old cards, olf things that bring me memories of the person that i was and not of who i am… Thank you so much for this post!

    P.S.: Sorry for my bad english!

    1. I’m so glad it’s been able to help you out even a little bit. Having the urge to clear out means exciting things are coming. You’re ready to get rid of the old to make way for the new. No need to apologise x

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